Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Byki language learning apps for the iphone

I've been searching around to see what kinds of language learning applications are available for different phones. Byki have developed an app for the iphone which helps learners study a variety of languages and English of course is one of them, though specifically designed for speakers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish who are learning English). 

I haven't had a chance to try out the app as I don't have an iphone, but there are a couple of interesting things to note about it. First, some of the content is user generated, they have vocabulary lists/lessons added to their server from users for others to download. Nice idea.

Secondly, the the design of the software is informed by certain views on language learning that could be broadly described as lexical. That is, we learn languages by 'chunking' common fixed phrases together and our focus is much more on vocabulary rather than on learning the abstract rules of grammar. Whether that's true or not is highly debatable, but it is interesting to read the theoretical underpinnings of the software and to see something that is not purely phrasebook software. You can read more about their theoretical background here.

They do have a desktop version of the their software as well. I downloaded the trial version but couldn't get it to work on my computer. So, doesn't seem I'm in any position to evaluate whether the Byki software is any damn good or not, but I am intrigued by it and would be interested to hear if anyone has tried it out and what they thought of it. This video takes you through some of the features and I like the slow down option for pronunciation, but would like to hear real user stories with this.

Monday, 29 March 2010

How to Use Twitter with an ESL group

In a previous post I briefly talked about Twitter and how teachers could use it as a resource for lesson ideas and material. However, after having used it with a group here at my school, I think I have some suggestions as to how it could be used with students to help them learn English more effectively. Here are some initial ideas:

1. Create a private Twitter group.

This is not really an activity as such, more a useful thing to do to make sure that all the information shared on Twitter is private to your class (unless of course you want to share it with other people). It's a little confusing to set up, but once you do the students grasp the concept very easily. You can use this service to set it up and they give a fairly clear explanation of what you have to do in the FAQs. If you want your students to be able to receive group posts on their phones and to be able to post from their phones, this help page is useful.

2. Posting useful links to ESL content for your students

We want our students to take every chance to learn outside the classroom, and one way to do this is to point them towards any interesting sites/material you find online for them to use. If you don't know where to find such material, this is a fantastic site to start with. It gives you video explanations of lots of great ESL sites for both students and teachers. To show you this in practice, here's a picture of a part of our Twitter group page with some links I've found.

3. Vocabulary/grammar questions for students.

Students responded well to this - better than my more general attempts to generate conversations through the Twitter group - I think because the format of Twitter lends itself well to it. I would simply give an expression and an example of use and then ask the students to guess the meaning from the context. Here's an example:

4. Get students to share new language

This is something that I do regularly in my normal classes, particularly at the beginning of the week I get students to share any 'new' words or expressions they came across over the weekend, either in books, adverts or on the web. However, this is definitely something that could be done very effectively on Twitter and it could be done on a rolling basis as students come across new language.

5. class notices/homework etc.

Applicable to all classes not just ESL, but Twitter is a really nice way to remind your students about things, trips, homework, things they need to bring to class next lesson. If they can get into a habit of using it regularly it can become a real noticeboard for the class.

I think there are a multitude of uses of Twitter in the classroom. Just take a look at this post explaining 100 uses of Twitter for academics (admittedly some of them are pretty thin as any list comprising of a 100 items would have to be). But there is a lot of stuff out there on the web exploring how it can be used inside and outside the classroom to enhance students' learning and I'll be definitely exploring this with my class in the coming months

Mobile learning with an ESL group

Up until now I've been detailing my experiences with a mobile ESL group made up of disparate volunteers from the university language school I work at. This has proved a little difficult at times because I don't know the students and I don't have any direct communication with them (except through email, Twitter and SMS). This doesn't really reflect the reality of teaching, ideally I would like to blend mobile learning with the in-class learning of my students.

So, next term I'm going to give one of my groups (one I've taught for a long time and feel very comfortable with) the option to have aspects of mobile learning as part of their course. I think most - if not all - of them will be amenable to it, most of them seem to use a variety of mobile devices fairly regularly.

I'm hoping that this will give me the chance to do something a little more real and structured with mobile learning and to really find ways to motivate and engage my students to learn both inside and outside the classroom. I'm starting to think of what kinds of things I can do with them and here are some of my initial thoughts based on my previous experiences and web research.

Twitter for backchannelling and notices

I set up a private Twitter group for my current group and it's proved very popular with a small but dedicated few. I post daily questions for them to respond to and daily expressions/words for them to guess the meaning of.

With my own group I plan to do the same but I hope it can feed directly into what we are doing in class; for example, I can post links to topics/material connected to what we've been studying in class, students can ask questions about words/grammar we've studied. It could also be a place to get informal feedback on the lessons ('what did you enjoy this week? etc).

Content delivered via SMS

Not all of the students followed the Twitter group regularly, though all of them signed up. After a while I actually started sending out my daily content via both Twitter and SMS and several of the students seemed to prefer the latter and responded more frequently. Maybe it was the 'intrusive' nature of SMS that meant they were more likely to look at the content (mainly vocab and a little grammar) and reply.

I think SMS would be a good way to send vocab lists to the class for revision or for them to look up as preparation for future lessons. I may also use www.polleverywhere.com as a way of getting regular feedback from them.

Using audio/recording functions on their phones

One thing that some of my students have done in the past is to use their phones dictaphone capabilities to record their regular weekly learning diaries and I want to encourage more of this as I think it's a great way for them to express themselves and a good way to practise pronunciation. I'm also going to use them in class to record them speaking to help them with pronunciation.

Let's see how they get on with these and then I'll experiment with other things if I feel it would help them.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Mobile learning: where are the bluetooth apps?

In a previous post I noted that using bluetooth in the classroom might be a cheap and easy way for students to connect with each other through their mobile phones. In case you are not familiar with bluetooth, it's a technology that most mobile phones have (even very cheap ones nowadays) that allows the sending of files from one phone to another at distances of up to 100 metres. For example, if I want to send a photo or file from my phone to another person's phone, we both enable it on our phones, establish a connection and then the file/photo can be sent. The advantages of this technology are that:

- it is flexible: you can normally send a variety of files (notes, photos, video/audio files) and to different kinds of device (phone/laptop/desktop) assuming they all have bluetooth.
- it is secure: normally you have to establish a secure connection between the phones with a password to make sure only those two phones are communicating.
- it is instantaneous: once the file is sent, it appears immediately on the other person's phone
- Most importantly, it is FREE. Unlike, say, SMS or an internet connection, Bluetooth doesn't require a network or wireless connection and so doesn't use up any data/voice/text minutes the user might have.

At the same time, there are some obvious disadvantages:

- distance limitations: the two phones have to be in relatively close proximity for the transfer to take place, so the students/teacher would have to be in the same room.
- lack of familiarity: in my experience, people seldom use bluetooth on their phones and computer and may not know how to enable it or how to send files using it. There would have to be a period of familiarisation if using it with students, though no more than teaching them to use other features on their phones.

Clearly it's not really a technology that can be used OUTSIDE the classroom, but for those occasions when mobile devices are being used inside the classroom, I think it would be a great alternative to using wireless connections, 3G or SMS. Some possible ways I think it could be used in the ESL classroom are/would be:

- students sending messages to each other and/or the teacher during lesson. This would be similar to this idea of backchannelling I discussed in a previous post.
- Students recording their voices on their phones (either for pronunciation or other purposes) and then sharing them with their peers to compare/critique).
- Students sharing pictures about themselves or their families/places they've visited with their peers for discussion or for some form of getting to know you activity at the start of term.
- students are sent out on some kind of scavenger/treasure hunt, they take pictures to prove where they've been and then they send them to a computer in class for viewing on the board or via a projector.
- students do quizzes/tasks on their phone and then compare answers to them by sending them to each other.

These are just some initial, fairly vague thoughts on this, but I think this technology could really be exploited, especially in classes that don't have wireless connections. However, looking round the web I could find very few examples of where bluetooth has been used in mobile learning situations.

Next month I will be trying to implement a more structured use of mobile devices with one of my classes and I'm going to see what is possible using bluetooth. If anyone has any suggestions or personal experiences of using this technology in class or know of any any apps that have been developed that use bluetooth for learning purposes, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Good example of mobile learning in the classroom

Just been sent this link from Nicky Hockly showing a wonderful example of mobile learning with primary students in the UK. They all had ipod Touches and were constantly connected to the internet. Watching the video made me realise just how comfortable young people are with technology in comparison with adults!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Backchannelling as a means of feedback in class

I've just read an interesting article about the use of backchannelling in class as a means of getting feedback from the students, checking their understanding. What's suggested in the article seems somewhat similar to what's presented in this video from a professor at the University of Texas.

I think this idea of several 'conversations' going on in the classroom at the same time is an interesting one, particularly if you are lecturing to large groups of students. A great way to involve large groups and at the same time not necessarily disrupting the flow of the presentation or discussion. I think it would be particularly good for collecting questions to be answered at the end of the lesson.

For me, I don't really lecture, I'm more of a classroom teacher and my classes are quite small (normally between 10-14 students); however, I can still see situations where this would be useful. Maybe students have questions not directly related to the topic of the lesson (maybe a word they remembered or an expression the teacher used)and they would like to know about it. They could post it to a Twitter feed or Facebook and we could then either take a look at them at the end of the lesson time permitting or they could be picked up on in future lessons.

My only concern about this is that I'm not sure how realistic this would be for my students to be able to actually do during the lesson. You can see in the video that many of the students are using their laptops to tweet their ideas, but my students don't really bring computers to class since it's not just about taking notes. So they would have to be able to do it via their phones and while there is an easy way to do this - you can easily tweet via SMS - I'm not sure there is a cheap way. Each time they sent a message they would be charged by their carrier. I don't want my students' decision to contribute to be based on their data plans rather than on how much they have to say.

I would be interested to know whether there are any alternatives, possibly via bluetooth. I'm pretty sure all my students have bluetooth on their phones and we have computers in every classroom, so there must be some way for them to send messages that way and have them show up on the computer and subsequently the board (since we have SmartBoards in all our classrooms). Does anyone know of any way that messages can be sent via a mobile phone and then displayed on a computer screen? I think this would be a much more efficient way to doing this.

It's something I'm going to look into, but if anyone has any suggestions they would be most welcome. In fact, I'm wondering what other ways bluetooth can be used in class. After all, all phones have it these days, it's perfect for transferring pictures/files etc and most importantly it doesn't cost anything.

Well, once the new term starts I'm thinking I might try this with one of my groups and see if it works.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Defining mobile learning for myself

Ok, so this blog is exclusively focussed on the use of mobile phones in learning (specifically ESL), but I'm still not sure I have a clear idea in my head of what Mobile Learning actually is. But I think that's fine because reading around the internet I'm not sure anyone really has a fully defined idea since it's very much a field under development and also constantly changing as new technology is introduced and new ways of using old technology are invented.

That's pretty vague I admit, so let's be a little more concrete. I was talking to a teacher from my school the other day about my mobile group and she was fairly upfront about her dislike of the concept - at least for her - and this largely stemmed from her experiences with students and mobile phones in class. You know, the furtive glancing at them under the desk, the phone ringing at an inopportune moment, all those things we hate about mobile phones as teachers. I think she felt that any kind of mobile learning would involve students messing around with mobile phones in class or her being sent lots of unwelcome SMSes from her students at strange times of day.

I didn't really disabuse her of this concept as I think she had already decided she wasn't that keen on the idea of mobile learning, but it did get me thinking about exactly what I thought I meant when I talked about mobile learning and I realised my own views were pretty shakey. However, it's important for me to start to develop a clearer concept of mobile learning if I am going to work out ways to implement it to help my students.

So, will mobile learning involve students 'messing around with cellphones in class'? I don't think so, or at least that should not be the primary conception behind mobile learning, though I can see some times when mobiles CAN be used in a focussed way in class or a lecture.

For example, I'm quite happy for my students to use the dictionaries on their phones to look up words and sometimes check pieces of information on the internet. Most teachers would be quite happy for students to look up things in physical dictionaries or encyclopedias in class and I see no major difference in the physical media they use to do that.

I can also see the use of mobile phones in lectures for students to provide feedback/comments to the lecturer in a comfortable environment. In previous posts I discussed the use of PollEverywhere as a means of conducting feedback or a questionnaire during a class/lecture and can see that as a great interactive tool. I also think that Twitter could be used quite effectively in lectures as a way of collecting questions or getting feedback from the students about the content/quality of the lecture. This video shows an example of this from the University of Texas.

But for me, these uses are secondary, largely because they are not really examples of mobile learning. They are still very much rooted in the classroom. My conception of mobile learning is something that takes place outside the classroom, when the student is on the bus, walking down the street,lying on their bed, having a coffee in Starbucks, sat in a dentist's waiting room. If I could define mobile learning it would be in a form of a little description of a learning moment for a student:

A student walks down the street and a sees an advert for something in English that contains words he's interested in but doesn't know. He takes a snapshot of the poster using the camera on his phone and then uses Google Goggles (see this post for how this works) to find out more info about the words, maybe getting a translation in the process. He then shares this picture or word via a private Twitter group with the other members of the class. The other members of the class (wherever they may be) share any further knowledge they have on this word/expression and add it to the Twitter thread. The teacher picks up on the thread, pulls up the Twitter page in the next lesson and then comments on the words or designs a short lesson based on it.

For me, mobile learning takes place outside the classroom but then is naturally fed back inside the classroom. It is also a social phenomenon, the wonderful thing about phones is that they are always on and (many) are always connected, so it's possible to share with others wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Mobile Learning's greatest role is to encourage and motivate students to understand that learning doesn't stop when they leave the classroom and there are many ways they can exploit their phones and other mobile technologies to learn on the go and share their learning with their peers and teacher.

I'm still very much in the process of learning how to do this as a teacher, I'm not even sure I've really begun to do this, but it's what I'm working towards. The next step for me is to convince one of my actual classes to take part in my mobile experiments and see how what they learn on their devices outside the classroom can feed back into it. I'm hoping to do this next term...

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A Word a Day via SMS

In a previous post I talked about some of the teething problems of getting my mobile group off the ground and the members engaged and involved. Of the sixteen or so who originally signed up, only maybe 4 or 5 are posting (semi) regularly to the Twitter group. There are two who have wholeheartedly embraced it and who post very regularly and respond to my questions etc, but the majority have dropped away.

One thing however that seems to have revived their interest was me sending them a word or expression a day via SMS with an example and then getting them to try to explain the meaning. So for example, today I sent them this via SMS:

Expression of the day: dire straits. E.g. the company is in dire straits because of some bad investments they made and they might have to close. What does it mean?

On average I'm getting six or seven responses a day to these SMSes, students seem genuinely interested to find out the meaning. I send the message through SMS but also send it by SMS to the Twitter page so they can answer there if so wish (and some do). By the way, if anyone is interested how to Twitter via mobile phone, this page is a great help.

I suppose the question is why do students respond better to this kind of content than the daily discussion questions I sent them. My own thought is that for them it seems more concrete and probably more what they expected from this group. Students are hungry for new language (one of the most common complaints I have from students in classes - including mine - is that they don't learn enough words) and so this kind of content delivery is reassuring and interesting for them. I think this shows that while the method of delivery is cutting edge, what they want delivered is quite traditional.

I'm thinking of ways how such content could be delivered more efficiently to the students than me typing in a word a day every morning and then selecting all the people to send it to. This post describes a mobile phone app that would make your own mobile phone work as a server and students could send a fixed message to you via SMS and automatically receive - for example - a daily/weekly list of vocabulary for them to learn. I wanted to try this out but unfortunately the software mentioned in the post isn't available for my phone and I can't seem to find any suitable alternative. Still, I think this would be a great service to be able to offer the students, particularly if they are students in your own group and the list of vocabulary is tied into what they are studying in class.

A commenter on one of my posts (thanks Robert Gadd) pointed me to a more developed but similar kind of initiative in the USA where high school students were sent SAT (university entrance exam) word lists via SMS, and apparently this led to quite a dramatic increase in their scores on vocabulary quizzes. Anyhow, you can read more about this here.

I will continue to post more about mobile learning in the coming weeks though my mobile group will shut down for a month or so while my students go on holiday. I would like to continue the group through the holiday period as I think this very much puts the 'mobile' in 'mobile learning', but many of my students are heading home to Saudi Arabia, China and South America and my mobile phone plan doesn't include text messages to these countries. Still, I will keep the Twitter page open and I'll see how many of the students keep posting.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

My perfect language learning mobile app

Over the last few months I've been searching around for language learning programs for mobile phones and found very few of any substance, which is odd really given that phones are perfect tools for language learning. There are plenty of dictionaries and thesauruses available, one or two phrasebook programs and a few gap-fill/exercise-type programs.

It feels a bit like computer language learning programs five or six years ago, when they were stuck simply replicating the kinds of exercises you can find in textbooks. Now, developers have really begun to work out how to exploit the multimedia and interactive qualities of computers to offer things that books can't. Something like English Central is a good example of how far online English language learning has come.

On a mobile phone developers really need to exploit the always-on, productive and mobile features of phones to allow people to organise their language learning. They need to take advantage of the phone's camera and the ability to be permanently connected to the internet.

What I would like to see is an app that could:

Take a picture of a menu/poster on the street and then offer an immediate translation. This would be like the app shown here

Be able to offer immediate defintitions from a variety of online dictionaries in the same way that dictionary.com does.

Be able to offer a variety of examples from corpora such as the British National Corpus. Also helpful to offer info about the frequency and usefulness of the words.

The ability to create your own list of vocabulary based on all of the above and to group them by topic or any other heading.

Basic things I think, but I haven't seen any app out there offering something like this. It would truly make ESL mobile for the learner.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Creating mobile quizzes for students

Just discovered another interesting site (this one DOES work in the UK though) for creating quizzes that students can download on their phones. I created one today and I've sent an SMS to my students with the details to access it on their phones. You can see the very short example I made here. I've asked my students to try it out and see if they can a) download it and b) do it. There's no fee involved, except the cost of sending an SMS to my students to tell them about it. The only downside here is that the students must be able to connect to the internet on their phone to download it, something that they may not want to do for financial reasons or be able to do because of the type of phone they've got.

I've asked my students to try it out and to give feedback on it, so I'll report back once I've heard from them.

Great site for an overview of mobile learning

Just discovered this site, a really practical, down-to-earth site for those working in education and who are interested in mobile technologies for learning.

Mobile Technology - the handheld choice

Loads of great links and ideas for what can be done with MP3 players, mobile phones, PDAs and ereaders.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Remember playing scavenger hunts when you were younger? You know, being given a clue that would lead you to a place, then getting another clue until you end up at the finish and hopefully get a prize if you're first.

Well, now (inevitable I suppose) this can be done via SMS through a company called SCVNGR. Seems an interesting idea and I reckon it could be fun for a group of students, particularly as an end of term game or review activity. Good thing is that it is totally SMS-based, and so will work with any phone.

Anyhow, this video gives an overview of it, and I'm interested to try this out. Next week is the end of term, so I might just try to set it up for one of my groups on the last day of term.

UPDATE: just discovered that this service is not available outside the US, which is a shame. Hopefully someone will do something similar here as I think there is definitely a market for it.