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Mobile devices in EFL: What do students think?

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What do EFL learners think about working with mobile devices in the classroom? Does it make them more motivated? Do they participate more in class? Does it improve their English? Is there evidence for any affective improvements?

This blog post describes the findings of learner surveys on this, as part of a research project for The International Research Foundation in English Language Education (TIRF).

Health warning

  • The tone of this blog post is a little more academic than usual. This is because it is to be read in tandem with the related TIRF paper on mobile task design and sequencing (due to be published online later this year).
  • I make no claims at all for the generalisability or validity of this data. I have a long list of Caveats at the end of this post. But for me the surveys threw up some interesting –  albeit anecdotal – data about learner perceptions and affective factors in the use of mobile devices. It certainly provided me with some food for thought. It may provide some for you too.

Who were the learners?

The project had students using their mobile devices to carry out communicative language learning tasks (we also used a course book). It was carried out with two consecutive small groups of international EFL learners studying at a private language school in the UK, over a period of two weeks in July 2013.

  • The first group (week 1) were post-beginner level learners (A1+ level) with a total of 12 learners.  The majority were Arabic speakers, with one Chinese speaker, and one Russian speaker.  Half the class were adolescents (16 years old), with adult learners ranging from 20-45 years of age.
  • The second group were of low intermediate level (B1) with a mix of nationalities among the 8 learners (Kuwaiti, Italian, Brazilian, Turkish, Argentinian and Chinese), and ages ranged from 16-27 years old.
  • Each group attended three hours of class with me in the mornings, and another hour and half in the afternoon with another teacher.

What mobile devices did they use?

A BYOD (bring your own device) approach was chosen because the likelihood of most – if not all – learners owning smart phones or tablet computers was very high. This proved to be the case, with all learners in both groups owning smart phones (iOS, Android and Blackberry, with a majority of iPhone owners), and one tablet owner. Private language schools in the UK tend to attract students who can afford these devices, with professional adults attending, and adolescent learners coming from relatively wealthy backgrounds.

The initial class survey

In the first class of the week, both groups completed an online survey designed to check what learning experiences they may already have had using mobile devices, what devices and connectivity they had with them in the UK, and to gauge their attitudes to the idea of working with their devices during the coming week. In terms of attitudes and experience, the results of this initial survey were very similar for both groups:

  • All the learners regularly used bilingual dictionary or translator apps on their mobile phones in class. None of the learners had ever used their mobile phones for any other language related activities.
  • All of the learners in both groups agreed that using mobile devices could help them improve their English, and that they would like to find out more ways to do so both in and out of class. Although the learners had clearly not had any experience of this in the past, this showed that 100% of learners in both groups were positively disposed towards trying out mobile-based learning activities.

The end of week survey

An end of week survey was given only to the intermediate group, on the Friday of week 2. The survey contained questions focusing on the use of mobile devices, including whether they enjoyed using their devices overall, whether they found it useful, and soliciting comments/feedback on individual activities carried out in class.

It was decided not to administer the survey to the post-beginner week 1 group for a number of reasons:

  • Their very low language proficiency meant that beyond yes/no, agree/disagree statements, it was difficult to get more detailed information from them on their experiences with mobile devices.
  • In addition, 8 of the 12 learners left halfway through the morning class on the final Friday in order to attend the local mosque, so time was very limited in this final class.
  • However, I did carry out one-to-one end of week tutorials with each of the beginner learners individually, and they all expressed (in limited language) that they had enjoyed using the devices, using words such as ‘like very much’, ‘new’, ‘different’, ‘interesting’, and expressing a desire to continue using their devices in subsequent weeks.

What did the learners say?

Here’s a downloadable PDF Survey Summary for the intermediate week 2 group. It shows:

  • The majority of the class enjoyed using mobile devices (questions 3,7,8,9,17), and would like to continue to do so in the future (question 11).  The majority also felt that using their mobile devices had improved their English (question 8), and their mobile literacy (see question 9)  by familiarising them with new apps such as Chirp, Audioboo, Woices, and new mobile-related concepts such as QR codes – the latter were new to everyone in both groups.

But probably the most interesting thing this survey shows is:

  • One learner clearly felt that there were few benefits to the mobile tasks, with comments such as ‘useless’ and  ‘it doesn’t work’.  This learner was reluctant to take part in any class communicative activities, either with me or with previous teachers, and preferred very structured written grammar practice activities in class. This is related to personal learning style and preferences, and expectations/beliefs about learning; it is also highlights the need for discussions about the benefits of not only using mobile devices, but of the communicative approach in general, for some learners.

Other survey findings worth highlighting address two typical BYOD teacher concerns:

  • Question 13 explored the learners’ perceptions of an issue that often worries teachers: that in a BYOD approach, teachers need to understand how every mobile device in the room works, and need to be able to provide technical support for learners. Question 14 explores another concern: that a BYOD approach can only work if everyone has the same devices. The learners’ responses do seem to give some credence to both concerns. The majority of learners (6 out of 7) felt that the teacher should be familiar with the technology. On the issue of everyone needing the same device, the class was split, with a slight majority (4 out of 7) feeling that this was not that necessary.

Caveats: What are the limitations?

The questions posed at the beginning of this blog post are clearly large questions for a very small study. So here are the caveats:

  • The timeframe for this study was very limited: one week with each group was not long enough to get the learners accustomed to using their devices, or to explore a wider range of mobile-based tasks. A longer timeframe – for example across a term, or even an entire school year – would make a more robust study.
  • The scope of this study was limited: only two small groups of learners at fairly low levels of proficiency, were involved. A greater number of students with a range of levels of proficiency would make a more robust study.
  • The study context of the study was limited: a multilingual group of relatively wealthy students in an immersion context (UK). Studies carried out in a number of monolingual contexts would be interesting for the purposes of comparison.
  • The educational context of the study was limited: I was a single teacher trying out an ad hoc BYOD approach. Working as part of a team of teachers within an institution-wide implementation plan would ensure students could continue using their devices after I left, hopefully in a pedagogically sound manner.
  • Not all students had 3G connections, or access to Wi-Fi at home, so mobile-based tasks that required connectivity had to be limited to the school and grounds. This meant that potentially interesting mobile-based out of class activities (e.g. using geo-location) could not be explored.
  • Whether our week with mobile devices really improved the learners’ English is simply not possible to prove. Even with more time at our disposal, so many factors are involved in second language acquisition, that such a generalised question is problematic. But the learners perceived that their English had improved, and this is a positive affective outcome.

What’s the conclusion?

Is there evidence for any affective improvements from the use of mobile devices?

  • The responses to the end of week survey by the intermediate week 2 group (apart from the one learner already mentioned) do seem to bear this out, with increased motivation and class participation noticeable during several of the mobile tasks.
  • Increased motivation and participation were equally true of the post-beginner week 1 group where wholesale enthusiasm was noticeable, especially with the QR code tasks described here and here.
  • The reluctant learner who gave consistently negative written feedback is important. Resistance or rejection of learning with mobile devices points to a need for careful planning and a far more staged approach with some learners. Starting on more familiar ground (e.g. with behaviourist language apps for homework), plus learner training and discussion might be more effective with some groups, rather than the  ‘deep end’ approach taken in this project.

But these conclusions can only be applied to these learners, in this context. How about running your own classroom research project to find out what your learners think?

Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts. Do your own experiences with mobile devices reflect my findings, for example?

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
August 2013

Blog posts for my TIRF Research Project:


10 Comments

  1. […] What do EFL learners think about working with mobile devices in the classroom? Does it make them more motivated? Do they participate more in class? Does it  […]

  2. Cordial Greetings Nicky,

    The BYOD approach is fine and means that the teacher must adapt the class activities / assignments to the features available on the learners’ devices.

    My question is, what features and apps on smart phones / tablets / cellular phone devices are actually used during the course? Is there a listing of desired features / apps as a “wish list” as to what we as teachers would like learners to have? Are there any minimum requirements (more or less)? Note: I even had to upgrade MY phone in order to be able to expand the range of activities, etc., available for this class project!

    True, when teaching a postgraduate course group the learners tend to have much more upscale devices. Whereas in many of my undergrad groups, the range of devices tends to be rather broad at first, with a few basic cellular phones, a few near top-tier smart phones, and the majority with a medium-level cellular phone – or very limited knowledge in use of the most advanced features – until my class that is!

    Speaking of teacher knowledge of technology, I’m planning to do a survey of teacher cell phones / devices in my department to see just where the teachers are technologically. This ought tot be really interesting too.

    I’m finding that I need to do a lot of adapting with lessons, activities and assignments. If virtually all your class have up-to-date, advanced level technology, BRAVO! Methinks though, this will not be the norm for most of us. So I’m interested in your response to my question posed above.

    Keep up the good work, Nicky. My regards to Gavin Dudeney; one of my former lecturers back at OHC in 2003.

    Cordially,

    Prof. Larry M. Lynch
    Santiago de Cali University
    Cali, COLOMBIA
    Larry M. Lynch recently posted..How Technology Improves Student Learning and Sends More Kids to Graduate SchoolMy Profile

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for your comments, Larry.

      I agree that in most contexts all students having smart phones is unlikely – but the trick, as you say, is to tailor your activities to what the students have available in a BYOD approach. So if your students only have very basic feature phones, you can carry out activities that focus on students creating (very short) text, taking photos, and creating audio and video recordings. Even with very low end phones, there is quite a lot you can do to encourage students to *produce* language. Personally I’m much more interested in students using devices as part of classroom activities that produce language, rather than for activities to consume (read, listen to, watch) language.

      Obviously for low end devices, there is no question of apps at all – but students can use the built-in features of the phone (especially taking photos, and producing audio and video). If you’re working with BYOD, I don’t think minimum requirements comes into it – you need to work with the technology that students have, and if that means low end mobile devices fine – you need to adapt your activities so that they will work with these devices.

      In terms of a wish list for smart phone apps, again this is very much going to depend on what you have in the room. If you have a range of OS (e.g. iPhone, Blackberry, Windows phones and/or Android), then best to go for cross-platform apps where possible. The apps you need will very much depend on the activities you want to carry out. But there is probably a basic number you would want – so if you’re going to ensure that you use all the performances and features of a smart phone, you’d want generic apps that allow for notetaking (text), photo editing (working with images), audio recording and editing, and video recording – and possibly editing. All this depends on what you want the students to do to support the production of language though, and this should be the driver, I think. The apps that I used in my project were: students’ notetaking apps on their phones, a QR code reader app, a geo-location audio recording app (Woices), and then apps to share work on the spot such as Chirp (iOS only), or What’s app (cross-platform), or cloud storage apps such as Dropbox. I found that the best way to choose apps was
      a) to look at the constraints of the coursebook syllabus, and
      b) from that create the activities I wanted to do to help students produce language in class, while
      c) considering the device constraints
      In other words, the starting point was language, followed by activity type informed by device constraints, and then a consideration of what app might best fit the bill.

      Does this make sense? By the way, the TIRF research paper I refer to at the beginning of this blog post looks in detail at mobile-based activity design, and also the parameters involved in this (clearly device constraints are one). I’ll blog a summary of the paper once it’s publicly available online.

      I’d be very interested to hear about your teacher study, by the way!

      Nicky

  3. […] See on Scoop.it – E-Learning and TechnologyWhat do EFL learners think about working with mobile devices in the classroom? Does it make them more motivated? Do they participate more in class? Does itSee on http://www.emoderationskills.com […]

  4. Tom Walton says:

    Interesting, Nicky!

    Can you give us a few more details on what the activities were? I assume that they included those described in your previous two posts, right? Others…?
    Tom Walton recently posted..Why I love EdmodoMy Profile

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Tom. In terms of the activities themselves, the TIRF paper to be published in a few months goes into detail about design and sequencing rationale, but very briefly, I tried to have students using their devices to produce language once or twice in their daily three-hour lesson. The activities needed to fit with the coursebook syllabus and aims, and also I tried to use a range of the device affordances (text, photos, audio, video). Here’s a summary of the activity types. Some of these are appearing in the book Gavin Dudeney and I are writing on mobile and handheld learning, due to be published in 2014, so this was also an opportunity for me to trial some of these.

      – Letter dictations
      – Sharing and discussing personal photos
      Both of these activities are shown in the video of the session I gave at IATEFL Liverpool (http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013/sessions/2013-04-11/moving-times-mobile-literacy-elt). See this presentation also for a rationale of sequencing mobile activities according to Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model.

      – Collecting vocab photos (e.g. the ‘water’ activity described here http://www.emoderationskills.com/?p=1177, and I also got the beginner group taking photos of signs around the school and grounds, which we then used to review negative imperatives (Don’t…)

      – Audio recording pairwork speaking activities (I did this with the intermediate group, and it was essentially a course book task, which students recorded in pairs and then analysed for homework)

      – Two QR code tasks carried out on different days, sequenced in terms of complexity (described in two earlier blog posts) . Essentially these were integrated skills tasks, especially the more complex ‘treasure hunt’ one (complex in terms of linguistic challenge, but also more complex in terms of giving instructions, and having students moving around the school in different groups!).

      Getting the students to use their mobiles out of class was limited to their taking photos or recording audio to bring back to class. The one geo-location activity we carried out using an app called Woices (students had to choose a place in Cambridge, research it, and then produce a short audio recording with info) had to be carried out in the school, because they didn’t have 3G connections.

      Overall, as I only had a week, we moved on to the more complex QR code treasure hunt activity, and the geo-location Woices audio recording activity right at the end of the week. More time with the students (see the Caveats above) would have meant being able to do more challenging mobile-based activities both in and outside of class. These need to be slowly introduced over time – I wouldn’t advise anybody to start off with a complex geo-location activity the first time they or students ever use mobile devices in the classroom.

      But as a general point, you can see that the activities are standard classroom communicative activities (discussion, brainstorming vocabulary, writing, listening etc) – and the devices are integrated into these. The one activity we could position at the top of the SAMR model is one based on geo-location – although ideally that could be done out of class in situ, when students have the necessary 3G connections for this. Of course device connectivity (and the devices themselves) are one of the constraints one needs work around with BYOD.

      Hope this helps!

  5. […] Nicky Hockly's quick-and-dirty survey of attitudes to BYOD reveals"the majority of the class enjoyed using mobile devices (questions 3,7,8,9,17), and would like to continue to do so in the future (question 11). The majority also felt that using their mobile devices had improved their English (question 8), and their mobile literacy (see question 9) by familiarising them with new apps such as Chirp, Audioboo, Woices, and new mobile-related concepts such as QR codes – the latter were new to everyone in both groups." One student hated the whole idea.  […]

  6. Leslie Simonfalvi says:

    Hello Nicky — I love your sense of humour — I have just watched your IATEFL Cardiff video — since I follow the Person-Centered Approach, my classes are very different from the lessons you describe above — not better or worse, just very different — I try to understand one key question related to this topic: why do you and your students need mobile devices in the classroom during their lessons? — to be able to get a better picture, I am going to raise some more questions if you don’t mind — how can you keep your lesson monoligual, i. e. 100 % English, if your students can ask for and get translations into their mother-tongue? — don’t you want to keep it monolingual? — do you know about the quality of these translations? — my direct experiences suggest that many of them are near-rubbish — can’t the teacher explain everything she has taken into the lesson? — can’t the students understand everything the teacher explains? — will the mobile devices replace the teacher’s explanations and ‘help’ the students comprehension at the same time? — do the mobile devices help the person-to-person group dynamics? — why don’t the students use their mobile devices at all outside the classroom? — nobody has taught them how to and what for? — I’m a gadgetophile myself and please do not read my lines as a sort of criticism — I simply try to understand the world you have described and through that my own — best wishes — Leslie Simonfalvi, director, International Teacher Training & Development College

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Hi Leslie, thanks for dropping by, and for your thought-provoking questions. I’m going to try to answer them by theme:

      1. Use of translation apps:
      You asked: “how can you keep your lesson monoligual, i. e. 100 % English, if your students can ask for and get translations into their mother-tongue? — don’t you want to keep it monolingual? — do you know about the quality of these translations? — my direct experiences suggest that many of them are near-rubbish — can’t the teacher explain everything she has taken into the lesson? — can’t the students understand everything the teacher explains? — will the mobile devices replace the teacher’s explanations and ‘help’ the students comprehension at the same time?”

      Current thinking is overall in favour of a limited role of L1 in the classroom – rather than repeating the arguments here though, I’d suggest you take a look at Scott Thornbury’s excellent post on the topic: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/t-is-for-translation/

      Personally, I think a certain amount of translation at *low levels* is inevitable – one simply can’t learn a new language in a vacuum, and low-level students will peg it to a language they already know (often the L1, or a strong L2). So I certainly don’t have a problem with using *some* translation judiciously. In the beginner class I described in this blog post, the students were using their devices to translate specific words at times, not everything all the time. The translations are pretty accurate when you’re using a good bilingual dictionary. The great advantage of using translation apps (as opposed to a paper dictionary) is that students were checking pronunciation at the same time by playing the word out loud and repeating, I noticed. Some would then try and use the word that looked up in subsequent output. This seemed a pretty good language learning strategy to me.

      2. Group dynamics:
      You also asked: “do the mobile devices help the person-to-person group dynamics?”
      In some activities, this was definitely the case, such as comparing personal photos on their phones, collecting vocab to share, and the QR activities in pairs. But this has nothing to do with the devices themselves. Rather it is the design of the task that will encourage (or not) pairwork or group work.

      3. Mobile use out of class:
      You also asked: “why don’t the students use their mobile devices at all outside the classroom? — nobody has taught them how to and what for?”
      I was surprised to find that students only used the translation apps on their mobile phones, and seem to have never been taught to explore other options to support their language learning out of class (e.g. self study apps such as vocabulary flashcards, or reading e-books, or downloading podcasts, etc). There is clearly a role for us as English teachers to support students in this, and to make them aware of the options.

      Thanks again for your interesting questions, and hope this helps clarify!
      Nicky

  7. […] What do EFL learners think about working with mobile devices in the classroom? Does it make them more motivated? Do they participate more in class? Does it  […]

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