Sunday, 31 January 2010

Laying the groundwork for a mobile ESL group

In a previous post I mentioned that I'd been given the go-ahead to form an experimental mobile ESL group among students at the university's English language centre where I work.

Well, I've been a bit lax about getting it going, but this week I'm resolved to get it started. I spent a large part of today getting a poster ready to stick up in all the classrooms next week. It basically just advertises the existence of the group and asks students to contact me if they are interested. I made it very clear that this is not a course and there is no face to face aspect to the group. It will be interesting to see the take up for it.

On the poster I did put some info about what the group would do and I suppose this is committing me a little to do some of the things I've promised. I said that they would join a private Twitter group, would have a weekly SMS sent to them with personal advice, suggestions, links etc and there would be the opportunity once a week to have a live chat with me via an IM client.

How plausible this all is I don't know and one of the reasons for starting this group is to identify what exactly is and isn't possible with mobile learning. I anticipate a certain amount of initial confusion as I try to sort out exactly how to connect the members to the twitter group, make sure they are signed up to a compatible IM client for their phone, and indded identify just how technically proficient they are with phones.

These are all things to work out, I'm genuinely fascinated as to how it will all turn out, but I suppose the first thing is to get the posters up and see what the initial interest in the group is.

As I asked before, if anyone has any decent suggestions for things to do with this group, I'd be delighted to hear them.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Using video on your phone to record listening material

In a previous post I talked about how easy it is to use the video recording function on your mobile phone to record student presentations or discussions for further analysis later. Another great use of the video-recording function on your phone is to record yourself speaking on a particular subject in order to create a listening.

For example, a few days ago I wanted students to talk about a movie they liked in groups (discussing plot, favourite scenes etc), but first wanted to model what I wanted them to do through a listening. So, I sat in front of my desk, propped my phone up with a book in front of me - there are small tripods available for phones, but any support will do really - and spoke for several minutes on a film I liked. Below you can see what I recorded, the quality isn't fantastic but it is certainly clear and having the extra visual support of the face/facial expressions makes it far more manageable and authentic for the students.

I'm lucky that I have a projector and internet connection in my classroom, so I was able to upload this to You Tube for watching in class, but it is possible with many phones to just hook the phone up to a television (using the white, yellow and red composite cables) for them to be able to view it.

This is particularly useful when you want to model a particularly speaking task that students have to do, and also a great way for them to listen for key words and expressions that they might use.

Thinking ahead, I can see that this is something that students could do as well for homework. They could prepare a short speech on a particular topic and these could be shown in class with focus questions. This might be a good way for shyer students to rehearse and practise their speaking before they 'present' to the class. This is something I hope to try out in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Starting a mobile ESL group

In a previous post I mentioned that I wanted to start an experimental mobile ESL group with some of the students at my school. Well, I spoke to the management and they've given me the go-ahead to try it out.

I am still not sure exactly what format the group will take or what exactly I am going to do with the students, but I want to make sure that it really does explore the unique qualities that mobile learning has over other types of learning. For me, those things are learning on the move, constant connection with peers/tutors/classmates, learning in bitesized chunks, ability to share, create and exchange material and ideas.

Over the next weekend I am planning to formulate a plan for what I am going to do with them. Any suggestions would be welcome, though I get the feeling this blog is reverbarating in an echo chamber here!!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Using Twitter as an ESL resource

Most people have heard of Twitter by now, and most people have already decided one way or the other whether they like it or not. Some see it as the downfall of civilisation, other people spend their whole day tweeting and reading tweets.

Now, I will assume for the moment that you are unfamiliar with Twitter and will try to give a basic overview of what it is and its place in education generally before talking about how it can be used as an ESL resource.

If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, a couple of basic descriptions here and here might help. Once you've got the basic idea and have signed up, here is a nice beginners' overview. There is also a guide to Twitter etiquette here that is worth reading once you've read/watched the guides.

You can also get a sense of how Twitter can be used generally in education by reading this wonderful page here.

I just want to pull a quote from the last link, because it very much mirrors my own experiences with Twitter.

"Twitter sounds like a strange concept, but it really is a wonderful way of rapidly building a large PLN (Personal Learning Network) with whom you can share fresh ideas about education any time, day or night. And so, my final advice to share with you is Perseverance. Create an account, and stick with it for a while, you'll be amazed once you push past the awkward early stages just how beneficial Twitter can be to your teaching."

I signed up but really didn't see the point of it at first and I pretty much ignored it for the first month or so. However, slowly, slowly I began to understand how to use it to really communicate with other teachers and find a wealth of material I otherwise wouldn't have found through my own searching on the web. Because the power of Twitter lies in the ability of users to share interesting things they've found that might be of use to you.

The first thing to utilise is the search feature on Twitter. This is a great way to see what people are sharing about a topic you are interested in. It works very much like Google, you type a search term into the box and it returns all 'tweets' that contain something on that subject. But instead of webpages, it is individuals writing. For example, this is a simple search using the term 'ESL'.

Twitter search using the term 'ESL'

This immediately brought up lots of tweets and some of them sound interesting. For example, I immediately found a tweet containing this link to a blog site. There seems to be some pretty interesting material there to use with my students in class. I can now decide to follow that person and this makes sure that on my Twitter home page any more tweets from that person will show up. Great, eh? After a while you will build up a store of people you follow who provide you with a constant stream of interesting links related to a topic you are interested in.

Now, here's where I link this to mobile phones ;-) Because of the bite-sized nature of Twitter, it's a perfect format for mobile phones and almost every mobile phone nowadays has a Twitter application on it. If your phone has some kind of App Store (like the iphone), then you are spoilt for choice! But it can be done on the computer as well.

I think this is enough for now to get started. But I will be doing follow-up posts soon on how you can actually use Twitter with your students as a great way for them to interact and learn English.

Discussions about mobile phones

Mobile phones are a pretty good topic for discussion and I've already posted a couple of times about how they can be integrated into the lessons for reading, warmers, games etc. Here are some interesting discussion questions if you want to discuss the subject in your class.

Discussion questions about phones/mobiles

Monday, 11 January 2010

ESL apps for Android handsets

Anyone who has an Android phone (such as the G1, Nexus One, Motorola Droid/Milestone) might be interested in this list of English related apps available for their phones. I've taken a quick look through and a lot of them are dictionaries/thesauruses related to a particular language, but there are some general ESL apps as well. I don't have an Android phone, so I can't really test any of these out so would be interested in hearing from those who do and who have tried some of these out.

TOEFL apps for iPhone

I will try to give regular recommendations for applications that students can use on their phone to help with their learning. Many students nowadays have iPhones and there are quite a few apps they can download from iTunes to help them improve their English. Just as an example, Kaplan have published two programs to help students with their TOEFL preparation, available on both iPhone and iPod Touch for $4.99.

Press release about the apps

Friday, 8 January 2010

Starting a mobile ESL group with my students

I've only really started getting interested in mlearning (oh, yes, that's what I'm calling it now) over the last few months and haven't had that many chances to put it into practice with my students.

So, this term I'm going to try to explore the possibility of mobile learning by creating an informal group at my university with students to see in how many different ways phones can be used for English language learning. It's only a roughly formed idea at the moment, but the initial things I'm thinking of doing are:

1. Sending them regular SMSes (e.g. every day) with short tasks/useful information/word of the day type stuff.
2. Creating both a private Facebook and Twitter page for students to upload pictures/thoughts/comments to each other and me.
3. Creating podcasts for them to download and listen to on their mobiles.
4. setting aside times where they can chat to me via Instant Messaging.

I think I'll need to clear this with the management at the school, but it's going to be a purely mobile experience, no in-class time so I'm hoping they'll be ok with this. I'll get students to volunteer for it and then get regular feedback from them about how they are finding the experience, what they like/don't like, what technical issues they are having.

And this may come as no surprise, but I'll write about it all in this blog....

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Podcasts on your mobile

Podcasts are (normally) quite short audio or video files that can be downloaded to your computer/mobile device for playback later and cover a vast range of subjects/genres: radio shows, discussions, comedy programs, language learning - you name it, you can find a podcast for it. Here is Wikipedia's clear explanation of what they are if you are a little uncertain about them.

Podcasts are great for mobile learning because they can be carried on your phone and listened to when you have a spare minute, such as when you are walking somewhere, taking a bus, waiting for someone, and are a great way to learn in bite-sized chunks. What's useful is that you can subscribe to a podcast program or website (just as you would subscribe to a magazine or newspaper)and your phone or computer can check regularly whether there is any new content available.

Even better is that many mobile phones have applications available for them that allow you to search for, download and play podcasts directly on your phone without the need for a computer. If you have an iphone for example, you can download podcasts directly from your phone through the app store. Here's an explanation of how to do that. Most other reasonable modern phones will have a podcast application available for it. It will either come with the phone when you buy it or you can download it from the internet or the application store available on the phone. Don't feel obliged to pay for podcast software, it's normally possible to find decent podcast software for free. For example most modern Nokia phones come with software that allows you to do that, if not then it can be downloaded for free here.

You can see here my podcast app on my phone and the list of shows I've subscribed to.

So how can podcasts be used in the ESL classroom? Well, your students can be encouraged to download and listen to them on subjects they are interested in, or they can download podcasts specifically designed for ESL students. This is a good place to find podcasts directed at ESL students. As a teacher you can also download these and use them as listenings in the classroom.

Or they can be encouraged to go to a general podcast site and find podcasts that are on topics that are interesting to them. Podcast Alley is a great search engine for finding interesting podcasts.

In a future post I will also discuss how you can create your own podcasts for the students to listen to.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Reading books on your mobile phone

Getting students to read books in English is a great way for them to improve their vocabulary, develop key reading skills and also motivate them to learn more English - after all, real books on subjects that interest them are far more engaging than a dull article in the coursebook. And it's possible for them to do this on their mobile phones. For example, this is the book I'm currently reading on my Nokia smartphone.

Most phones have some kind of reading application available, the most popular being the Mobipocket Reader, available free from their website. You can also buy books from their site, including both dictionaries and esl reference books. But these do need to be paid for.

However, there is also a vast library of free books available to your students, most notably 30000 out of copyright classics downloadable from the fantastic Project Gutenberg site. This is a great source of classic texts and lesser-known novels from the past and a great way for your students to read English books for free.