By Xiaoyi Zhang
Over the past 20 years, digital technology has played an increasingly important role in education and training, especially in the process of studying a second or foreign language. From the beginning of e-learning (the use of electronic educational technology in learning and teaching) at around 1997, educational technology has evolved a lot. Today, it is universally recognized that a mobile device could be one of the tools for language learning. As an emerging and fast-growing way to study language, mobile assisted language learning (or MALL) is being discussed and used more thanks to its own irreplaceable features such as portability, immediacy, interactivity, and individuality.
Compared with e-learning, mobile learning is less restrictive due to its portability. E-learning has limited mobility (access is via a desktop computer), whereas small mobile devices allow mobile learning to be done almost anywhere. Certain mobile devices may allow users to access additional tools or content, while desktop devices may allow you to perform different types of actions. Here, Heidi Larson, project director at Education Development Center in Boston, explains mobile learning’s features by taking the example of EcoMOBILE program, in which students explore pond ecosystems through mobile devices.
Another aspect unique to mobile learning is that many of these devices are touch-based. By touching the language information, this kind of personal and interactive experience may raise the users’ interest. When the user is interested, or needs to understand or learn from the content of a mobile device, it creates a more personal learning environment and new ways of interacting with the information.
To better support the promotion and application of mobile learning, instructional designers and App builders have to deal with problems from all aspects. One of the original concerns in mobile delivery was screen size and resolution. First generation iPhones consisted of 480 x 320 pixels and a 3.5 inch screen. Previous generations of devices from Palm, Handspring, Compaq, and Dell handhelds had smaller resolutions and fell short in processing compared to recent developments. While today’s devices have doubled in resolution, and devices range up to 13 inches in screen size and fit into the mobile category.
According to data provided by mobile network analysis firm GSMA Intelligence and the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of active mobile devices surpassed the number of people worldwide for the first time, reaching 7.22 billion in October 2014. With the increase in the number, the types of mobile platforms are also growing. At present, we have two primary platforms (iOS and Android) in the forefront and several others competing for space (Blackberry, Microsoft, and HP). The earlier devices mentioned above also lacked full support for browsers and Adobe Flash, which is supported on Android, HP, and Blackberry devices. Since Apple does not allow support for Flash, that has helped push HTML5 forward and caused Adobe to rapidly improve the performance of Flash for mobile devices.
These concerns lead to the changing role mobile devices are playing in language teaching and learning, and other developing trends in MALL. Here is an infographic from Origin Learning, a learning solutions, services and products company for corporates, publishers and educational institutions. The graphic provides some insights into mobile learning trends.
“If you think of a face-to-face classroom with a teacher who has some teaching assistance, then the technology can become part of that teaching assistance system,” said John McCormick, director of eLearning Design at Lesley University. “That’s really I think where it’s going now, hopefully.”
Professor McCormick talks about how to collect feedback for online courses.
In view of these development trends, here are some suggestions from Norka Padilla, instructional specialist at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, to app developers on how to design engaging, student-centered, and personalized learning apps for language learners:
- Simple and intuitive interface: The usability should be simple and consistent to enable learners to quickly and easily learn how to use the interface.
- Short segments and multi-media: Taking advantage of multi-media formats such as video, audio and interactive graphics. Greater use of multi-media, less text-based content and small enough chunks perform better because most mobile devices have small screens and most mobile learners are busy.
- Engaging and entertaining activities: Integrating interactive activities that are designed to match the needs of the learner into courses, and thus making full use of the advantages of mobile devices.
- Contextualized learning and just-in-time delivery: Always providing users the oppotunity to practice a language in context and delivering just-in-time information for the learner’s immediate priorities to improve efficiency.
Nowadays, hundreds of language learning applications are available in iTunes Store and Google Play, whether free or not. They assist users with vocabulary, context and grammar through online lessons, educational games, quizzes and progress tracking tools. Several good language learning apps based on worldwide popularity are as follows:
- Babbel: Most of Babbel’s language packs feature 3,000 vocabulary words. The vocabulary is divided into categories, so if you need to learn words related to the body or just common communication phrases, you can get right to them. Babbel is ideal for anyone that wants to learn a new language in a fun and exciting way. Sitting down in a classroom isn’t for everyone and this might be just what you need to pick up that new language.
- Duolingo: Duolingo is an online language learning application that provides free tools to all users. The application currently offers courses in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese. The site is somewhat limited right now as far as which languages are offered, but that is to be expected. The incubator lets users see what’s coming soon and provides a way to make requests or share their personal knowledge with the community.
- Rosetta Stone: Rosetta Stone provides its users with access to Spanish, Italian, German, French, English, and 19 other languages at anytime and anywhere. It helps language learners to learn a foreign language without using their native languages, but only with words and pictures in the target language, and thus build language skills quickly and effectively. One of the benefits of this method is that the learned vocabulary and grammar can be easily used in conversation.
Mengxu Wu, an international student from China, who has used Duolingo to practice English, said it’s a good application for language learning: “Duolingo helps me learn English in a fun and helpful way. It’s easy to use Duolingo to build vocabulary as well as memorize new knowledge.”
Though mobile learning industry is booming, and mobile technology is being adopted by more and more language learners and language programs, for most educators, MALL still works as supplementary to class.
“Technology serves a classroom, but not replace it,” said Siri Karm singh khalsa, president of Boston Language Institute. “I think distance learning and modern technology can make language learning a lot easier, but they don’t replace a teacher.”