Monday, 16 August 2010

Apps on the ipad for ESL teachers and students

I’ve been using the Kindle app on the ipad since I bought the device and it’s now become my primary means of consuming books. To start with, there is a huge selection of books to choose from, you can buy them directly from the device, you can get samples of any book to see whether you want to purchase it and you can sync the books across multiple devices. So, for example, I sometimes read books on my Android phone and I can stop reading at a page in a book on my ipad and when I go to read it on my phone, it will be bookmarked at exactly the same page. Very, very cool.

One thing that they added in the latest version of the app is a dictionary look-up option. So, you can touch on a word in a book and it will bring up a definition of it at the bottom of the page. If you then want more information about the word, you can click on ‘full definition’ and it will pull up the word’s entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary. You’ve also got the option to do a Wikipedia or Google Search on the word. 

I began to think that this would be very useful for ESL students when reading books to be able to look up words and check their meaning. There’s also the option to annotate words/sentences on the page, so students can write their own notes about words or content that interest them.

And while I was looking at the Kindle I wondered what kinds of ESL books are actually on offer for the device both for teachers and students. Not much at the moment to be honest, but I think that's because so many ESL books are heavily formatted with pictures, diagrams and tables and those are the most difficult books to digitize. But there are some available on the market, a few grammar reference and exercise books, some teacher resource books (e.g. from the Cambridge series). But at least the ones that are available are slightly or in some cases quite significantly cheaper than their hard copy equivalent.

Another app I downloaded that I thought could be very useful in the classroom is iAnnotate, a PDF reader for the ipad that gives you the option to highlight, underline or make notes on the document. I think this was one of the initial concerns about the use of the ipad in education, whether it could adequately cope with the daily academic needs of students (textbooks, extensive notetaking) but I think there are enough apps out now to suggest it can. 

It’s a little expensive (about £5) but it is very easy to transfer PDFs from PC to ipad and annotating the documents is easy. Certainly for the students at my school this would be a very useful app as they have to read quite a lot of articles in their various academic skills classes.

One more app I thought might be useful in the classroom is Mobile Mouse, an app that lets you control your computer’s screen via the ipad. This means that from a distance you can open and close programs, surf the web, open and type Word documents and you can use the multi-touch on the ipad screen to zoom in and out. 

I think this would be a useful tool for adding things to the smartboard while moving around the room and students could do the same.

So yes, there are lots of apps out there that could easily be used in the classroom and I’ll give some of them a go in the next couple of months.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Mobile learning plans for the new term

Wow, I’ve just realized that it’s been over a month since I’ve written anything here. I haven’t given up on the blog by the way - and I’m talking to that dedicated band of approx 0-3 people who read my posts semi-regularly - it’s just that I’ve been working on an intensive course training Korean teachers over the last month and I just haven’t had time to update it.

And to be honest, I didn’t have that much to say. Most of my posts are based on hands-on experience of using technology with my students, but this just wasn’t possible with the group I was working with over the summer so it really would have been posting for the sake of posting. Doing a course with little or no tech integration was interesting in itself, it wasn’t in any way better for being stripped of technology but it did help me remember the importance of using classroom tools (technology, paper, whiteboards, any kind of equipment) only when necessary. This course didn’t need technology, it wouldn’t help the students learn any better, so I didn’t use it. You see, people always assume us techheads try to crowbar it in even when it doesn’t belong, but that’s not always true....

But now I’m on a break and I’ve started to think towards the new academic year and what areas of technology I’d like to focus on to see what’s going to help my students learn more effectively. By the way, this does sound rather unnatural, a list of arbitrary tech things I’d like to try out in class, sounds like the crowbarring thing I said I didn’t do in the previous paragraph. But it’s not. This is just a small part of my overall plans for the new term, I have lots of non-tech goals for my teaching as well, I just don’t share them through a blog. So these are things I have actually thought about...

Mobile learning

Last term I was only able to run a voluntary group throughout my school with students who were interested in learning through their mobiles. This amounted to daily text messages with a word of the day, some IM chat and creating social networking groups where they could share links/photos etc. It was ok, but the numbers dwindled as the novelty wore off, and the lack of direct contact with the students made it seem a little artificial.

This term I would like to experiment with mobile learning with my own students and see if that makes any kind of difference to the experience.  I think if the content is linked to what they are studying, it’s more likely that using their phones will seem a natural part of the course and not a random process.

But it will still have to be a purely voluntary thing. The school doesn’t fund any of this so students will have to bear the cost of text messages and data usage themselves and if they don’t have unlimited data/text contracts, I can’t force them to take part in this. This is still one of the biggest hurdles to implementing effective mobile programs, the difference between the devices and plans that all the students have got, but I’m working on the assumption that in a few years’ time all students will probably have unlimited data/text plans, so this is just advance preparation for that.

Using the ipad in the classroom

In a previous post I blogged about the ipad and how I saw it’s use in the ESL classroom. I’ve had the device for about a month now and my view hasn’t changed, in fact it’s probably been strengthened. I read somewhere that the ipad won’t necessarily replace computers but it will replace paper, and I’m beginning to see the truth in this. It’s a perfect device for reading on and for sharing information through various applications. It’s an amazing device for reading books and articles, browsing the web and many of the apps are designed to create the feeling that you are reading a newspaper or magazine.

Flipboard, for example, takes all your Facebook and Twitter feeds and turns it into an attractive magazine format, while Discover takes Wikipedia entries and does the same. The Amazon Kindle app lets you buy and read books and you can annotate them and even share those annotations with others. Of course many of these things can be done on either a desktop or laptop computer, but the form factor and the ease of use makes it a much easier device to integrate in the classroom.

There are also numerous brainstorming apps for the ipad, and I can see how these could become a great way for students to collaborate with each other when discussing topics or working on projects.

As a teacher I can think of numerous other uses for it in the classroom. Actually the other day I used it for the first time in class, the teacher group I was training did some micro-teaching and I wandered round the class watching them and making notes on my ipad in google docs. I then pulled that document up at the end of the lesson on the smartboard for discussion. It was a much quicker and better way of sharing than making notes by hand and then photocopying for all the teachers in the class.

Now of course there is the (minor) stumbling block that none of my students are likely to have ipads next term. Still, I don’t see that as being a huge issue, my plan is to lend out my own ipad to one student every so often and get them to experience the same lesson the others are doing but solely through the device. So, for example, while the other students get a reading text on paper, that one student gets it on the ipad. When I ask students to brainstorm ideas, that students can use the ipad while the others jot them down on paper. I can then observe the differences between their experiences and also get direct feedback from the students themselves about how easy or difficult it was to use.

So, I’ll keep you updated on all this, I’ll be trying these things out from the end of September and I’ll blog on how it all went.