Sunday, 30 May 2010

Using SMART response system in class - hmm, still not sure..

Our school bought a class set of SMART response units recently and they've been gathering dust in a cupboard so I thought I'd give them a go and see how useful they were as a teaching tool. 

These units look a little bit like remote controls and they can be issued to each of the students. They can then communicate with the interactive whiteboard through a special transmitter to allow students to answer certain kinds of questions shown on the board - basically, true or false, yes or no, or various kinds of multiple choice questions. Here is a video demonstrating it much better than I can explain it. It's a promotional one so it works a hell of a lot slicker there than in reality.

First thing I noticed is that setting it up is quite a pain, making sure all the software is installed, checking for compatibility, adding students to a class so that their names are displayed on the remote units. None of it is particularly intuitive and I imagine any teacher with even the slightest technophobia would be put off fairly early on, even before actually getting to use it in class. I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, but I had to go online and use Google and You Tube to try and work out how to do some pretty basic stuff on there.

And actually creating the questions is quite a long-winded affair.  Each question has to be created separately and typed into boxes. It took me about 70-80 mins to create a 30 question review quiz for my students. It's also quite limiting in that you can only create certain kinds of standardised test/quiz questions, such as True/False or Multiple Choice. You can ask open-ended questions, but there's no way (at least as far as I could see) of them being able to input the answer on the remote control. Which kind of defeats the purpose since the big selling point of the system is that it can analyse all the responses and give you stats based on them. On the plus side though, these quizzes be saved and used again with other groups. 

Anyhow, we're near the end of term with one of my groups so I decided to do this review quiz with them. I think in many schools they actually administer real tests with them, but this was just an informal review quiz. Although each student had their own remote control, I got them to work in small groups to discuss the answers to the questions. 

The students took to it very quickly and you could see they had no problems navigating the buttons and choosing the answers. Just the novelty aspect of it I think kept them engaged throughout. They seemed to like the fact that on a side panel on the whiteboard the names of the students who hadn't answered yet were listed, so they could playfully tease each other to get on with it! One thing I found quite useful at the end was the bar chart display of all the questions and the number of students who got it right and wrong, and how long it took each student to answer. This was quite helpful in identifying which questions were more difficult and we could then go back over those and check them in detail. 

But the whole thing felt a little forced, particularly in such a small class (there are only 12 students) and it's clear that this system is much better suited to large classes or lectures where you don't have such direct contact with the students and having a system of checking their knowledge/understanding might be quite useful. Also, the limitations on the types of questions was quite frustrating at times. As I was designing the quiz, I kept wanting to create open-ended questions and then realised I couldn't. In the end, there are much better ways to create review activities than this. When I talked to one of my colleagues about trying this with my class, she just said: 'well, why can't they just put their hands up and tell you the answer?'. Good point, well made. And throughout my time trialling this, I could always think of a quicker, easier, more interactive way of doing the activity WITHOUT the response system than with it. 

There's also the issue of cost. Buying large numbers of these handsets is very expensive and for the amount you are going to use them I'm not sure it's worth it. But again, it does depend on the kinds of classes you teach and this might suit some of them. For example, it might work well in exam preparation classes where you can regularly check their ability to answer certain kinds of questions. 

One thing that might offset this cost is the option for students to use their mobile phones rather than handsets. This also seems a lot more practical. The company who design the system have a beta trial available for teachers and I might sign up to see if this changes the experience at all. It would certainly make it easier to create ad hoc questions if you knew you could rely on the students' own phones to get the responses. from.  

Interesting experiment nonetheless. At the end of the lesson I left five minutes to get some feedback from the students about them. There general response was that it was interesting and novel but that they wouldn't want to do it very often. They felt the novelty would wear off very quickly. Another student noted that it took the teacher out of the picture, everything was between the whiteboard, the students and the handsets. Many people would say that was a good thing, the teacher being the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage, but it clearly wasn't for this student. He felt he needed more direct interaction with the teacher and he missed it when working with this system. This does raise questions about the role of the teacher when it comes to technology, but I think I'll leave that for another time.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Location services in the ESL classroom

An overview

Over the last few years, better data connections and the integration of GPS chips has meant that location-based services have become very popular on mobile phones. By location-based services, I mean programs or applications that rely on data about where you are to give you information about places/services/routes etc. Probably the best example would be something like Google maps

Google Maps is available on most phones, but there are also other map applications available on different smartphone platforms, such as Ovi Maps for Symbian/Nokia phones. These apps can be used as GPS tools when out driving or walking - and both Ovi and Google now essentially offer free GPS navigation - or they can be used to find places to visit or go to nearby. So, for example, you might be out in an unfamiliar city or town and want to find a restaurant or petrol station nearby. You can bring up Google maps, let it locate where you are and then use the 'search nearby' feature to locate what you want. I've used this feature on numerous occasions to find shops or services since my primitive male ego forbids me from actually asking anyone..

Directory and review apps

Another type of location-based service available on both computers and mobile phones are directory/review sites such as Qype, Places Directory, and Yelp. These will often have both a desktop site and a mobile phone app that can sync with each other. These are sites that provide listings and reviews of places to see and go out to in your vicinity. You can also add your own reviews to places you've visited to contribute to help people get a better idea of a place. My particular favourite is the Places Directory (picture below) app on Android phones, a Google program that links in with Google Maps and pulls in reviews from a variety of websites. There are also sites/apps that focus on specific services, a good example of this is Urbanspoon, which helps you read reviews and find info about restaurants in your area. 

Location-based microblogging and 'game' apps

A more recent addition are apps/sites that combine elements of both simple maps programs and review/directory ones but then add a competitive element in the form of 'prizes' for visiting the most places or for visiting the same place numerous times. Good examples of this are Foursquare, Rummble and Gowalla. These are very much designed with phones in mind. Basically, you go to places (e.g. a restaurant/bar/museum) and then use the app on your phone to 'check in' (press a button on your phone to say you have arrived at a place). This information can then be sent to other people you are linked to on the program, such as your friends or to those people following your Twitter account, and they then know where you are. For this reason they are sometimes known as location-based microblogging apps (Twitter being a form of microblogging).  You also receive virtual points or awards for visiting places, such as becoming the mayor or hero of a particular venue (meaning you've visited there the most). This can actually lead to real life discounts in some places! You can also add reviews or handy hints about the places you visit. 

I've only really played around with these apps, they are certainly designed more for teens/young adults who go out quite a bit. For a middle-aged man with wife and young child, trying to compete for prizes by going to lots of bars is more likely to lead to heart failure and/or a broken marriage than a sense of achievement. But they are fun and the competitive element adds an extra element that's going to appeal to a lot of people. 

How they can be used in (and out) of the ESL classroom 

There is tremendous potential for using these apps with ESL students, both inside the classroom in structured lessons and as a tool for self-learning outside the classroom. Below I give some general ideas about how they might be used. Most of these I haven't had the the chance to try out yet, so they are simply suggestions rather than firm lesson plans. I will also indicate how they can be used in traditional classroom settings as well as in e-learning or m-learning situations. 

Giving Directions

The most obvious use for these is to add some authenticity and context to the classic directions lesson ('how do I get to...'. 'Take the second turning on the left'). One thing you can do if students don't have access to phones/computers in the class is to print out a Google Map of the students' local area. One of the students can then guide the other from a starting point to a predetermined location on the map. Even better if students have access to a mobile phone or computer with internet access, students can direct each other using Street View (see picture below) on Google Maps. This is a version of the maps program that shows actual photo footage of where you are going, as if you were behind the wheel of the car. This can add a whole new level of authenticity to students giving directions to each other. 

Writing Reviews 

Review sites like Qype, Yelp and Places Directory lend themselves well to authentic and meaningful writing activities. One thing that students could do is write reviews of places in their town for foreign visitors and then post them on these sites. The fact that these are really going to be published should be motivation enough for the students. Since these sites often request pictures as well, students can visit these places with their mobile phones, take pictures and then write the review. Hey, it might even be possible to take them on a field trip so they can do it during class time.

Students could also write more developed tourist guides and use a combination of photographs and web pages to create a guide for their town/village/area. Students could work in groups and collect data on their phones (pictures etc) and computers (text/maps) and then add them to a page on sites such as Wallwisher or Glogster

Discussion tasks

If you want to do speaking with your students, these applications can be great for setting discussion or problem-solving tasks. Students can be asked to plan a day or week out in a particular place with a certain budget. They have to work in groups to find out what they can do in that area, what attractions and restaurants there are, how much they cost, how close they are to each other. They then have to work out an agreed itinerary for their trip and then present it to the rest of the class. This could be the sort of lesson that could combine aspects of mobile learning (e.g. they find the reviews on their phones), elearning (they look at the maps on computers) and traditional learning (they do their presentations in class) 

Integrating skills

You can easily combine some of these apps to create great lessons that integrate a lot of different skills. For example they could develop their reading skills by looking through reviews and finding restaurants/cafes etc with similar features. They could also develop their vocabulary by looking at some of the frequent adjectives that occur in these texts (expensive, crowded, lively etc). Students could give spoken reviews of places they've visited and others could listen and write down the good and bad points they mention. I've actually tried this with my students and it worked very well.


A lot of these apps are intrinsically enjoyable and fun, and encouraging students to just use them generally outside of the classroom can be of enormous benefit to their general English development. Anyone who has every played around with Google Maps or Google Earth or similar probably know how absorbing and fun it can be to travel the world from your chair! And apps like Foursquare and Gowalla are intrinsically fun for people to play with, especially teens and young adults. Tell them about them, give them ideas how they can use this technology to engage with English in a way that is motivating for them. Nicky Hockley's blog post suggesting ways to introduce your students to mobile learning is a great place to start.  

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Snaptic and Wordbook

In a previous post I mentioned how students could create their own personalised vocabulary lists by combining online note-taking apps and web dictionaries. Well, I've actually now started this with my students and have encouraged as many of them as possible to add and edit the entries as often and as much as they like. I did a few to begin with, but it's now encouraging to see that some of my students are starting to take initiative and add some of their own. Very pleased to see that. For ease of editing, I set up an account with snaptic, simply because it's very quick and easy to use, and you can use hashtags to create labels. Basically, I set up an account and then gave the username/password to all my students and now they are free to edit as they wish.

You can see from the screenshot that it's also possible to upload pictures, particularly good for clarifying exactly what certain objects, animals or types of food are. I've also helped several of them find and download the accompanying mobile phone app. On Android and iPhone it's called 3Banana, and students can sync their phone notes with their online ones and vice versa. On the phone it's also possible to directly upload a photo as a note, which is great if they see something new and interesting and want to share it with their classmates.

At the moment, I've told three of my classes about this and a smattering of other students, but I would love to get more involved. I find the idea of a huge, shared, student-created dictionary/vocab list a wonderful one. Anyhow, I'll update in a few weeks time and tell you whether this took off or not.

Connected to this, the British Council have just released an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch called My Wordbook, which is very much aiming at exactly the thing I mentioned above - a personalized student-generated vocab list. It's a very polished app, and there's a lot to like about it. For each word you can attach a picture, definition, additional notes; you can also record the pronunciation as well as have the program create random quizzes based on your word list. It's all very well organised, user-friendly and a good all-in-one place for students to record vocabulary.

A few things that would be useful to add to later versions - firstly the ability to share your words with friends, classmates and other learners. Secondly, it would be great if these apps could draw on corpus data (like the British National Corpus) or import definitions from online dictionaries to generate example sentences. Also, I hope that this will become available on other platforms as well so that more students can have access to it. Overall though, I think it's a great app that encourages learner autonomy but also takes a lot of the pain out of recording vocabulary.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

How students use mobile phones to learn English...

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that while I talk to my students a lot about mobile phones and how they can use them to learn English, I've never really actually asked them how they already use them to learn English. So, I've sent out a message to my students to ask them exactly this. I've only got a few responses so far, but I thought it might be worth sharing what they've told me so far. 

Student One: 

Yes, I use it for translate words that I do not know,especially, when Iam shopping or walking on a street.
Sometimes, I play games of words spelling ,but, I did not find that interesting. Also, I rarely do listen for BBC radio or read a newspaper.
My husband use his mobile to record his voice to to cheque his mistakes by listening for it
second time. Also, sometimes he record something that he thinks is useful for him. For example, importamt tips which his teacher give it to them in the class.

Student Two: 

Since my tiny mobile is not that much supporting web applications, I would be very happy if I can access my email when necessary but I would rather go with YES because of the load notes I have making recently . However, ESL materials are the ONLY contents in my iPod touch that including podcasts, audiobooks, & grammar applications.. etc which is very useful in short run as well as long run learning.

Student Three: 

I am one of those who are using their mobile phones to learn English, I read the news in BBC, I look for some word's meaning in the dictionary and recently,I've downloaded an English quizz app into my phone so I can test myself on and off...

It's clear that one of the most common uses of mobile phones is to look up vocabulary and this is certainly borne out by my students in my classes. Quite a few of them have smartphones and/or ipod touches and it's very common for them to use them as dictionaries to quickly check words that come up in class. 

Students are beginning to use their devices as dictaphones as well. I've noticed a couple of my students recording my lessons using their phones and normally it's the students who are concerned about improving their pronunciation. One of them told me that he likes to listen back to my voice and repeat certain words and phrases. 

One thing that struck me about student one was the comment 'I play games of words spelling ,but, I did not find that interesting'. This has definitely been my experience of a lot of the apps that are available for English language learning. I've tried them out and noticed that they are very traditional in their format (fill the gaps, multiple choice, anagrams etc) and while they are diverting for a few minutes, they don't really offer anything that students can't already find in a textbook or in class. 

Developers of apps haven't really worked out a way to design them so they take advantage of the way that phones can create (e.g. through the camera or the microphone) and the way that phones can connect and share (via the internet/SMS). In a previous post I talked about how different apps can be combined to form powerful learning tools and I think if such apps could be specifically developed for ESL learners then they would attract a lot more users. Even better if they can also include some kind of game element as well.

 When you look at things like Foursquare - location microblogging where you 'check in' to places/bars/cafes etc with your mobile phone and earn 'prizes' and status - you can see how they've taken a basic concept such as going out to places and made it a lot more interesting by adding a social networking/competitive element to it.  English Central is a good example of a site that takes advantage of these things to make engaging language content for students. I would love to see mobile developers do the same.  

Friday, 7 May 2010

How your students can create cool personal dictionaries on their phones..

I was playing around with my phone yesterday installing various free applications and discovered a great way for students to make their own personalized dictionaries that they can share with others. 

A lot of phones now have either dictionaries built in or applications that can access free online dictionaries like The Free Dictionary and What's also become popular on phones are more sophisticated note-taking applications such as Evernote and 3Banana. These allow you to create quite complex and sophisticated notes using photos, web pages and text: 

On the phones themselves these applications are a little less sophisticated, but they still do more than traditional text-based notes and the good thing is that you can sync between your desktop and your phone. 

Now, when playing around with the Free Dictionary app on my Android phone (HTC Desire) I discovered that there is the ability to directly create a personal note in 3Banana from the dictionary entry you looked for. This video demonstrates it a lot better than I can explain it: 

It seems very simple and unexciting, but I think this is an amazing tool for students to be able to create personalized and meaningful vocabulary lists. Rather than just copying down words/definitions, they can be encouraged to create extensive entries on words that can be added to as they meet new examples or information about them. This is getting closer to what I described in a previous post as the perfect mobile language learning app. So, for example, students create a basic entry note for a word by pasting in the definition from the dictionary application. These are very good definitions by the way, with lots of example sentences, alternative meanings, word forms and not just simple definitions or translations. Now in the future if the student sees an example of this word they would like to jot down (or they notice an idiom using it or a preposition that comes after it), they can cut and paste it into their entry for that word and it builds up a really rich and personal store of vocabulary for them to refer to and review. 

And the other great thing is that this can be done on either the phone or their PC  because the applications are synchronized and anything they add on the PC note will show up on the phone note and vice versa. Oh, and if they wish they can share this note with other people...

For me, this is getting very close to my vision of mobile learning for students. Seamless integration between phone and PC, the ability to create personalized and meaningful information about the language and the ability to do that anywhere, and the ability to share that information with others. 

Although this was done on a specific phone running a specific operating system (Android), I think it should be possible on other phone platforms as well. Evernote has versions of its application for Symbian (most Nokia phones) Apple (Iphone), RIM (Blackberry). Also, most phones have either built-in dictionaries or applications that can access online dictionaries. Even if you can't make a note directly from the dictionary, it should be reasonably easy to copy and paste from the dictionary to the note-taking application. I tried it with and Evernote on the ipod touch and it worked perfectly. 

Please tell your students about this. I think it really is a great way for them to build learner autonomy and learn more about words than just the simple definition or translation. 

Monday, 3 May 2010

It's worth taking a look at this blog - mobile learning continued...

I've just been mentioned in a blog post by Graham Stanley, who is continuing a great idea of listing your favourite blogs and then when you are mentioned or tagged in a post, you do the same and circulate more information about interesting blogs...think of it as a kind of blog recommendation tag...

Now Graham's post has already mentioned several blogs that I would recommend, especially Nicky Hockley and Rob de Lorenzo's. I'm not sure if I am going to be able to stretch to ten about mobile learning, but here are some I would definitely recommend.

1. Katy Scott's Stretch Your Digital Dollar is not specifically about mobile learning (though quite a few of her posts mention it), but it is a wonderful read about how technology can be used in and out of the classroom at minimal cost.

2. Leonard Low's Mobile Learning is an interesting read about mobile learning practices, especially from someone involved in the development of mobile applications.

3. Judy Brown's mLearnopedia is a great place for finding collected links to various stories about mobile learning.

4. Mobile Libraries has stuff on mobile learning as it specifically relates to libraries.

5. Liz Kolb's From Toy To Tool has a lot of interesting stuff about mobile learning.

Ok, didn't manage to get to 10, but at least I've added a few to the list....hope you find them interesting.