[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