Thursday, 29 December 2011

Video Reviews of ESL Apps

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am now posting most of my ideas regarding mobile learning over on my Mobile ESL page at Google+. However, I did say that I would update this blog with anything I felt was worth cross-posting. Over the last few weeks I've started to do video reviews of various ESL apps and I've been adding them to my page, but I thought I could also add them here.

Review of Sounds: the Pronunciation App for Android/iOS

Review of three Mingoville Apps for Android

Review of IELTS Word Power for Android

I've also been compiling a list of the Best free ESL Apps available in a Google Doc/Presentation. If anyone would like to contribute to it, just let me know and I'll add you as an editor. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Regular posting on Google Plus

I've decided to temporarily shift over to Google Plus to continue my blog posts on mobile learning. I've got plenty I want to write and say about the topic, but I would prefer to write shorter posts and more regularly as this would fit in with my working life.

When it comes to blogging, I prefer to write more in-depth posts but this is not always possible given my work commitments. So, I have created a brand page on Google Plus for this blog which you can find here. I've already added a couple of short posts there (reviews of ESL idiom apps) and I'll try to update it on a much more regular basis than I've been able to do here.

I chose Google Plus because it does allow longer posts than Twitter and I'd also like to take advantage of things like the Hangouts feature later on to hold informal webinars/discussions on the topic of mobile learning.

I do have my own Google Plus page, but that's for many other links/thoughts not connected to mobile learning so I wanted to create a dedicated page where I could just focus on that topic. This is very much an experiment, but I'm fascinated to see how well it works.

I haven't completely abandoned this blog. When I have something more substantial to say and I have the time to sit down and write it, I'll post it here. And I'll also try to compile a summary of my Google Plus posts here every few weeks.

So please, come on over to this page, put me in a circle and I'll give regular updates on the use of mobile learning in ESL.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A subtle change in mobile use in the classroom

I haven't had a chance to blog over the last month or so. The start of term, an online course I was taking and an impending British Council inspection at our centre all conspired against me.

And I haven't had much time to try any mobile stuff out in class - however, what I have noticed is a very subtle but noticeable change in the way that teachers and students use their mobile devices for learning. First off, from an, institutional perspective, there seems a lot more tolerance towards students using their phones in class. In fact, we are no longer buying paper dictionaries at school since the management realized that students tend to either use their phones or electronic dictionaries in class. This is very heartening.

Second, students seem much more at home using these devices in class and there's considerably less frivolous use of them. In the past I felt I had to monitor them a little more to make sure they weren't playing games, sending text messages to friends, but this seems to happen less and less now. Students seem much more responsible in their use of them. They also seem much more aware of what their devices can do. In the past - even those who owned iphones or android phones - were often unaware that you could download apps for them. Now it seems they are very aware of the apps available for them and many of them have found a range of apps - such as dictionaries, note-taking apps - that can help them with their English learning.

This was brought home the other day when I wanted them to record themselves giving a short presentation about their hometown using the voice recorder app on their phone. In the past I've needed to spend time in class helping them find the app, going through how to use it and then send the audio file to themselves so they can upload it to our class website later. This time there was very little guidance needed, one student needed a colleague to help him find the function on the phone, but the rest found it immediately, recorded themselves and uploaded it with little fuss.

And this is nothing to do with any training I might have given students in the past. These are all new students at the school but they’ve adapted very quickly to using their mobile devices in the classroom. And it’s also noticeable just how many of them now have smartphones. Last year, about 60-70% of the class had smartphones, this year I would say it’s closer to 90%. This has made it a lot easier to recommend apps during class.

I think smartphones and mobile devices are slowly becoming part of the furniture in the classroom, just as the computer did before it. I think this year will be a great opportunity to see how far I can push students to use their own devices both inside and outside the classroom.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Greatest (and Cheapest) Mobile Gadget - the Post-It Note

It struck me the other day that while I am somewhat obsessive about technology in the classroom, my favourite mobile device is something decidedly low-tech: the post-it note. While I'm quite happy to go in to my lessons without my mobile phone, my laptop or my tablet, I would never go into my class without a small stack of post-it notes. This blog post is a short hymn of praise to the cheapest and most versatile gadget available. 

How can the post-it note be used in class? Well, here are some of the ways I use them on a daily basis....

I use them to.... 

....write my lesson plans on. I'm not a big one for writing lesson plans down these days, but my memory is so flakey that I do need to write down a few notes of the things we need to do in class. A post-it note is perfect for that, and it's doubly useful because I can stick it somewhere I might actually see it, such as on the edge of my computer monitor or smartboard.

I use them to.... students. Either by writing down numbers on them and then getting them to find the person/people with the same number or by using different colored post-it notes and they have to find the people with the same color. Or combine the two (if you have large groups), where they have to find people with the same color AND number

I use them to....

....give feedback during the lesson. When students are engaged in speaking tasks/discussions, if I hear something that needs to be corrected, I will often write it down on a post-it note and then stick it on the desk of the person it applies to. They really appreciate that personal attention and it also doesn't disrupt the conversation they are having. I also use it for noting down mistakes/interesting things heard during monitoring for later discussion/feedback.

I use them to....

...Give students choice about whether they want feedback or not. So I will give them a couple of post-it notes, they put either a cross or tick on it, then they choose one of them to stick on the desk and that decides whether they want the teacher to intervene and correct or not when they are speaking in groups.

I use them to...

... Play a variety of warm-up activities. Such as Snowball, when students write some personal information on a post-it note, screw it up and then throw it around the class. They then pick one up, read it out and people have to guess who it is.

I use them to....

...Help with pronunciation practice. One common activity I do is to put the stress pattern of the word on one post-it notes, the word on another. Do this with a lot of words, give out the post-it notes randomly then students have to walk round the classroom either saying their word or humming the stress pattern. They have to find their partner in the class.

I use them to....

….Help remember names in the first few lessons. Quick and easy way to help remember names, get them to stick them on their chest with a post-it note and gradually remove them as you remember them!

I use them to....

…..Check understanding of the lesson/training session. Sometimes I give students/trainees several colored post-it notes and when giving a presentation or some information to them, they can hold up different colors depending on whether they understand or not (e.g. blue means I understand, green means I don't understand, red means I have a question to ask. 

I am looking forward to a paperless future in the classroom, but I don't plan on giving up my post-it notes anytime soon.

Friday, 5 August 2011

QR Codes in the ESL Classroom

Over the last few weeks I've been training a group of Korean teachers here in the UK as part of a development programme organised by their Ministry of Education. As it's been recently announced that Korean schools will be completely digital by the year 2015 and all textbooks will be replaced by tablets or laptops, I've been exposing them to a variety of different technologies and web 2.0 tools to help them see how they might apply them in their own classroom context.

Among the tools we've used are Posterous Groups as a way for them to share pictures and experiences; Google Docs as a way of sharing materials and handouts; we've also discussed the value of digital storytelling via various web 2.0 tools and they all created a Voicethread in one of the sessions.

In the classroom I've been actively encouraging them to use their mobile devices, either smartphones, tablets or laptops as a means of checking words or as a way of finding information out about the topic we're discussing.

One thing I decided to try on this course was the use of QR Codes as a form of peripheral learning. These are basically barcodes that can be read by mobile phones and contain embedded information that the phone can decode. It can be a link to a webpage, a chunk of text, an SMS message, a calendar event, pretty much anything you can think of. Most mobile phones have free QR code reader apps available for them. For example on Android, you can download QR Droid (my personal favourite), QuickMark BarCode Scanner or  BeeTag QR Reader. On iPhone there is QR Reader, QR Scanner and numerous others. To actually create a QR Code there are various websites, my personal favourite for ease of use is QR Droid. it took my a matter of seconds to create the QR Code below, which contains a link to this blog.
I'd never really been impressed by the idea of QR Codes, I'd read a lot of things on the web about them but it always seemed quite a complicated procedure to extract a fairly simple piece of information such as a weblink or a calendar event. The old proverb about using a hammer to crack a nut came to mind.

However, after reading this excellent article by Kimberley Hogg explaining how she used QR Codes to create a direction-based treasure hunt with her ESL students I decided to give them a go. By  the way, the advice she gives in her article about how to accustom students to using these codes is really fantastic, I strongly recommend you read the article to find out more.

I decided against preparing a structured activity with the teachers, instead I decided to just put lots of codes around on the wall with different information embedded in them. For example, some of them were links to instructional You Tube videos about teaching, some linked to our online course documents and others were part of a quiz on Britain I'd created for them. I put ten questions on different QR Codes around the room and they had to use their phone to decode it and find the question. Once they'd done that, they had to find the answer, then send the correct answers to our group blog. Below is one example of what they saw on the wall.

Most of them were not familiar with QR Codes, so I helped them download the relevant app and then explained how they could read them. On each paper on the wall I included some information about the app they needed to download.

I wasn't really expecting much interest from the teachers, but I was pleasantly surprised just how many actually downloaded an app and read the codes. In fact, when one of the quiz questions was removed from the wall (by mistake I think), several of them came up to me and asked me to print it out again and put it back up. When I asked them why they liked doing the tasks with the QR Codes, they said things like, 'it's different', 'mysterious', 'a puzzle'.

And really, that is the appeal of them I think. In the end all I'd created on the wall was a series of normal quiz questions but the QR Codes made the process much more appealing to the teachers. How long the novelty will last is difficult to tell, but it definitely is still a novelty for most students so we might as well exploit that while we can!

Possible uses in the ESL Classroom 

Here are some ways that I think QR Codes could be used in the classroom:

  • As I did with my group, posting up questions to answer. These could be language questions on vocabulary/grammar etc, general knowledge questions or discussion questions. Students could be encouraged to create their own QR Code questions as well. 
  • Posting up answers to homework
  • Creating a treasure or scavenger hunt. Students are sent to one QR Code, they are provided a clue which then takes them to another. The individual or group that finishes first is the winner. This would be particular good for practising things like direction language. 
  • Embedding links in QR Codes to useful websites for students to visit to improve their English. 
  • Posting up calendar events that are taking place in the school. 

I think there are many other possibilities, these are just a few that spring to mind. In researching about QR Codes, I found a few online resources very helpful. 

I plan to use them a lot more in the coming term and get feedback from students as to how interesting/useful they find them. I would love to hear from any ESL teachers who are using them to learn more about how they can be used to enhance language learning. 

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Google+ in the ESL classroom?

Over the last few weeks Google+ has got a lot of publicity, the new social network from the search experts which looks to go up against Facebook. As a heavy Google user - I use Gmail, Reader, Documents, Maps, Sites and Calendar on a daily basis - the possibility of a social service that will ultimately integrate all these features is very attractive. I do have a Facebook account - and let's face it, who doesn’t these days - but it’s not something that I use on a regularly basis, I find the endless stream of pokes and virtual gifts and info about people’s exploits on Farmville dull and annoying.

The problem at the moment with Google+ is that it’s difficult to actually get a chance to use it, it’s in limited beta and you need an invite to join. Luckily though I managed to get one and I’ve been trying it out over the last few days. 

My 'about' page on Google+

Whenever I look at a new web 2.0 tool these days, my first question is always: how could this be used with my students? Just from a very sketchy, limited use of Google Plus I think that it could offer more to the classroom than either Facebook or Twitter. Both of these tools do have their place, but the limited group functionality on both of them do set limits on their use in education. I’m always looking for tools that will allow me to work just with my group and to protect their and my privacy along the way. Twitter’s default public setting makes that difficult while Facebook seems to require you to share too much of your private life with students to create a group.

So, I’m going to look at the features of Google+ that I think could have specific applications to the ESL classroom as well as discuss some of the limitations.

What Google+ can offer to the classroom


Circles is the central feature of Google+. It is a clever filter that allows you to easily put your friends, acquaintances into groups (‘circles’) and then decide what information you choose to share with them. There are certain default groups (friends, family etc) but you can create as many new circles as you want with whatever name you choose.

The page where you organise your circles

When you post something, you can easily choose to share it with an individual, a particular group or group of groups or to make it completely public. Also, when viewing other people’s posts, you can choose to see information just from a particular group. In Google’s language these posts are called your ‘stream’ and you can filter by clicking on the appropriate group on the left.

I think the benefits of this for the classroom are obvious. Being able to create a group just for your students and then share documents, information and links just with them is very useful. Even better, you can share on a more global or specific level with your groups. You might want to share a post with all your groups if it’s relevant to all your students - for example, you’ve found a particular link that would be useful to all of them - or you might just want to send a message/post to one group.

By the way, this is not really anything new. In a previous post I talked about Edmodo, a social network designed specifically for education, where you can do exactly the same thing. You can create numerous class groups and then share information with either individuals, groups or everyone.

There are other similar online services such as Schoology, Twiducate and Wiggio where I would imagine you can do very similar things. Also, these specific educational networks tend to have better integration of things like document sharing, assignment submission  than more generic social networks such as Facebook.

So why might you want to use Google+ rather than these tailor-made services? A couple of reasons spring to mind:

First, it creates a one-stop shop for personal/educational networking. Students can easily flip between their social streams and their educational streams without having to leave a particular website and go log in somewhere else. One of the biggest problems I have with using web 2.0 tools with my students is that they constantly require students to register for different websites, remember their passwords and then remember to go there to check whether anything new is happening. Actually getting students to go to the website you’ve asked them to is often the biggest issue.

However, getting them to go to Facebook is less of an issue - when I take them to the computer rooms at our school, their reflex action once they open up the browser is to check their Facebook page. If Google+ gained some traction as a social network, students would be able to go to this one place for both their personal and class interaction.

Of course, whether this mixing of social and educational interaction is something people want is debatable. What I do think people want though is simplicity and if one site allows you to clearly separate and blend (if you want to) your personal and educational connections, I think that would be very attractive.  


It’s a hipsterish name, but basically Hangouts is group video chat. You can invite members of your circles to chat using their webcam and you can have up to ten people in the group. There is also a text chat option available so you can share documents/links etc and a special option to share You Tube videos. I haven’t really had the chance to try this out as I’ve only been on Google+ for a few days and not many people I know have invites but I can see some possibilities for education.

My very lonely Hangout

The fact that it can handle ten people in a chat means that small class discussions/seminars are possible. Students themselves could also use it for discussions if working in groups. Although it hasn’t been implemented yet, I’m pretty sure that at some point there will be a chance to work on a Google Doc while having a video discussion in a Hangout making the process of collaborative work much more interesting. At the moment, I believe that it’s not possible to just view a hangout (i.e. just watch others talking with the option for individuals to temporarily join) but again this should come in the future and would be great for large group webinars/discussions.

Again, none of these features are particularly revolutionary, there are many services such as Adobe Connect, Elluminate, Go to Meeting where you can have group video discussions and online seminars, but they can be expensive and complicated to set up.

Where I think Google+ might add an extra dimension is in the integration of all the other Google services such as Search, Maps, Documents, Photos. The possibility of using all these wonderful and familiar free tools within a group video chat is one that as a teacher I would really welcome.

Mobile integration

Given the title of the blog, I’m naturally interested to know to what extent Google+ will work on mobile devices. As you might expect, there is an app already available for Google’s own mobile OS, Android, and one coming very soon for the iphone. 

The app for Android is very nice, most of the things available on the web are available here, the most obvious omission though being the Hangout function - most phones struggle with one person in video chat let alone ten. In its place they have the unique (to the phone app at least) Huddles, which is a group text chat feature. Rather like Hangouts you can invite individuals or circles to participate in the chat. One limitation is that you can only create a Huddle on phones, it’s not possible for one person to be chatting on his/her phone while others are on their computer. However, I would imagine that is something that will come in the near future.

Android app homescreen

Sharing from your phone to Google+ is incredibly easy, webpages, pictures, notes can be easily posted to your stream. Android has always done sharing so much better than the iphone and this is a perfect example.

Potential issues with Google+

At such an early stage, it’s very difficult to be overly critical of Google+, it’s still in beta, things are being changed all the time and I’m sure many new features will be implemented in the coming months. However, in terms of widespread adoption in education there are some potential drawbacks.

The Facebook Factor

Enough said really. So many people are committed to their Facebook profile, have built up so many friends and photo albums over quite a long period of time that they may have no interest in joining another social network  and may feel resentful if their teacher asks them to.

The other possibility is that Facebook may implement features that make it equally compelling for educational purposes. They’ve recently integrated Skype video chat - albeit only one on one - and there may be other features on the way that will make moving to Google+ unnecessary.

Google account issues

As I’ve discovered when trying to use Google services with my students, there is a lot of confusion surrounding Google accounts. People naturally assume that to have a Google account means having a Gmail account, but that’s not true. You can have a Google account using any email address, however signing up for Gmail will automatically give you a Google account. You would be surprised how difficult it is to explain this to students!

There is also the additional problem of Google Apps, the specialized service Google run for businesses and educational establishments. For example, my university use Gmail for their email and we have our own domain name in our email addresses ( Along with email, students and staff also get access to other limited Google services such as Calendar, Docs, Reader and Sites, but NOT things like Maps or Photos.

I have personally had issues when trying to share things from my personal Google account with my students Google apps accounts. For example I have tried to share Google Docs with them and this seems to cause some issues which mean they can’t access them.

So, what is going to happen with all these Universities and Colleges that use Google for their email? Will Google+ be available for students using those email addresses? Are there going to be issues when a student tries to sign up for Google+ using their Google-provided email address? I don’t know if Google have thought these issues through, but they are essential to sort out if they want schools and colleges to use it.

Final thoughts...

I’m impressed by Google+ and I can see a lot of potential there on both a personal and professional level. Just on a personal level I’ve been wanting to get out of Facebook for a while now and this gives me the perfect opportunity. On a professional level I’m very interested to explore how Google+ can be used both for my own development through contact with other teachers but also how it could be used with students to increase their involvement and interaction with the English language and with each other. Over the summer I have a group of teachers coming over from Korea for a teacher training/language development course and I’m going to see if any of them wish to sign up for Google+ and take part in a trial run to see how it might work with students. I’ll let you know how it goes...

Monday, 30 May 2011

My own language learning via mobile

I haven't posted for a while, there really hasn't been much chance to integrate mobile learning in my lessons with a succession of holidays and a focus on getting students ready for their end of term exams. And I won't be teaching for a while as we go into a break before the summer school we run at our centre.

So, I thought I'd try to apply some of these ideas about using mobile devices to my own learning and to see how effective they can be. In previous posts I had mentioned how I'd used various apps/techniques to learn Russian, but it's not something I've kept up regularly (to my shame). But I really do need to learn Russian better. My wife is from Kyrgyzstan and her first language is Russian, and we would really like our six year old son to be bilingual. However, living in England it's very difficult to expose him to Russian on a regular basis and the amount of Russian he can use/understand is gradually diminishing. So, we would like to increase how much is spoken at home to help him with this, but that can only really happen if I learn more Russian and get comfortable using it around the house.

My Russian is pretty poor, elementary in reading, speaking and listening while my writing is non-existant (and not really a priority for me). I've gone through periods of real enthusiasm for studying the language as well as times when I've completely abandoned it. My ulterior motive in blogging about this now is that I want to shame myself into keeping this up, if I make it public and promise to update my blog about it, maybe I'll not abandon it as I've done before.

The other reason is I want to get a greater sense of how these mobile tools can be used by my students and to put myself in their position. How easy is it to use mobile devices to learn languages? What apps are the best to use? My initial plan is to use the following devices and apps for my language learning:

For learning and memorising vocabulary, I plan to use a variety of flashcard apps and switch between them to see which one is most useful. I'll use Ankidroid Flashcards, Kaka Flashcards and Vocabulary Trainer for Gdocs and after a few weeks decide which one I like best.

For general Russian, I've bought the Byki Russian app from the Android Market, this has a variety of features, vocabulary, flashcards, video etc and syncs with a desktop app where you can create vocabulary lists.

For listening I've subscribed to a couple of Russian speaking podcasts, one from the BBC called 'Utro Na BBC', which is not specifically a language learning podcast but the presenter does speak quite slowly so is quite useful for a low-level learner.

For checking vocabulary I've installed ColorDict Dictionary Translate, a free app I tried out recently and was impressed by.

For speaking, well, luckily I have a native speaker at home who can help me with that!

Anyhow, I'll blog regularly on my progress and add any other apps/programs I've found useful in helping me with my Russian.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Presentation on mobile learning

Just wanted to draw your attention to an excellent presentation on mobile learning given by Neil Ballantyne at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton recently. He gives a great overview of the subject and looks at some specific uses by students.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Android and Apple: tablets in the ESL classroom

In previous posts I have been very positive about the role that the iPad could play in ESL education. The nature of the tablet form factor and the so-simple-a-child-could-use-it interface makes it a wonderful tool for bringing technology into the classroom and offering many new ways for students to interact with each other and with the language. You only have to look around the internet to realise that I’m not the only one that thinks that way. Ipad adoption by schools and teachers is growing daily and the variety of use case scenarios expanding all the time.

But..and it is a big ‘but’, the iPad is very, very expensive, certainly beyond the reach of many individuals and also beyond the budgets of many schools. Until recently there hasn’t been any significant alternatives, but now we are beginning to see many more tablets come onto the market, particularly ones running Google’s Android operating system. The Android tablets that have been available so far have not been particularly usable, largely because Google hadn’t designed an Operating System that was specifically for tablets, but now they have released one called Honeycomb and we’re beginning to see tablets appear on the market with the new tablet-optimised OS installed on it.

And I’ve bought one. Probably shouldn’t have but it was just too tempting, particularly as the one I got comes with an integrated keyboard that means it can double as a fairly decent netbook replacement (and finding a way to type effectively on a tablet is one of the biggest hurdles to wider adoption in my view). It’s called the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and is currently only available in the UK - and at the moment without the keyboard that makes it compelling, but that will be available soon.

My new toy

My old toy and my new toy

So, I thought this might be a chance to do a quick rundown of the pros/cons of using Android tablets in the ESL classroom. Why might teachers/students/schools choose these over the iPad? Can it offer anything that the Apple device doesn’t? Here’s a quick rundown...

The Good........


Actually, at the moment there isn’t a huge difference between the price of an iPad and a higher-end Android device. The cheapest version of the iPad 2 is only £399 while I picked up my Asus tablet for £379, so hardly a massive saving there. But - just as with Android mobile phones - a huge range of tablets will be coming onto the market in a variety of shapes/sizes and at a variety of price points. Expect to see this price come down very rapidly. Also, if schools are willing to put up with an older operating system and a little less functionality, they can pick up a basic Android tablet for as low as £120-150 pound. Of course it won’t be as slick as the iPad or as easy to use, but you will still get that basic form factor and also a lot of decent Google apps such as Google Maps and Gmail. The iPad, on the other hand, is unlikely to drop in price any time soon.

A variety of form factors

The iPad comes in one size and that’s it. But with Android there are more options in terms of screen size and also the kinds of features/add-ons you can use with it. So, for example, you can get Android tablets with a 7” screen, an 8.9” screen or a larger 10” screen. Some of them come with special pens for drawing/writing with, others have better cameras on the front and the back.

There are also more options for connecting cards/peripherals to Android tablets. For example many Android tablets come with some kind of memory card slot (such as micro SD or SD) for getting files/images/video on and off the device or they might have a USB port, meaning that you can plug in keyboards, mice or other USB peripherals. This might be particularly handy if students want to transfer images/videos/audio files they’ve recorded with a camera or mobile phone. This is much more difficult on the iPad. I’m constantly running up against the issue of how to get things on or off my iPad and I often give up in frustration.

Flash support

Famously, the iPad doesn’t support Flash in its browser. This means that many sites that have Flash elements on their pages just won’t display on the iPad. Now, the iPad does get round this by having a vast number of dedicated apps that can often replace a website, but not for all of them, and many of the ones teachers use with their students still don’t have an app, or they do have an app but it has considerably reduced functionality. Android, on the other hand, has had Flash support for some time now and on most devices you can view Flash sites through the browser.

To give you a couple of examples of this. I often use a site called Voicethread with my students. This site enables students to create interactive slideshows with pictures, text and audio recordings and other students can watch them and add their own comments. It works wonderfully well in the ESL classroom - students can create personalised presentations on their family/country/job and share them with their classmates. However, there is no app for the iPad and you cannot view these slideshows through the iPad browser because they contain Flash (see pic).

What you see (or don't see) on the iPad

Android on the other hand does a pretty good job of displaying them through the browser (see pic below) and while editing is less than perfect, it still is possible.

What you see on the Android tablet

Another good example is Xtranormal,  a popular site used by many teachers with students to create short animated movies. Students can choose the settings, the characters, write the dialogue and then view and shaer what they've created.

Again, you can’t view the full site on the iPad because of the lack of Flash. There is a mobile app for the iphone, but this is significantly less functional than the desktop version. On my Android tablet, however, I can access the full desktop site and use it exactly as I would on a PC.

Ipad browser version (notice the Xtranormal sign where the video should be)

And this is the fuller Android browser version

I know that there is a general move away from Flash in websites, but that is going to take quite a long time and at the moment many of the most popular ESL websites still contain a lot of flash elements.


Much has been written about the ‘openness’ of Android in comparison with Apple’s operating system (iOS). I’m not that technically minded so I’m not sure whether Android is any more ‘open’ than iOS. However, I always feel that Android tablets/devices offer a lot more flexibility than Apple ones, particularly in sharing information and getting things on and off the device. So, for example, when I write a note or save a picture on the iPad my first instinct is to be able to access it so I can send it to another device, either my phone or my PC. Yet the options are very limited. The iPad doesn’t have any kind of file system and you cannot transfer files/pictures via bluetooth, so you often end up having to email it to yourself or sending it to a third-party option such as Dropbox. It feels very cumbersome in this day and age to have to resort to that.

Conversely, Android has a wealth of options for getting stuff on and off the device. It has a file system just like on your PC and it’s very easy to move/send your stuff from one place on the device to another. Or to another device. I found this out this week when I was on holiday with my family. My wife had taken some pictures with her phone and we wanted to view them on a tablet. It was much easier to send them across to my Android tablet than it was to my iPad. Given that so much of what we do in class involves the sharing of created content (documents, images, video), it seems that Android wins out over the iPad in this respect.

The Bad....


Apple make incredibly slick and user friendly products and this is one of the key reasons for their success. Give a young child or old person the iPad and it will take them at most a few minutes to work out how to use it, even if they've never picked up a tablet before. This simplicity of use is a godsend in the classroom. Nothing can bring a lesson screeching to a halt faster than confusion about how to use a particular piece of technology or software programme. I've had lessons go belly up because students couldn't work out how to register for a site or find a particular setting (for some reason changing the volume on our computers at school is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma, God knows why it should be so difficult).

Android tablet - and smartphones - have a much steeper learning curve. They tend to use menus a lot more than Apple devices and it can be confusing to find what you are looking for at times. With the added flexibility of Android, you do get an unwelcome layer of complexity that could cause confusion for both the teacher and the students in the classroom and could lead to a lot of time wasted on troubleshooting the problems. And just the whole experience on Apple products is so much smoother. Things just work. You press an icon on the iPad and it does what you expect and it does it immediately. Android tends to be a lot less smooth, you might experience lag when swiping between screens or scrolling though the browser, programmes shut down more often without you wanting them too. For a teacher who may feel uncomfortable with technology, the iPad is probably going to be their choice every time.


This is probably the biggest criticism of the Android platform, the fact that so many of its devices are running on different versions of the Operating System. And often manufacturers add their own 'skin' on top of that OS to give it some differentiation from their competitors. What this means first off is that there can be problems of compability. You may want to download a fantastic app you've found for your students, but it may turn out that it won't run on the version of the OS installed on the students' devices. I'm having this problem with my Android tablet. There just haven't been that many apps designed for this new tablet OS and so a lot of them either don't work with it or don't use the screen space effectively.

Apple on the other hand have a consistent user experience across their devices. If you've used an iPhone or iPod Touch, you will know how to use an iPad. All these devices run the same OS, so the compatability in terms of the apps you download is incredible.

The Ugly...

Apps? What apps?

And this leads us onto the biggest issue with Android tablets: the lack of apps. The iPad has tens of thousands of apps available for it, many of very high quality and many of them directed towards education and learning. Android tablets have very few available that have been optimised for a larger screen. Yes, you can use all the apps available for the Android smartphones, but they don't always scale very well and some of them just outright don't work. I'm not sure exactly what the figures are, but I know the iPad has somewhere in the region of 60000 apps available for it (and those have been designed specifically for that device) while the new Android tablet OS has somewhere in the region of 30-50. That's a big difference, and while that will definitely change in the coming months, the iPad clearly has a headstart in this respect and certainly is far better equipped for the classroom at the moment.

Final thoughts

There's no 'winner' here in terms of which tablet schools or individuals should choose for the classroom. In terms of breadth of software and ease of use, the iPad wins hands down. But Android is going to appeal to those people on a tighter budget, and the ability to share content more easily also makes it very attractive. It will be interesting to see the adoption rate in educational institutions over the next couple of years. The good thing though is that now there is more choice and the choice is going to get bigger every day in terms of finding the device that will work for your school or students.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Snapanda: interesting dictionary/camera app for Android

In my last post I looked at various free dictionaries available for Android, and Snapanda is an interesting addition to the list while adding a fun twist.

The app allows you to use your phone's camera to focus on a word - say on a menu, poster or any other text you have in front of you - and when you touch that word on the screen, it will recognise it and give you the option to look it up in the dictionary.

In the picture you can see I touched the word 'issue'. This took me a few goes admittedly. Sometimes it just recognises a letter or nothing at all and certain fonts or background colours seem to cause it problems, but it does work around 70-80% of the time and given that it's still in beta, that's not bad. The accuracy does also seem connected to how well focussed the camera is on the word and also the stillness of your hand when pressing on the word. My shaky middle-aged fingers might be the cause of some of the problems and maybe those of you with a steadier hand might fare better. 

The actual dictionary section is fairly rudimentary, but at the same time well laid out and easy to read. It's not too technical and they have some decent examples. 

You can also click through to find some expressions/idioms related to the word and there's the option to add the word to a personalised word list. 

As you can see from the screenshots, the developers have gone for a bright and breezy look, not quite sure what about dictionaries screams 'panda' but what the hell, why not try to make dictionaries a little less dull. 

Overall, I think it's a fun app, I would question whether it is actually faster than just typing a word into the dictionary and finding the meaning, but the 'aint this cool?' novelty factor might make English students use it more and learn words when they are on the street, in shops or restaurants.