With access to online education tools greater than ever, using them to improve English writing skills in a classroom setting can make perfect sense. That’s the view of Rab Paterson, director of the Asia Association for Global Studies and principal instructor at Toyo University/UCLA Extension Center for Global Education in Tokyo. He believes free online tools such as Google Docs, LexTutor, Analyse My Writing, and StoryToolz encourage engagement and learning. “Students today are functioning in an age where technology drives almost every aspect of their lives, so they feel comfortable using digital writing tools,” said Paterson, speaking at the recent 21st Century Learning Conference in Hong Kong. The event brings together teachers, school leaders and professionals in education technology to exchange insights on issues and challenges affecting the sector. In particular, Paterson noted that Google Docs lets students post their compositions in designated folders where they can be read and critiqued by classmates. This feedback leads to revisions, clearer expression, improved structure, and more clearly expounded ideas. “Constructive comments encourage students to write with greater clarity,” said Paterson, who noted that students were generally willing to accept these suggestions and rewrite where necessary. The approach worked equally well at senior secondary school level and with undergraduates. “The evidence indicates that students formulate their thoughts, build on ideas, and focus on topics far more in a collaborative environment than when working alone on Microsoft Office,” Paterson said. He emphasised, though, that online tools should be used to support English writing classes, not replace them. Another benefit of Google Docs is a function which allows students and teachers to track the creation and revision of a document. This is a good way of gauging improvement. Paterson also explained how Zotero, another free online tool, makes it easier for students to cite sources from literature and other works when researching an essay or thesis. Depending on what’s required, Zotero and similar “citation generators” can instantly create a bibliography and hyperlinks to original information sources. By using StoryToolz to analyse their compositions, students can check the text’s “readability”. And with LexTutor, they can quickly check a word’s different uses or meanings. It is also possible to review their compositions for so-called K1 and K2 words. That is the 1,000 words used most frequently when writing English (K1) and the next 1,000 most frequent words (K2). According to Fanny Passeport, edTech coach at Mercedes-Benz International School in Pune, India, online tools for curriculum mapping can help schools devise and deliver better courses. At the conference, she described adapting Google Apps for Education (GAFE) to encourage online collaboration between teachers and a sharing culture. Teachers can also publish their work online, allowing different levels of access, receiving feedback and collaborating with colleagues in real time. With this process, Passeport believes teachers can play a greater part in curriculum development and see its value to others. “Our system models best pedagogical practices and encourages a culture of transparency,” said Passeport, a Google-certified trainer. The system has auto built-in protection to save curriculum histories. “This is a simple yet important feature, especially for teachers who are not tech-savvy and have had a traumatic cyber experience with curriculum mapping,” she said.