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Mobile learning #1: The big picture

[Or: What is it and what’s it got to do with me?]

iphone1 The big picture

The sale and use of mobile handheld devices has soared over the last few years. The 2010 Horizon Report predicts that mobile technology will be mainstream by the end of this year. And not just in developed countries where access to technology is relatively ubiquitous. This Guardian Weekly article, for example, reports on the massive rise of mobile phone use in Africa.

2 The language learning picture

The implications for education in general, and language learning in particular, are enormous. Increased connectivity via Internet enabled mobile devices means access to learning content cheaply and easily. Even the simplest mobile devices such as low-end mobile phones (which are not necessarily Internet enabled) allow access to learning content via SMS, as the BBC Janala project in Bangladesh shows. In China, the mobile provider Mobiledu has teamed up with partners such as Pearson Education, and the British Council, to deliver English-language content preloaded onto mobile handsets, or accessed online. Publishers are starting to produce apps (applications, or programs) which you can download onto your iPhone or Android phone. Schools and universities have been experimenting with handheld devices both inside and outside the classroom — for details on some of these projects, see here.

Times they are a-changing. And they are changing fast. All of this can leave the average teacher feeling a little overwhelmed.

3 The mobile devices picture

Mobile learning does not mean learning by mobile phone alone. I find that many teachers equate the words ‘mobile learning’ with ‘mobile phone’ — perhaps this happens less in other parts of the world where they are far more sensibly called cell phones! But in general, there is a misconception that mobile learning means SMS. It doesn’t. Or rather, use of SMS is one small brush stroke in the overall mobile learning picture.


Can you match the words to the pictures above? (The slide is from  my recent conference talk on mobile learning at IATEFL Harrogate). Learning can take place via a number of handheld, or mobile, devices: Smartphones (picture 5), tablet PCs (picture 4), netbooks (picture 3), e-readers (picture 2), and MP4 players (picture 1). And let’s not forget digital cameras, gaming consoles, and standard mobile phones! All of these devices can be used in informal, ‘on the go’ learning, and also in more formal learning situations. Let’s look at both scenarios.

4 The independent (language) learner picture

Many language learners already use their mobile devices to help them learn. I know several of them, and I am one of them myself. Here is a slide from my recent IATEFL talk called Teaching the Mobile Generation; the slide summarises a number of ways in which people are using mobile devices to help their informal, out of class language learning:


Going clockwise from the top of the slide:

  • A teaching colleague in the UK is starting to learn Hindi and Farsi on his iTouch. He uses flashcard apps to help him memorise vocabulary, on his way to work on the London underground.
  • I am currently studying French. We use no authentic audio or video materials in the classes, so I subscribe to video podcasts from a number of French TV stations, and watch the news every night on my iPhone on the sofa, at a time that suits me.
  • A British teaching colleague who recently moved to Japan uses a Japanese/English dictionary on his iPhone to check any new words he comes across while walking around Tokyo.
  • A UK colleague’s son recently met an Austrian girl last summer, and continues the relationship mainly via SMS. His German has improved remarkably :-)
  • We had a participant from the Maldives, who completed one of our online training courses in Moodle, completely from his Nokia phone. And this was back in 2005!!
  • A friend here in Spain who is learning English listens to grammar podcasts in his iPod while training for marathons. He is especially fond of the BBC’s Grammar Challenge podcasts, he says.

5 The in-class learner picture

Learning with mobile devices does not necessarily happen only outside the classroom. Watch this inspiring video about the use of iTouches  with a class of 32 8-year-olds.

The use of iTouches  as a research tool is seamlessly integrated into the curriculum in this project. The kids hardly seem aware of the technology, and instantly recognise its use as a research tool and learning aid. The technology has, in the words of Stephen Bax, become completely ‘normalised’ in this classroom.

6  Some stuff to look at/read:

  • The slides above come from my recent IATEFL 2010 Conference talk on mobile learning. Full PowerPoint at IATEFL online.
  • IATEFL online interview about mobile learning with me
  • IATEFL online interview about mobile (or handheld) learning with Andy Newton
  • David Read’s blog Mobile ESL about the ongoing mobile learning experiment he is carrying out with language students at a UK university

My next blog posts on mobile learning will look at applying mobile learning to f2f teaching, mobile learning and e-learning,  and current apps for language learning.

There are of course many ways to use mobile devices in both independent and in-class language learning — please feel free to add any uses you have for your mobile devices, to the comments section!

Related posts:

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E

August 2010


  1. Richard says:

    Hi Nicky,

    This is a really interesting post. I definitely find it overwhelming how fast technology is progressing and that’s one reason why I started to read blogs, use twitter and have a go at online learning. However, you mention that it’s overwhelming to the ‘average’ teacher. Well, (though it’s difficult to identify an ‘average’ teacher) I’d say from my experience that the average teacher doesn’t use twitter, or read blogs and therefore has little or no idea of the world of mobile learning at all.

    That’s what I know from the teachers at my school, which I would say is an ‘average’ school! Just a thought I wanted to share.


  2. Adam says:

    I very much enjoyed your presentation at IATEFL. Thanks for giving me some more links to explore.

  3. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for your comments, Adam and Richard.

    Richard -first of all apologies for not approving your post until today, it had ended up with the spam posts for some reason [puzzled look]. I think you’re right that many teachers are completely unaware of the digital world out there. But having been in tech training for teachers for the past 10 years, there has been a definite surge of interest in all things tech related in our profession in the last 2 years or so. This year, the 2010 IATEFL conference presentations to do with technology were all standing room only. Just a few years ago, it was only the (few) converted who would attend tech talks….

    My feeling with mobile is that an increasing number of teachers are using mobile devices in their personal lives (as are our students) and it may well turn out that mobile reaches the parts that other technologies (such as IWBs) don’t… We shall see!


    1. Gulshan Samadova says:

      I also agree that your presentation at Harrogate was really good and an eye opening as one of the participants admitted. I also took part in Harrogate IATEFL . Unfortunately I didn’t meet you there personally, Nicky, but I read your articles in VOICES and appreciate the huge work you’re doing!
      P.S. If you are interested you can watch my interview at Harrogate online.

      1. Nicky Hockly says:

        Thanks for your kind words Gulshan, and I very much enjoyed your interview!

  4. Veselin Chantov says:

    I find using technology in the classroom or the seminar room at university fascinating. One thing bothers me, though, and that is how affordable such technology can be to the ‘average’ teacher. Smartphones, tablet PCs, netbooks, e-readers, and MP4 players as mentioned above are still something very expensive in Bulgaria, unless a school hopes to receive some kind of donation from a charity.
    Coming from a poor country, i can’t see any of the mobile operators (we have three) agreeing to let Pearson or British council take the initiative that was started in Bangladesh. The rat race is taking over and unfortunately this is the reason why brilliant ideas (like m-learning for instance) never catch on in countries like mine.
    Hopefully I will be able to disseminate the good practices I am going to learn about here. At least talking about it is a good start.

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Hi Veselin, and thank you for your thoughtful posting.

      There have been a number of interesting initiatives in mobile/handheld learning in developing countries – you mention the Janala project, but there are also projects such as:

      – SEMA in Kenya (a teacher training project report here http://oro.open.ac.uk/17800/1/2007_Power_Sankale.pdf).

      – The MILLEE project in India ( http://www.millee.org/), which works with ´cellphone applications that enable children in the developing world to acquire language literacy in immersive, game-like environments´.

      I guess the point of this is that one handheld device that is relatively ubiquitous in developing countries is that of the (usually low end) mobile phone, and that there are ways that teachers can use these with students.

      Hope this helps, Nicky

  5. Abdul Khadar says:

    Hi Nicky

    Thank you very much for this interesting investigation ,an eye opener indeed!You have worked out well to awaken us to the reality that Mobile devices have a tremendous role in todays teaching and learning scenario.We do still have colleagues who are rather hesitant to adapt to technology but ,as you said,the recent surge gives us a lot of hope.Looking forward to reading your next post.

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thank you Abdul, and I’m glad you found this post useful. It’s a part of a series of 10 posts on mobile/handheld learning, so feel free to explore!

      I agree that teachers are often hesitant about using technology, but this is often due to the lack of training, I feel. Most of us received little or no training in using technology. It’s up to schools to now provide this to their teachers, I think. With the massive range of resources freely available on the Internet, this is now not that difficult to do :-)

  6. It’s interesting to learn that M-learning refers to using hand held devices for learning. I was under the misconception that M-learning refers to mobile learning alone.
    I too feel that the concept of M-learning would become a very popular among teachers soon. They would motivate students to use the tools more effectively for learning purposes than merely share SMS,MMS with others or download songs and videos.

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for your comment, Revathi, and this is indeed a common misconception (that mobile learning = learning with mobile phones only). There are many more things that teachers can do with mobile devices (including mobile phones), and this is something that we will be exploring in our online Seeta course (www.seeta.eu).

      [I’m adding the address for the course for later readers of this blog, as the course will continue to be open and freely available for people to consult long after the official finish date of 29 Jan 2011]

  7. Very interesting introduction to m-learning, Nicky… I’m looking forward to the rest of the m-learning course (starting today!). Here in Brazil, there are 203 million mobile phones, for 193 million total population. When you consider that most teens in private schools and MANY in state schools already have phones, this is a great way for a teacher to motivate Ss to use their ‘favourite toys’ to practice English and indeed learn new content.


    Graeme Hodgson
    Director English Language
    British Council Brazil

  8. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for your comment, Graeme, interesting to read about mobile phone penetration in Brazil. South Africa is another developing country where levels of mobile penetration are similarly high. and this is of course the great potential of learning specifically with mobile phones in so-called low resource contexts (see the projects I mention in my response to Veselin above).

    I notice that the British Council as an organisation is leading the way in mobile learning in EFL at the moment– I mention this here, because although you´ll know about this, some of the readers of this blog may not.

    Well worth checking out the BC´s mobile resources page, and the free apps that they have produced for English language learning:

  9. Gulshan Samadova says:

    Hi, Nicky! It is very handy to use m.learning and it depends on teacher’s creativity. At school we are forbiddedn to use mobiles. But at the university I sometimes use my mobile during group activities. While my students are doing an activity I switch on some music(of course not a loud one) After they do the activity I ask them to describe their feelings sbout the melody they listened to. Or I ask them to write me messages when they have to miss a lesson or send me the written task by email (to confirm)or have a question. This improves their english and they feel more confident after all. I think in the era of mobile phones we have to make use of themfor teaching and learning.

  10. Nicky Hockly says:

    Hi Gulshan, thanks for sharing some of the things that you do with mobiles in your own context. It seems to be the norm that mobile phones are banned in many schools. I attended a webinar in which the principal of the school talked about this, and how they decided to implement a principled use of mobile devices instead of trying to fight the inevitable with students bringing mobile phones into class. A quick overview of the situation and a link to the original webinar is in a separate mLearning post in this blog:http://www.emoderationskills.com/?p=181

    Teachers, school administrators and parents will need to be brought into any decisions to include mobile devices (especially mobile phones) into a school, and teachers generally need training in how to use them most effectively.

  11. Abdul Raof says:

    Using mobiles in learning is a dbouple-edged weapon. I agree that any chnage in the learning process could attract students for further learning, especially when the changes comes to things they admire. However, there must be a great role for the teacher to control using this tool. It can help students talk English, write messeges or even listen to English words by listening to oral messages and talks by others. However, this may sometimes be used to interupt the class atmosphere when there is a mobile ring. Students could use the mobile in other things not related to the subject. To make MLearning active, teachers should work with students freely and to be very close with his students.

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for your comments, Abdul. I agree that an effective use of mobile devices in the classroom is also going to be a matter of classroom management, and the task type that the teacher uses. If students are on task with their mobile devices with a specific outcome defined, then they are more likely use the devices for the task at hand. This is especially effective if teachers say things like, ´Okay, now use your mobile devices to do X – you have 10 mins´. Devices are then put away/switched off when that task is achieved.

  12. Dear Gulshan khanoum,
    I watched your interview at IATEFL.I really liked it.I am proud of you!
    I’d love to viit IATEFL next year!

  13. Penny Humm says:

    Thanks for the course, Nicky. I have had a couple of instances in class during the past week, where students have demonstrated their eagerness for mLearning. Once, I found 2 students using a mobile phone as an object in a practical lesson where they were trying to use a lens to make an image of the phone screen. The consequent discussion about phones and other mobile devices has had knock-on effects I’d not dreamed of.

    Firstly, I am now “Mrs Cool!” for not banning phones in the classroom and asking my students how they would like to use them. Secondly, a student asked me if I could write an app for their iphones to help them with their revision! I’m a long way off having those skills as yet, but my students have every confidence that I can gain them and soon!

    I write a blog about my teaching, if anyone is interested. It can be found at


  14. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for your comments, Penny (or should I say Ms Cool :-)). The students requesting an app for revision made me smile – but if any of them have android phones, you can probably find one especially tech-savvy student who could use the free android app inventor and come up with an app him or herself!
    Thanks also for the heads up on your blog, I’ve added it to my RSS feed.

  15. Ann Foreman says:

    Hi Nicky,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.



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