Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Blending mobile and e-learning

I thought I would just tell you about a lesson I did yesterday because I think it's a good illustration of the way that we can blend elearning inside the classroom with mobile learning outside. Now, by the way, I feel a little uncomfortable describing my own lessons this way as I think it's a bit 'hey, look at how wonderful my lessons are', but it's not meant to be that way. As a lesson it did go well, it was my ESL-mlearning-elearning perfect storm, but these are so rare I felt the need to share...

I teach a pronunciation and speaking class for intermediate/upper-intermediate students at the language centre of the University of Sheffield. They'd requested some individual feedback on their pronunciation and some ideas about how to work on them. So this is what I did..

  • Took them to the computer room and checked that they were all signed up for Edmodo (a microblogging site specifically for private groups/classes). I then sent them a document outlining various steps they could go through during the lesson. 
  • First off, I got them to look at a short extract I printed out for them and got them to practise saying it a couple of times to themselves. 
  • They then used Audacity (voice recording software) to record themselves saying the short text and then sent it to me via Edmodo.
Just as an aside, I'm liking Edmodo more and more each day. Just as an example; when the students sent their recordings to me, it immediately showed up as a set of media controls I could use to listen to their recording. See: 

  • Obviously they were all working at different speeds, some were able to use the software quite comfortably while others needed some support, so I spent some monitoring and helping those who were struggling a little. 
  • As the recordings came in, I started to listen to them and jot down notes about what pronunciation problems individual students were having (both at the sound/word level), then went to speak to them individually to talk through the notes I made. 
  • Once I was sure they understood, I pointed them to various websites/software to work on their pronunciation. For example, this Cambridge one is helpful for individual sounds, and I like this one for showing the mouth and tongue position. We also have Sky pronunciation software installed on all the computers, so some of them went there as well. If there were any particular words they were having problems with, I pointed them toward the online MacMillan dictionary where they could listen to their pronunciation. 
  • I managed to listen to all the students initial recordings (bar one, who was having some problems with the recording software) and give them brief feedback and pointers to which websites/software to look at. And they had a fair chunk of time to work on their pronunciation and all of them were very engaged  in the process. 
  • The next step was for them to re-record the initial text they read and see if they could improve based on the pronunciation work they had been doing. There wasn't really time for this in class, so I asked them to do it outside of class and send it to me. Quite a few of them said they didn't have computers or if they did they didn't have headphones/mics at home, so I pointed them towards the voice recording functions on their mobile phones and explained how record and then send (email, MMS or via Edmodo). 
  • Not long after the lesson, I received most of the recordings and have been listening to them to see the differences (and luckily there are some). 
What I think this lesson does show is that mobile learning can serve as an enhancement to other types of learning, and in this case really helped those students without the necessary equipment to do the task. And mobile learning doesn't have to be a discrete thing, it can be blended easily into your daily lessons as a way for students to do work at home or on the move. The problem is that - like elearning or CALL - mobile learning sounds like an 'entity', something we 'do' that is somehow separate or different from normal learning, where in fact often it is simply providing the learners with access to the same content (listenings, readings, exercises etc) but with more flexibility over when and where they receive and use it. 

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Random thoughts and updates on mobile learning

Just a few things that I've tried/I've thought about this week in connection with mobile learning:

Gave a lecture this week to a group of about 200 ESL students at our school about Mobile Learning. The whole thing was a little bit messy due to some technical issues, but I did try out using Poll Everywhere, a survey tool that allows students to post survey responses via their mobile phones and to see the results updated immediately on a powerpoint slide. It worked very well, and I can definitely see the benefit of using this in large lecture or presentation settings to get feedback from the audience (or just to demonstrate the power of mobile learning!)

In researching for the presentation, I realised that a lot of innovative work being done with mobile learning is taking place in developing countries or regions. I found out about the Janala project in Bangladesh and the Millee project in rural India. Here's a short BBC report on the Janala project.

An an overview of the Millee project.

One of my fears about mobile learning is that it might favour the more affluent, those with the more advanced mobile phones and the better contracts. However, what I think both these projects show is that mobile learning can be exactly the opposite, providing access to learning opportunities for students who don't have access to teachers, materials, computers or the internet. Given how inexpensive the most basic mobile phones are nowadays (probably £20 or less in some cases), you can see how mobile learning can be a way of reducing the distance between the learning opportunities in the developed and developing world rather than increasing them.

I've been continuing to use Edmodo with my students and it's proving very useful as a means of communication, sharing documents and links with them.  Quite a few of the students are using the mobile version (see this post for info about that) and have told me that they much prefer using that rather than the rather clunky Blackboard VLE we have set up on computers at the university. It would be great if Edmodo could come up with a dedicated app for various mobile OS systems (iPhone, Android, Symbian, Blackberry) in the same way there are dedicated apps for Twitter.  I think it would make using it a lot easier, though it isn't really difficult at the moment through the web interface.

I was asked via Twitter my opinion on location games/services such as FourSquare. It's an interesting mix of social networking and exploration of your location, you can go to various places, recommend them, become 'mayor' of places (you visit it the most), and get various 'rewards' (both real and virtual). This is largely done from your phone. I haven't had chance to explore this much, but I can see the value of this as a way of getting students to explore their environment. I think this is particularly useful in my teaching situation, where my students are in England, away from home and maybe a little nervous about getting out and about. Creating a game-like atmosphere may encourage them to visit different places like restaurants, museums, shops etc, and of course all the time using their English.

In a similar vein, I think Google Maps is also a great application for involving students both inside and outside the classroom. It's available on most mobile platforms and I've used it in my ESL classes for getting students to give directions to each other. Basically they find a place on their phone using Maps and then give directions to their partners who have to find where they have directed them.

After a short break, I've also started up my Mobile group with volunteer students from our school. I'm going to continue to give them advice and help via Edmodo and SMS about how they can use their mobile devices for language learning. And if anyone can give me any tips or advice on this (useful apps on different mobile platforms, ideas for exploiting mobile phones in class) I would be delighted to hear about them and will try to use them in class.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

John Traxler, mobile learning and institutional models

I found a really nice podcast interview with John Traxler, who is very much a pioneer in the area of mobile learning and research.

The bit that interested me was when he talked about how the model that institutions (universities etc) deploy for elearning is just not suitable for mobile learning and students will not respond well to being issued a standardised mobile device when they probably already have one that they like.

Certainly most of the research studies I've read into the subject involve institutions buying a large quantity of identical mobile devices (PDAs or iphones, ipod touches etc) and then issuing them to the students. As Traxler said, this is very much based on the model they use for desktop computers where they buy a load of them and put them in a computer lab for student use.

This is problematic because it's likely that student already have a device they use and now they either have to abandon their first device or carry around two, which will turn out to be impractical for a lot of people. I know that I would get annoyed having to always remember to take both devices with me and  the convenience of mobile learning would suddenly become an encumbrance.

Also - again something Traxler points out - users tend to be quite possessive of their mobile devices and have preferences that may not match up with the universities. They might not like certain form factors (e.g. touchscreens or flip phones) or even certain brands (go to some mobile phone forums if you want to see some wonderful examples of fanboy pettiness) and would prefer to either have a choice over which phone they can have or just to keep the one they've already got.

I think institutions are going to have to be a lot more flexible when it comes to mobile learning than elearning. They are going to have to be ready to give up some control so that students feel comfortable with it. For example, they will not be able to control exactly what they do with them as they can do at the moment with desktop computers. And they are going to have to offer different avenues for having content delivered to them: eg. not just via mobile internet, but SMS or bluetooth transfer to account for the wide range of mobile devices that students have.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Edmodo: an educational alternative to Twitter

As you might gather from some of my previous posts, I'm a big fan of Twitter for both personal development and as an educational tool for students. However, one thing it's not that great for is setting up private groups, e.g. for a particular class or group of students. A colleague suggested using Edmodo as an alternative and I've just started using it with one of my groups.

I'm impressed...very impressed. It's perfect for setting up a private group/network for your groups and you have a lot more options in terms of what you can send to your students. You can set up multiple classes and control which messages/attachments go where. So, for example, I might want to send a document/file to an individual student in a class, a whole class or all my classes and all of this is possible from the homescreen. You can also embed You Tube videos, set assignments, create polls or send links. Here's a screenshot of the homepage.

One interesting aspect is that students are restricted to only sending messages to either the whole group or to the teacher...they can't send messages privately to each other. You can see the logic here, particularly if you have younger students, as it could easily just become a private chatroom for them. I teach fairly responsible adults so that's not such a big issue for me and it would be nice to have the ability to switch that option on or off. However, students can reply to each other's posts, but the reply is displayed publicly.

Today with my students I got them to sign up, we did a few practice posts so they got the idea, then I got them to look at some websites our teaching centre has up on Delicious. They then wrote short descriptions/evaluations of them and posted them to the group Edmodo site. Here's a screenshot to show you some of the things they came up with:

They took to it very quickly, even those who are not that technically proficient and they were posting links within minutes after being guided through the sign up and posting procedure.

 I can see this as being a great way for me to share materials/links/messages with the group and for them to share with each other and me. It's certainly a lot less cumbersome than using the university's VLE (Blackboard), which many of the students don't use very often because it's so confusing to navigate around. One immediate use for me is to be able to quickly share all my Interactive Whiteboard notes that I've saved after a lesson. Normally, I post these up on Blackboard, but this is a much quicker way for my students to access them.

Another good thing (especially for this blog!)  is that Edmodo have created a mobile version of their website for easy access on students' phones. Here's a screenshot of how it looks on my phone:

You can see this is a stripped down version of the main site, but all the basic functionality is there. A few of my students have smartphones like the iPhone or higher-end Nokia phones, so I showed them how they could access the mobile site on their phones. Unlike Twitter though, there doesn't seem to be an option to receive notifications via SMS, at least not in the UK. On the settings page you can enable this, but it didn't seem to work for me, so I'm assuming this may only be available in the States for now.

Anyhow, over the next few weeks I hope to explore how Edmodo can be used with my group and how they respond to it. Naturally I will share this all with you. If you want to learn more about how to use it, here is a great video tutorial.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Professional development and personal help from Twitter

Today more than any other day made me realise just how useful Twitter is as a way of connecting with other teachers round the world, but also as a way to stay informed and up to date about happenings around the world.

On the professional side, it enabled me to stay in touch with the big IATEFL conference taking place this week in Harrogate. I couldn't go for a variety of reasons but following the events online, particularly via Twitter from some of the more tweet-happy delegates really helped me get a sense of what a lot of the sessions were about. I was pretty busy today doing the shopping, taking my son to the park and some other little tasks, but I was constantly able to check my phone to read a little of what was going on there. Big thanks to the likes of Shaun Wilden, Gavin Dudeney et al who provided excellent summaries and commentaries on the sessions.

At the same time me and my wife were anxious to find out about the situation in Kyrgyzstan where there is a coup underway and tremendous civil unrest. My wife is from there, I lived there myself for four years and we were obviously concerned about what was going on there, particularly for the sake of my wife's family.

Again, despite a busy day we were able to keep up with the events there and through a mixture of SMSes and Twitter feeds we were able to establish the well-being of her family and also receive up to the minute info about what's going on there.

The term 'social networking' has always been a bit of a misnomer when it comes to Twitter. For me it's a way to stay connected, involved and informed about things that matter in my personal and professional life and to be able to do that from anywhere.