Special interest column: Technology

by Shaun Wilden

M-Learning is still very much in its infancy but as mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets get ever cheaper it is becoming a more and more viable option for use in and out of the classroom.  While many schools still actively discourage the use of phones in the classroom, the time is perhaps coming to reevaluate why and look at the benefits that using such a powerful tool can have on learning.  This new Journal column aims to help point you in the direction of some useful apps that you can use with your students and suggest easy activities for them to do. To get you started, we’ll begin this issue by looking at some tools that can be accessed both by a computer and with an app.

Even if you and your students don’t have the latest technology, a mobile phone can be a useful tool for language teaching.  Most phones have the ability to take a photo or record audio and with these two tricks alone you have a wealth of possible activities.  How about setting a piece of homework that is simply to take a photo of something and then in the next lesson students show the picture they have taken on the phone and describe what they took and why they took it.

If you do have access to the world of apps then phones or tablets can do so much more.  In the last issue I wrote about the new IH World CPD scheme and mentioned using a blog as a means of keeping a journal. My favourite blogging site is posterous because it is so easy to set up and use. It takes about five minutes to set up and it is easy to limit who has access to the space.

You can post from the web, by email or via the very simple app that is available for both Apple and Android phones.   Such a variety of options for posting means that if you want to get blogging with students you have a greater chance of being able to get everyone involved.  If the class creates its own blog and can post on it then you can extend your classwork away from more traditional homework activities.  Instead of writing in their notebooks, the students can submit a post and all the class can read and comment on it.  When they take the photograph for homework, they use the app or email to send it to the blog so it can be shared again for all to see and commented on.  Adding this mobile use makes things such as homework more motivating and less likely for the students to forget.

If you want a simple task to get started, then ask your students to use their mobile phones to take pictures of any English words they see over a weekend (you’d be surprised how many shops in any city choose English names) then send them to the blog.  This “in English in my town” exercise keeps them thinking about the language all weekend and as a bonus gives you your first activity for Monday morning as you go over the words. Since even beginners are likely to recognise English words, this task works at all levels.

Blogging, be it via an m-device or a computer, is one way to set up a virtual classroom thereby providing a natural extension to what you are doing in your lessons.  For those of you that feel limited by blogs, a virtual space such as Edmodo might be better for you.

Edmodo is rapidly gaining popularity with educators. It describes itself as a ‘secure social networking site for teachers’. You can sign up for free and the site allows you ‘to post messages, discuss classroom topics, assign and grade classwork, share content and materials, and network and exchange ideas’.  In September 2012, it launched access via app (Apple and Android).

At the beginning of the article I talked about using the phone to record. Smart phones can use an app called audioBoo.  As with everything mentioned so far it can be used on Apple, Android or the web.  In a nutshell, it is an app that allows you to record up to 30 minutes of audio and share it with other people.  Since it is aiming at those who like social networking, it can be easily embedded into anything from Facebook to Posterous.

Reiterating the idea of extending the classroom, an app such as this allows us to set both speaking and listening for homework.  Instead of going home and writing, the students can go home and record.  Think how many coursebooks ask students to speak about a topic or picture and think of how many you could now set for homework using an app like audioBoo.  If you teach exam classes an app like this means that the students can do picture description tasks at home then share them with you so you can give them individual feedback. Alternatively they can all share their opinions on a topic raised during a lesson or even (given the 30-minute length of the recording) make a class podcast. One activity I enjoy is recording unusual sounds and then getting the students to try and guess what or where it was recorded. This could be used after reviewing modal verbs as it creates an excellent practice activity and is another way to use audioBoo for oral controlled practice activities.

All three of these tools allow you to extend the classroom tasks. By making use of the device students carry all the time, we can encourage more personalisation and creative use of the language.  I think anything that does that is worth trying, at least once.

Author’s Bio: Shaun has been involved in English language teaching for over twenty years. He is currently the International House World Organisation Teacher Training Coordinator. He also maintains several online teaching sites including ihonlinetraining.net and is interested in the application of technology to teaching. He is a moderator of the twitter #eltchat group which meets every Wednesday to discuss issues and ideas in ELT and membership secretary of the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG. Feel free to follow him @shaunwilden or read his blog (shaunwilden.com). When not sitting at a computer, Shaun enjoys growing food in his garden and then cooking it.