Asking the big questions around online learning

ICDE World Conference on Online Learning
Toronto, Canada
16-19 October 2017

New City Hall, Toronto, Canada

New City Hall, Toronto, Canada. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, focusing on the theme of “Teaching in a Digital Age – Re-thinking Teaching and Learning”, took place over four days in October, 2017. Like at other recent large technology conferences, it was interesting to see increasing recognition of the broader sociopolitical and sociocultural questions in which online learning is embedded, as reflected in many of the presentations. Papers were presented for the most part in groups of three or four under overarching strands. Short presentation times somewhat restricted the content that speakers were able to cover, but each set of papers was followed by audience discussion where key points could be elaborated on.

In his plenary presentation, edu@2035: Big shifts are coming, Richard Katz referred to Marshall McLuhan’s comment that “we march backwards into the future“, meaning that it is very difficult for us to predict the future without using the past as a framework. He went on to speak of Thomas Friedman’s framework for the future involving six core strategies – analyze, optimize, prophesize, customize, digitize and automize – in which, Katz suggested, all companies as well as all educational institutions need to be engaged. He suggested we may need to consider wild scenarios: could admission to colleges in the future be based not on performance tests but on genotyping? The gap between technology advancement and socialisation of technologies is widening, he stated.

As we look to the future, we have some choices in post-secondary education: avoid the topic; paralysis by analysis; choose mindful incrementalism; or invent a new future. To do the last of these, we need to take at least part of our attention off the rear view mirror. We need to construct scenarios, develop models, identify risks, and extract themes, and to present these ideas in short video formats that will be engaged with by today’s audiences. In short, we need to iterate, communicate and engage.

He mentioned William Gibson’s comment that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“, and a comment from Barry Chudakov (Sertain Research) that “algorithms are the new arbiters of human decision-making“. Evidence that the future is now can be found in various areas, from chatbots to the explosion of investment in cognitive systems and artificial intelligence (AI). Drawing on Pew Internet research, he suggested algorithms will continue to proliferate, with good things lying ahead. However, humanity and human judgement are lost when data and predictive modelling become paramount. Biases exist in algorithmically organised systems, and algorithmic categorisations deepen divides. Unemployment will rise. And the need is growing for algorithmic literacy, transparency and oversight.

He asked whether, by 2035, we can use new technologies and algorithms to personalise instruction in ways that both lower costs and foster engagement, persistence, retention and successful learning, possibly on a global scale? He concluded with a number of key points:

  • The robots are coming, aka change is inevitable;
  • Our mission must endure (even as our delivery and business models change);
  • While the past may be a prologue, there will be new winners and losers;
  • A future alma mater may be Apple, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba …;
    • scale is critical;
    • lifetime employability is critical;
    • students will determine winners and losers;
  • The future is already here, the question is whether we can face it;
    • ‘extreme planning’ must be practised;
  • Never discount post-secondary education.

In his plenary presentation, Reboot. Remake. Re-imagine, John Baker, the CEO of D2L, asked why it is that so many movie makers decide to re-imagine old movies? It’s because the original idea was great, but something has changed in the meantime, and a new direction is needed. Today’s political, science and environmental problems will ultimately be solved through education and its ripple effects, he suggested. In the current climate of rapid change, it is essential to focus not on remaking or rebooting, but rather on re-imagining the possible shape of education.

The technology must be about more than convenience; it must improve learning and increase engagement and satisfaction. Well-designed learning software can allow teachers to reach every student; what if there was no back of the classroom, he asked. It should be possible to reach remote learners or disabled learners or refugees or students using a range of devices from the brand new to hand-me-down technologies (hence the importance of responsive design).

We will soon see AI, machine learning, automation and adaptive learning becoming important; it is not just technology that is changing, but pedagogy. He cited an Oxford University study suggesting that 47% of all current jobs will cease to exist within two decades as a result of the advent of AI. The reality is that our skills development is not currently keeping pace with what will be needed in an AI-enabled future. Continuing educational opportunities for the workforce will be key here.

He suggested that the most important pedagogical innovation of the current era is competency-based education. In a discussion of its advantages, especially when accelerated by adaptive learning, he indicated that the greatest benefit is not so much the achievement of the competencies, but the leftover time and what can be done with it – could students learn more about other areas? Could they enrich their education through more research even at undergraduate level?

In response to an audience question, he also suggested that ‘learning management system’ (LMS) is an outdated term and ‘learning platform’ or ‘learning hub’ might be preferable. How do we capture and share the learning that is taking place across multiple platforms and spaces? It is vital that these systems should be porous, and interoperability between systems (e.g., through Learning Tools Interoperability [LTI] and Caliper) is essential.

In his plenary presentation, The future of learning management systems: Development, innovation and change, Phil Hill suggested that while there are many exciting educational technology developments, there is also a great deal of unhelpful hype about them. The steady, slower paced progress being made at institutions – for example in the introduction of online courses – is in many ways disconnected from the media and other hype. What is important is what can be done with asynchronous, individualised online education that cannot be done so easily in a plenary face-to-face classroom. Some of today’s most creative courses are bypassing LMSs in order to incorporate a wider range of platforms and tools.

Most institutions now have an LMS; these are seen as necessary but not exciting or dynamic. The core management system design is based on an old model. Some companies are trying to add innovative features, but it’s not clear how useful or effective some of these may be. (It may be that over time all ed tech platforms start adding in extra features which eventually make them look like badly-designed LMSs.) When LMSs first appeared, there were few competitors, but now there are many flexible platforms available, creating a demand that LMSs can replicate the same features. There is considerable frustration with LMSs, which are seen as much harder to use than the platforms and tools on the wider web.

He mentioned that in higher education Moodle is currently the LMS with the largest user base, while Canvas is the fastest growing LMS. At school level, Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo have some leverage, but they are less used in higher education. Many other platforms have attempted to enter the mainstream but have since disappeared. Overall, this is a fairly static market without many new successful entrants. The trend is towards having these systems hosted in the cloud; this may be the only choice with some LMSs, such as Canvas. While there is currently a lot of movement towards open education, in North America the installed base of LMSs is moving away from the main open source providers, Moodle and Sakai; similar trends are seen elsewhere. There is a certain perception that these look less professional than the proprietary systems. Open source is arguably not as important as it used to be; many educational institutions have moved away from their original concern not to be beholden to commercial providers, and are now focusing more on whether staff and students are happy with the system. Worldwide we’re seeing most institutions working with the same small number of LMSs: Canvas, D2L, Blackboard, Moodle and to some extent Sakai. We should consider the implications of this.

The question is how to resolve the tension between faculty desires to use the proliferating educational technologies which offer lots of flexible teaching and learning options, and institutional insistence that faculty make use of the LMS. Many people are saying that LMSs should go away, but in fact that’s not what we’re seeing happening. Opposition to LMSs is largely based on the fact that they function as walled gardens, which is how they were originally designed. In many cases, they have added poor versions of external software like blogs or social networks, and there has been an overall bloating of the systems.

What we’re seeing now is a breaking down of the walled garden model. The purpose of an LMS is coming to be seen as providing the basics, with gateways offered so that there are pathways to the use of external tools. It should be easy to access and integrate these external tools when faculty wish to use them. Interoperability of tools through systems like LTI, xAPI and Caliper is an important direction of development, though there is a need for these standards to evolve. They key point however is the acceptance by the industry that this is the direction of evolution. He concluded that there are three major trends in LMSs nowadays: cloud hosting; less cluttered, more intuitive designs; and an ability to integrate third-party software. Much of this change has been inspired by the Educause work on NGDLEs. There is a gradual move among LMS providers towards responsive designs so that LMSs can be used more effectively on mobile devices.

The strand Engaging online learners focused on improving learning outcomes through improving learner engagement. In their presentation, Engaging online students by fostering a community of practice, Robert Kershaw and Patricia Lychak explained their belief that if facilitators are engaged with developing their own competencies, then they will use these to engage students. Initially, a small number of workshops and informal support were provided for online facilitators in their institution; then a training specialist was brought in; and it was found through applied research that online facilitators wanted more development in student engagement, supporting student success, and technology use. A community of practice model with several stages has been developed: onboarding (involving web materials, a handbook, and a discussion forum) > community building (involving a discussion forum, webinars, and in-person events) > coaching (involving checking in with new facilitators, one-on-one support, and inquiries) > student success initiatives (involving early check-ins with students,  mid-term progress reports on students, and final grade entry) > training (shaped in part by feedback from the earlier stages; this also shapes the next onboarding phase). Lessons learned include:

  • introduce variety (delivery method, timing, detail level);
  • encourage sharing (best practices, student success stories, sample report comments);
  • promote efficiency (pre-populate templates, convert documents to PDF fillable forms, highlight LMS time-saving tools).

What the trainers try to do is to model for online facilitators what they can do for and with their students.

In his presentation, Chasing the dream: The engaged learner, Dan Piedra indicated that the tools we invest in can lock us into design mode templates. He quoted Sean Michael Morris: “today most students of online courses are more users than learners … the majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines“. Drawing on Coates (2007), he suggested that engagement involves:

  • active learning;
  • collaborative learning;
  • participation in challenging academic activities;
  • formative communication with academic staff, and involvement in enriching educational experiences;
  • feeling legitimated/supported by learning communities;
  • work-integrated learning.

He showed a model being used at McMaster University involving the company Riipen, which places a student with a partner company that assesses students’ skills, after which the professor assigns a grade.

In her talk, A constructivist pedagogy: Shifting from active to engaged learning, Cheryl Oyer referred to Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry model involving cognitive, teaching and social presence. She mentioned a series of learner engagement strategies for nursing students: simulations, gamification, excursions, badges and portfolios.

The strand Online language learning focused on the many possibilities for promoting language learning through digital technologies. In his presentation, The language laboratory with a global reach, Michael Dabrowski talked about a Spanish OER Initiative at Athabasca University. The textbook was digitised, with the Moodle LMS being used as the publishing platform. Open technologies were used, including Google Maps (as a venue for students to conduct self-directed sociocultural investigations), Google Translate (as a dictionary, and a pronunciation and listening tool, which now also incorporates Word Lens for mobile translation), and Google Voice (the foundation for an objective open pronunciation tutor). With Google Translate, there are some risks including laziness with translation and uncritical acceptance of translations, but in fact it was found that students were noticing errors in Google’s translations.  With Google Voice, it is not a perfect pronunciation tutor; sometimes it is too critical, and sometimes too forgiving. Voice recognition by a computer is nevertheless a preferable form of feedback compared to learners’ own self-comparisons with language speakers heard in an audio laboratory; effectively it is possible to have a free open mobile language learning laboratory nowadays.

In her presentation, Open languages – Open online learning communities for better opportunities, Joerdis Weilandt described an open German learning course she has run on the free Finnish Eliademy platform. In setting up this course, it was important to transition from closed to open resources so they could be modified as needed. Interactive elements were added to the materials presented to students using the H5P software.

In their paper, Language learning MOOCs: Classifying approaches to learningMairéad Nic Giolla Mhichíl and Elaine Berne explained that there has been a significant increase in the availability of LMOOCs (language learning MOOCs). They were able to identify 105 LMOOCs in 2017, and used Grainne Conole’s 12-dimension MOOC classification to present an analysis of these (to be published in a forthcoming EuroCALL publication). They went on to speak about a MOOC they have created on the FutureLearn platform to promote the learning of Irish.

In his presentation, Online learning: The case of migrants learning French in Quebec, Simon Collin suggested that linguistic integration is important in supporting social and professional integration. This has traditionally been done face-to-face but increasingly it is being done online. Advantages of online courses for migrants fall into two major categories: they can anticipate their linguistic integration before arriving; and after migration, they can take online courses to facilitate a work-family-language learning balance. He described a questionnaire about perceptions of online learning answered by 1,361 adult migrants in Quebec. The common pattern was to take an online course before arrival, and then a face-to-face course after arrival. Respondents thought online courses were more helpful for developing reading and listening, but not as helpful for developing speaking skills.

The strand Leveraging learning analytics for students, faculty and institutions brought together papers focusing on the highly topical area of learning analytics. In their paper, Implementing learning analytics in higher education: A review of the literature and user perceptions, Nobuko Fujita and Ashlyne O’Neil indicated that there are benefits of learning analytics for educators in terms of improving courses and teaching, and for students in terms of improving their own learning. They reported on a study of perceptions of learning analytics by educators, administrators and students. Overall, there was a concern with the impact on students; the main concerns reported included profiling students, duty to respond, data security and consent.

In her presentation, An examination of active learning designs and the analytics of student engagement, Leni Casimiro indicated that active learning has four main components: experiential, interactive, reflective, and deep (higher-order). She reported on a study making use of learning analytics to determine to what extent students were in fact engaged in active learning. Descriptive analytics revealed that among the three courses examined, there was considerable variation in levels of activity; this was due to differences in student outcomes (tasks should help students focus rather than distracting them), teacher participation (teacher presence is essential), interactivity (teacher participation is important, as is the quality of questions), and the nature of students (asynchronous communication may be preferred by international students). Because of the weight given to teacher participation in active learning, it deserves special attention.

In his presentation, Formative analytics: Improving online course learning continuously, Shunping Wei explained that formative analytics are focused on supporting the learner to reflect on what has been learned, what can be improved, which goals can be achieved, and how to move forward. Formative analytics reports should be provided not only to management, but to teachers. It is possible to track whether students access all parts of an online course and whether they do so often, which would likely be signs of a good learner. It is also possible to create a radar map for a certain person or group, comparing their performance with the average.

The strand Mobile learning: Learning anytime, anywhere brought together a number of different perspectives on m-learning. In their presentation, Design principles for an innovative learner-determined mobile learning solution for adult literacy, Aga Palalas and Norine Wark spoke about their project focusing on a literacy uplift solution in the context of surprisingly low adult literacy rates in Canada. They have created a cross-platform mobile app for formal and informal learning incorporating gamification elements within a constructivist framework, but with more traditional behaviourist components as well. Based on data obtained in their study to date, key design themes and principles have been determined as follows:

  • mobility: design for the mobile learner;
  • learner-determined: respond to the learner;
  • context: integrate environmental influences.

Future plans include presentation of the pedagogical and technological principles and guidelines, and replication of the study in different contexts.

In her presentation, English to go: A critical analysis of apps for language learning, Heather Lotherington suggested that there is an element of technological determinism in mobile-assisted language learning (MALL). In MALL, there can be an app-only/content-oriented approach which gives you a course-in-a-box; or design-oriented learning which uses the affordances of mobile technologies in customised learning. Examining the most popular commercial language learning apps, she found that most were underpinned by ‘zombie pedagogies’ involving grammar-translation, audiolingualism, teaching by testing, drill and kill, decontextualised vocabulary, and so on. Ultimately, there were multiple flaws in theory, pedagogy, and practice. This led to failures from the point of  view of mobility (with a need to record language in a quiet room rather than in everyday settings), gamification, and language teaching (there was, for example, generally a 4-skills model of language learning, which is outdated in an era of multimodal communication). Companies are also gathering users’ data for their own purposes. It is essential, she concluded, that language teachers are involved in designing contemporary approaches to mobile language learning; and teachers should also be familiar with content-based apps so they can incorporate them strategically in design-based language teaching and avoid technological determinism. Later, in question time, she went on to suggest that what we are currently confronted with is a difficult interface between slow scholarship and fast marketing.

In her presentation, New delivery tool for mobile learning: WeChat for informal learning, Rongrong Fan explained that WeChat has taken over from QQ as the most popular messaging platform in China. WeChat incorporates instant messaging, official accounts, and ‘moments’ (this works on the same principle as sharing materials on Facebook). Some institutions are using official accounts which push learning material to students, which could be as little as a word a day; an advantage is that this can support bite-sized learning, but a disadvantage is that too many subscriptions can lead to ‘attention theft’. WeChat can be used for live broadcasting with low fees; this allows more direct interaction but the long-term learning effects and value are questionable. It is also possible to set up virtual learning communities in the form of WeChat groups; this can be motivating and help to overcome geographical barriers, but learners may not be making real progress if they are learning only from each other. She concluded that WeChat can be integrated into formal learning as a complementary platform; that use of WeChat could be incorporated in teacher training to give teachers more options for delivering their content; and that a strong learner support team is needed.

The strand Virtual reality and simulation in fact covered both virtual and augmented reality. In his presentation, Flipping a university for a global presence with mirrored reality, Michael Mathews spoke about the Global Learning Center at Oral Roberts University.  Augmented and virtual reality, he said, are additive to the experience that students receive, and can help us reach the highest level of Creating in Bloom’s Taxonomy. The concept of mirrored reality brings together augmented and virtual reality. These technologies can offer ways of reaching a diverse range of students scattered around the world.

In my own presentation, Taking learning to the streets: The potential and reality of mobile gamified language learning, which also formed part of this strand, I outlined the value of an augmented reality approach for helping students to engage with authentic language learning experiences in everyday life.

The strand Augmented reality: Aspects of use in education highlighted a range of contemporary uses of AR. In their talk, Distributed augmented reality training to develop skills at a distance, Mohamed Ally and Norine Wark described AR as an innovative solution to rapidly evolving learning needs. They spoke of their research on an industrial training package about valve repair and maintenance created by Scope AR and delivered onsite via iPads and AR glasses, for which they gathered data relating to the first three levels of the Kirkpatrick Model. The response to the AR training was overwhelmingly positive, with past hands-on training being seen as second-best, and computer-based training being least valued. It was felt that AR could replace lengthy training programmes. Scope AR has now developed a Remote AR collaboration tool which can be used to deliver support at a distance.  The presenters concluded by saying that AR could have many applications in distance education where the expert is in one location but can communicate at a distance to tutor or train someone in a different location.

In his presentation, Augmented reality and technical lab training using HoloLens, Angelo Cosco explained that skilled trades training can be created to be accessed via Microsoft’s HoloLens, allowing students to learn at their own pace, but also offering development opportunities for employees. Advantages include the fact that unlike with VR, there are no issues with nausea; users can wear the HoloLens and move around easily; and recordings can be made and sent immediately through wifi networks.

In their paper, Maximizing learner engagement and skill development through modelling, immersion and gameplay, Naza Djafarova and Leonora Zefi demonstrated a training game (though not an AR game per se) for community nurses in the Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment Demo video. The game is set up on a choose-your-own-adventure model, giving students a chance to practice what they have learned in a simulated and ‘safe’ environment, which is especially valuable given the lack of practicum placement positions available. Usability testing was conducted to identify benefits and determine possible future improvements. Students felt that the game helped them to build confidence and evoked empathy, and added that they were very engaged. They thought that the purpose of the resource should be explained up front, and requested more instructions on how to play the game, as well as an alternative to scoring. The research team’s current focus is on how to facilitate game design in multidisciplinary teams, and on examining linkages between learning objectives and game mechanics.

CN Tower, Toronto

CN Tower, Toronto. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

While many of the talks described above already began addressing the bigger philosophical issues around digital learning, there were also strands dedicated to these larger questions. The strand Ethical issues in online learning brought together presentations addressing a wide range of ethical issues connected with digital learning. In his presentation, Privacy-preserving learning analytics, Vassilios Verykios noted that we all create a unique social genome through the many activities we engage in online. There is now an unprecedented power to analyse big data for the benefit of society; there can be improvement in daily lives, and verification of research results and reductions in the costs of research projects, but strict privacy controls are needed. There are some regulatory frameworks already in place to protect data, including the US HIPAA and FERPA and the EU Data Protection Directive and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The last of these deals with consent, data governance, auditing, and transparency regarding data breaches. There are data ownership issues, given that companies collect data for their own benefit; from a research perspective, it is important to remember that data is gathered by different bodies with their own ways of managing and storing it.

When it comes to educational data, technology now allows us to monitor students’ activities. Learning analytics is used to improve the educational system as a whole, but also to personalise the teaching of students. ‘Data protection’ involves protecting data so it cannot be accessed by intruders; and ‘data confidentiality’ means data can be accessed by legally authorised individuals. Data de-identification is a way of stripping out individually identifying characteristics from the data collected; one approach to anonymised data is known as k-anonymity. A fundamental challenge comes from the fact that when we anonymise data we do lose a lot of information, and it may somewhat change the statistics; so it is  necessary to find a balance between accessing useful data and protecting privacy.

In his presentation, The ethics of not contributing to digital addiction in a distance education environment, Brad Huddleston indicated that addiction takes place in the same part of the brain, regardless of what you are addicted to. Addiction is about going harder to generate larger quantities of dopamine to overcome the chemical barrier erected by the brain to deflect excessive amounts of dopamine. When it comes digital addiction, the symptoms are: anger when devices are taken away; anxiety disorders; and boredom (the last of these results from a lack of dopamine getting through the brain’s dopamine barrier). Studies have suggested, amongst other things, that computers do not necessarily improve education; that reading online is less effective than reading offline; and that one of the most popular educational games in the world, Minecraft, is also one of the most addictive.

There is a place, he stated, for the analogue to be re-integrated into education, though not to the exclusion of the digital. We should work within the limitations of the brain for each age group; that means less technology use at lower ages. We should teach students what mono-tasking or uni-tasking is about. We also need to understand, he said, that digital educational content is just as addictive as non-educational content.

In her presentation, ‘Troubling’ notions of inclusion and exclusion in open distance and e-learning: An exploration, Jeanette Botha mentioned that the divide between developed and developing nations is increasing, largely because of a lack of internet access in the latter. In the global north, there has traditionally been a concern with equity, participation and profit. In the global south, there has been more of an emphasis on social justice, equity and redress; social justice incorporates the notion of social inclusion. Inclusivity, she went on to say, now has a moral, and by extension, ethical imperative.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a focus on the inclusiveness of education. Open and distance learning are seen as a key social justice and inclusion instrument and avenue. However, we haven’t made the kind of progress that might have been expected. One reason is that context matters. Contextual barriers to inclusivity include:

  • technology (infrastructure and affordability);
  • quality (including accreditation, service and quality of the learning experience);
  • cultural and linguistic relevance and responsiveness;
  • perceived racial barriers;
  • ‘graduateness’ and employability of open and distance learning graduates;
  • confusion, conflation and fragmentation in the global open and distance learning environment.

In his presentation, Intercultural ethics: Which values to teach, learn and implement in online higher education and how?, Obiora Ike mentioned global challenges such as the rise of populism, economic and environmental problems, addictions, and issues of inclusivity. Culture matters, he argued, and from culture come values and ethics. Behaving in an ethical way engenders trust and promotes an ethical environment. Globethics.net, based in Geneva, has developed an online database of materials about ethics as well as a values framework. We must integrate ethics with all forms of education, he argued. This is a project being pursued for example through the Globethics Consortium, which focuses on ethics in higher education.

The strand Online learning and Indigenous peoples brought together papers on a variety of projects focused on Indigenous education through online tools. In the talk, A digital bundle – Indigenous knowledge on the internet: Emerging pedagogy, design, and expanding access, Jennifer Wemigwans suggested that respectful representations of knowledge online can be effective in helping others to access that knowledge. While it does not replace face-to-face transmission, cultural knowledge shared by elders online becomes accessible to those who might not otherwise have access to such knowledge, but who might wish to apply it in a range of contexts from the personal to the community sphere.

In her talk, Supporting new Indigenous postgraduate student transitions through online preparation tools, Lynne Petersen spoke about supporting Indigenous students through online tools in the Medical and Health Sciences Faculty at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The work is framed theoretically by Indigenous research methodologies, transition pedagogies, and the role of technology and design in supporting empowerment (however, there are questions for Indigenous communities where face-to-face traditions are prevalent). There may be a disconnect between perceptions of academic or professional competency in the university system, and cultural knowledge and competency within an Indigenous community. Among the online tools created, a reflective questionnaire helps students think through the areas in which they are well-prepared, and the areas where they may need support. Future explorations will address why the tools seem to work well for Maori students, but not necessarily for Samoan or Tongan students, so it may be that as they stand these tools are not appropriate for all communities.

In the paper, Language integration through e-portfolio (LITE): A plurilingual e-learning approach combining Western and Indigenous perspectives, Aline Germain-Rutherford, Kris Johnston and Geoff Lawrence described a fusion of Western and Indigenous pedagogical perspectives. In a WordPress-based social space, each learner can trace their plurilingual journey covering the languages they speak, their daily linguistic encounters, and their cultural encounters. In another part of the website, students are directed to language exercises. After completing these, students can engage in a reflection covering questions relating to the four areas of mind, spirit, heart and body. Students can also respond to questions relating to the Common European Framework to build ‘radar charts’ reflecting their plurilingual, pluricultural identities. The fundamental aim of such an approach is to validate students’ plurilingual, pluricultural knowledge base.

Old City Hall, Toronto

Old City Hall, Toronto. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

Bringing together a wide range of academic and industry perspectives, this conference provided an important forum for discovering digital learning practices from around the globe, while simultaneously thinking through some of the big questions posed by new technologies.

DIGITAL LESSONS, LITERACIES & IDENTITIES

AILA World Congress
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
23-28 July 2017

Praia da Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Praia da Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

Having participated in the last two AILA World Congresses, in Beijing in 2011 and in Brisbane in 2014, I was delighted to be able to attend the 18th World Congress, taking place this time in the beautiful setting of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This year’s theme was “Innovations and Epistemological Challenges in Applied Linguistics”. As always, the conference brought together a large and diverse group of educators and researchers working in the broad field of applied linguistics, including many with an interest in digital and mobile learning, and digital literacies and identities. Papers ranged from the highly theoretical to the very applied, with some of the most interesting presentations actively seeking to build much-needed bridges between theory and practice.

In her presentation, E-portfolios: A tool for promoting learner autonomy?, Chung-Chien Karen Chang suggested that e-portfolios increase students’ motivation, promote different assessment criteria, encourage students to take charge of their learning, and stimulate their learning interests. Little (1991) looked at learner autonomy as a set of conditional freedoms: learners can determine their own objectives, define the content and process of their learning, select the desired methods and techniques, and monitor and evaluate their progress and achievements. Benson (1996) spoke of three interrelated levels of autonomy for language learners, involving the learning process, the resources, and the language. Benson and Voller (1997) emphasised four elements that help create a learning environment to cultivate learner autonomy, namely when learners can:

  • determine what to learn (within the scope of what teachers want them to learn);
  • acquire skills in self-directed learning;
  • exercise a sense of responsibility;
  • be given independent situations for further study.

Those who are intrinsically motivated are more self-regulated; in contrast, extrinsically motivated activities are less autonomous and more controlled. But either way, psychologically, students will be motivated to move forward.

The use of portfolios provides an alternative form of assessment. A portfolio can echo a process-oriented approach to writing. Within a multi-drafting process, students can check their own progress and develop a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Portfolios offer multi-dimensional perspectives on student progress over time. The concept of e-portfolios is not yet fully fixed but includes the notion of collections of tools to perform operations with e-portfolio items, and collections of items for the purpose of demonstrating competence.

In a study with 40 sophomore and junior students, all students’ writing tasks were collected in e-portfolios constituting 75% of their grades. Many students agreed that writing helped improve their mastery of English, their critical thinking ability, their analytical skills, and their understanding of current events. They agreed that their instructor’s suggestions helped them improve their writing. Among the 40 students assessed on the LSRQ survey, the majority showed intrinsic motivation. Students indicated that the e-portfolios gave them a sense of freedom, and allowed them to  challenge and ultimately compete against themselves.

Gamification emerged as a strong conference theme. In her paper, Action research on the influence of gamification on learning IELTS writing skills, Michelle Ocriciano indicated that the aim of gamification, which has been appropriated by education from the fields of business and marketing, is to increase participation and motivation. Key ‘soft gamification’ elements include points, leaderboards and immediate feedback; while these do not constitute full gamification, they can nevertheless have benefits. She conducted action research to investigate the question: how can gamification apply to a Moodle setting to influence IELTS writing skills? She found that introducing gamification elements into Moodle – using tools such as GameSalad, Quizlet, ClassTools, Kahoot! and Quizizz – not only increased motivation but also improved students’ spelling, broadened their vocabulary, and decreased the time they needed for writing, leading to increases in their IELTS writing scores. To some extent, students were learning about exam wiseness. The most unexpected aspect was that her feedback as the teacher increased in effectiveness, because students shared her individual feedback with peers through a class WhatsApp group. In time, students also began creating their own games.

The symposium Researching digital games in language learning and teaching, chaired by Hayo Reinders and Sachiko Nakamura, naturally also brought gaming and gamification to the fore in a series of presentations.

In their presentation, Merging the formal and the informal: Language learning and game design, Leena Kuure, Salme Kälkäjä and Marjukka Käsmä reported on a game design course taught in a Finnish high school. Students would recruit their friends onto the course, and some even repeated the course for fun. It was found that the freedom given to students did not necessarily mean that they took more responsibility, but rather this varied from student to student. Indeed, the teacher had a different role for each student, taking or giving varying degrees of responsibility. Students chose to use Finnish or English, depending on the target groups for the games they were designing.

The presenters concluded that in a language course like this, language is not so much the object of study (where it is something ‘foreign’ to oneself) but rather it is a tool (where it is part of oneself, and part of an expressive repertoire). Formal vs informal, they said, seems to be an artificial distinction. The teacher’s role shifts, with implications for assessment, and a requirement for the teacher to have knowledge of individual students’ needs. The choice of project should support language choice; this enables authentic learning situations and, through these, ‘language as a tool’ thinking.

In her presentation, The role of digital games in English education in Japan: Insights from teachers and students, Louise Ohashi began by referencing the gaming principles outlined in the work of James Paul Gee. She reported on a study of students’ experiences of and attitudes to using digital games for English study, as well as teachers’ experiences and attitudes. She surveyed 102 Japanese university students, and 113 teachers from high schools and universities. Students, she suggested, are not as interested as teachers in distinguishing ‘real’ games from gamified learning tools.

While 31% of students had played digital games in English in class over the previous 12 months, 50% had done so outside class, suggesting a clear trend towards out-of-class gaming. The games they reported playing covered the spectrum from general commercial games to dedicated language learning or educational games. Far more students than teachers thought games were valuable aids to study inside and outside class, as well as for self-study. Only 30% of students said that they knew of appropriate games for their English level, suggesting an area where teachers might be able to intervene more.

In fact, most Japanese classrooms are quite traditional learning spaces – often with blackboards and wooden desks, and no wifi – which do not lend themselves to gaming in class. While some teachers use games, many avoid them. One teacher surveyed thought students wouldn’t be interested in games; another worked at a school where students were not allowed to use computers or phones; another thought the school and parents would disapprove; others emphasised the importance of a focus on academic coursework rather than gaming; and still others objected to the idea that foreign teachers in Japan are supposed to entertain students. She concluded that most students were interested in playing games but most teachers did not introduce them, by choice or otherwise, possibly representing a missed opportunity.

In her presentation, Technology in support of heritage language learning, Sabine Little reported on an online questionnaire with 112 respondents, examining how families from heritage language backgrounds use technology to support heritage language literacy development for their primary school students. Two thirds of the families spoke two or more heritage languages in the home. She found that where there were children of different ages, use of the heritage language would often decrease for younger children.

Parents were gatekeepers of both technology use and choices of apps; but many parents didn’t have the technological understanding to identify apps or games their children might be interested in. Many thought that there were no apps in their language. Some worried about health issues; others worried about cost. There are both advantages and disadvantages in language learning games; many of these have no cultural content as they’re designed to work with more than one language. Similarly, authentic language apps have both advantages (e.g., they feel less ‘educational’) and disadvantages (e.g., they may be too linguistically difficult). Nevertheless, many parents agreed that their children were interested in games for language learning, and more broadly in learning the heritage language.

All in all, this is an incredibly complex field. How children engage with heritage language resources is linked to their sense of identity as pluricultural individuals. Many parents are struggling with the ‘bad technology’/’good language learning opportunity’ dichotomy. In general, parents felt less confident about supporting heritage language literacy development through technology than through books.

In my own presentation, Designing for situated language and literacy: Learning through mobile augmented reality games and trails, I discussed the places where online gaming meets the offline world. I focused on mobile AR gamified learning trails, drawing on examples of recent, significant, informative projects from Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong. The aim of the presentation was to whet the appetite of the audience for the possibilities that emerge when we bring together online gaming, mobility, augmented reality, and language learning.

AR and big data were also important conference themes. In his paper, The internet of things: Implications for learning beyond the classroom, Hayo Reinders suggested that algorithmic approaches like Bayesian Networks, Nonnegative Matrix Factorization, Native Forests, and Association Rule Mining are beginning to help us make sense of vast amounts of data. Although they are not familiar to most of today’s teachers, they will be very familiar to future teachers. We are gradually moving from reactive to proactive systems, which can predict future problems in areas ranging from health to education. Current education is completely reactive; we wait for students to do poorly or fail before we intervene. Soon we will have the opportunity to change to predictive systems. All of this is enabled by the underpinning technologies becoming cheaper, smaller and more accessible.

He spoke about three key areas of mobility, ubiquity, and augmentation. Drawing on Klopfer et al (2002), he listed five characteristics of mobile technologies which could be turned into affordances for learning: portability; social interactivity; context sensitivity; connectivity; and individuality. These open up a spectrum of possibilities, he indicated, where the teacher’s responsibility is to push educational experiences towards the right-hand side of each pair:

  • Disorganised – Distributed
  • Unfocused – Collaborative
  • Inappropriate – Situated
  • Unmanageable – Networked
  • Misguided – Autonomous

Augmentation is about overlaying digital data, ranging from information to comments and opinions, on real-world settings. Users can add their own information to any physical environment. Such technologies allow learning to be removed from the physical constraints of the classroom.

With regard to ubiquity, when everything is connected to everything else, there is potentially an enormous amount of information generated. He described a wristband that records everything you do, 24/7, and forgets it after two minutes, unless you tap it twice to save what has been recorded and have it sent to your phone. Students can use this, for example, to save instances of key words or grammatical structures they encounter in everyday life. Characteristics of ubiquity that have educational implications include the following:

  • Permanency can allow always-on learning;
  • Accessibility can allow experiential learning;
  • Immediacy can allow incidental learning;
  • Interactivity can allow socially situated learning.

He went on to outline some key affordances of new technologies, linked to the internet of things, for learning:

  • Authentication for attendance when students enter the classroom;
  • Early identification and targeted support;
  • Adaptive and personalised learning;
  • Proactive and predictive rather than reactive management of learning;
  • Continuous learning experiences;
  • Informalisation;
  • Empowerment of students through access to their own data.

He wrapped up by talking about the Vital Project that gives students visualisation tools and analytics to monitor online language learning. Research has found that students like having access to this information, and having control over what information they see, and when. They want clear indications of progress, early alerts and recommendations for improvement. Cultural differences have also been uncovered in terms of the desire for comparison data; the Chinese students wanted to know how they were doing compared with the rest of the class and past cohorts, whereas non-Chinese did not.

There are many questions remaining about how we can best make use of this data, but it is already coming in a torrent. As educators, we need to think carefully about what data we are collecting, and what we can do with it. It is only us, not computer scientists, who can make the relevant pedagogical decisions.

In his paper, Theory ensembles in computer-assisted language learning research and practice, Phil Hubbard indicated that the concept of theory was formerly quite rigidly defined, and involved the notion of offering a full explanation for a phenomenon. It has now become a very fluid concept. Theory in CALL, he suggested, means the set of perspectives, models, frameworks, orientations, approaches, and specific theories that:

  • offer generalisations and insights to account for or provide greater understanding of phenomena related to the use of digital technology in the pursuit of language learning objectives;
  • ground and sustain relevant research agendas;
  • inform effective CALL design and teaching practice.

He presented a typology of theory use in CALL:

  • Atheoretical CALL: research and practice with no explicit theory stated (though there may be an implicit theory);
  • Theory borrowing: using a theory from SLA, etc, without change;
  • Theory instantiation: taking a general theory with a place for technology and/or SLA into consideration (e.g., activity theory);
  • Theory adaptation: changing one or more elements of a theory from SLA, etc, in anticipation of or in response to the impact of the technology;
  • Theory ensemble: combining multiple theoretical entities in a single study to capture a wider range of perspectives;
  • Theory synthesis: creating a new theory by integrating parts of existing ones;
  • Theory construction: creating a new theory specifically for some sub-domain of CALL;
  • Theory refinement: cycles of theory adjustment based on accumulated research findings.

He went on to provide some examples of research approaches based on theory ensembles. We’re just getting started in this area, and it needs further study and refinement. Theory ensembles seem to occur especially in CALL studies involving gaming, multimodality, and data-driven learning. Theory ensembles may be ‘layered’, with a broad theory providing an overarching approach of orientation, and complementary narrower theoretical entities providing focus. Similarly, members of a theory ensemble have different functions and therefore different weights in the overall picture. Some can be more central than others. A distinction might be made, he suggested, between one-time ensembles assembled for a given problem and context, and more stable ones that could lead to full theory syntheses. Finally, each ensemble member should have a clear function, and together they should lead to a richer and more informative analysis; researchers and designers should clearly justify the membership of ensembles, and reviewers should see that they do so.

Intercultural issues surfaced in many papers, perhaps most notably in the symposium Felt presence, imagined presence, hyper-presence in online intercultural encounters: Case studies and implications, chaired by Rick Kern and Christine Develotte. It was suggested by Rick Kern that people often imagine online communication is immediate, but in fact it is heavily technologically mediated, which has major implications for the nature of communication.

In their paper, Multimodality and social presence in an intercultural exchange setting, Meei-Ling Liaw and Paige Ware indicated that there is a lot of research on multimodality, communication differences, social presence and intercultural communication, but it is inconclusive and sometimes even contradictory. They drew on social presence theory, which postulates that a critical factor in the viability of a communication medium is the degree of social presence it affords.

They reported on a project involving 12 pre-service and 3 in-service teachers in Taiwan, along with 15 undergraduate Education majors in the USA. Participants were asked to use VoiceThread, which allows text, audio and video communication, and combinations of these. Communication was in English, and was asynchronous because of the time difference. It was found that the US students used video exclusively, but the Taiwanese used a mixture of modalities (text, audio and video). The US students found video easy to use, but some Taiwanese students worried about their oral skills and felt they could organise their thoughts better in text; however, other Taiwanese students wanted to practise their oral English. All partnerships involved a similar volume of words produced, perhaps indicating that the groups were mirroring each other. In terms of the types of questions posed, the Taiwanese asked far more questions about opinions; the American students were more cautious about asking such questions, and also knew little about Taiwan and so asked more factual questions. Overall, irrespective of the modality employed, the two groups of intercultural telecollaborative partners felt a strong sense of membership and thought that they had achieved a high quality of learning because of the online partnership.

As regards the pedagogical implications, students need to be exposed to the range of features available in order to maximise the affordances of all the multimodal choices. In addition to helping students consider how they convey a sense of social presence through the words and topics they choose, instructors need to attend to how social presence is intentionally or unintentionally communicated in the choice of modality. The issue of modality choice is also intimately connected to the power dynamic that can emerge when telecollaborative partnerships take place as monolingual exchanges.

In their paper, Conceptualizing participatory literacy: New approaches to sustaining co-presence in social and situated learning communities, Mirjam Hauck, Sylvie Warnecke and Muge Satar argued that teacher preparation needs to address technological and pedagogical issues, as well as sociopolitical and ecological embeddedness. Both participatory literacy and social presence are essential, and require multimodal competence. The challenge for educators in social networking environments is threefold: becoming multimodally aware and able to first establish their own social presence, and then successfully participating in the collaborative creation and sharing of knowledge, so that they are well-equipped to model such an ability and participatory skills for their students.

Digital literacy/multiliteracy in general, and participatory literacy in particular, is reflected in language learners’ ability to comfortably alternate in their roles as semiotic responders and semiotic initiators, and the degree to which they can make informed use of a variety of semiotic resources. The takeaway from this is that being multimodally able and as a result a skilled semiotic initiator and responder, and being able to establish social presence and participate online, is a precondition for computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) of languages and cultures.

They reported on a study with 36 pre-service English teachers learning to establish social presence through web 2.0 tools. Amongst other things, students were asked to reflect on their social presence in the form of a Glogster poster referring to Gilly Salmon’s animal metaphors for online participation (see p.12); students showed awareness that social presence is transient and emergent.

They concluded that educators need to be able to illustrate and model for their students the interdependence between being multimodally competent as reflected in informed semiotic activity, and the ability to establish social presence and display participatory literacy skills. Tasks like those in the training programme presented here, triggering ongoing reflection on the relevance of “symbolic competence” (Kramsch, 2006), social presence and participatory literacy, need to become part of CSCL-based teacher education.

In his presentation, Seeing and hearing apart: The dilemmas and possibilities of intersubjectivity in shared language classrooms, David Malinowski spoke about the use of high-definition video conferencing for synchronous class sessions in languages with small enrolments, working across US institutions.

It was found that technology presents an initial disruption which is overcome early in the semester, and does not prevent social cohesion. There is the ability to co-ordinate perspective-taking, dialogue, and actions with activity type and participation format. Synchronised performance, play and ritual may deserve special attention in addition to sequentially oriented events. History is made in the moment: durable learner identities inflect moment to moment, and there are variable engagements through and with technology. There are ongoing questions about parity of the educational experience in ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ classrooms. Finally, there is a need to develop further tools to mediate the life-worlds of distance language learners across varying timescales.

Christo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

There were many presentations that ranged well beyond CALL, and to some extent beyond educational technologies, but which nevertheless had considerable contextual relevance for those working in CALL and MALL, and e-learning and mobile learning more broadly.

The symposium Innovations and challenges in digital language practices and critical language/media awareness for the digital age, chaired by Jannis Androutsopoulos, consisted of a series of papers on the nature of digital communication, covering themes such as the link between language use and language ideology; multimodality; and the use of algorithms. One key question, it was suggested in the introduction, is how linguistic research might speak to language education.

In their presentation, Critical media awareness in a digital age, Caroline Tagg and Philipp Seargeant stated that people’s critical awareness develops fluidly and dynamically over time in response to experiences online. They introduced the concept of context design, which suggests that context is collaboratively co-constructed in interaction through linguistic choices. The concept draws on the well-known notion of context collapse, but suggests that offline contexts cannot simply move online and collapse; rather, contexts are always actively constructed, designed and redesigned. Context design incorporates the following elements:

  • Participants
  • Online media ideologies
  • Site affordances
  • Text type
  • Identification processes
  • Norms of communication
  • Goals

They reported on a study entitled Creating Facebook (2014-2016). Their interviews revealed complex understandings of Facebook as a communicative space and the importance of people’s ideas about social relationships. These understandings shaped behaviour in often unexpected ways, in processes that can be conceptualised as context design. They concluded that the role of people’s evolving language/media awareness in shaping online experiences needs to be taken into account by researchers wishing to effectively build a critical awareness for the digital age.

In her paper, Why are you texting me? Emergent communicative practices in spontaneous digital interactions, Maria Grazia Sindoni suggested that multimodality is a reaction against language-driven approaches that sideline resources other than language. However, language as a resource has been sidelined in mainstream multimodality research. Yet language still needs to be studied, but on a par with other semiotic resources.

In a study of reasons for mode-switching in online video conversations, she indicated that the technical possibility of doing something does not equate with the semiotic choice of doing so. In the case of communication between couples, she noted a pattern where intimate communications often involve a switch from speech to text. She also presented a case where written language was used to reinforce spoken language; written conventions can thus be creatively resemiotised.

There are several layers of meaning-making present in such examples: creative communicative functions in language use; the interplay of semiotic resources other than language that are co-deployed by users to adapt to web-mediated environments (e.g., the impossibility of perfectly reciprocating gaze, em-/disembodied interaction, staged proxemics, etc); different technical affordances (e.g., laptop vs smartphone); and different communicative purposes and degrees of socio-semiotic and intercultural awareness. She concluded with a critical agenda for research on web-mediated interaction, involving:

  • recognising the different levels (above) and their interplay;
  • encouraging critical awareness of video-specific patterns in syllabus design and teacher training;
  • promoting understanding of what can hinder or facilitate interaction (also in an intercultural light);
  • technical adaptivity vs semiotic awareness.

In their paper, Digital punctuation: Practices, reflexivity and enregistrement in the case of <.>, Jannis Androutsopoulos and Florian Busch referred to David Crystal’s view that in online communication the period has almost become an emoticon, one which is used to show irony or even aggression. They went on to say that the use of punctuation in contemporary online communication goes far beyond the syntactic meanings of traditional punctuation; punctuation and emoticons have become semiotic resources and work as contextualisation cues that index how a communication is to be understood. There is currently widespread media discussion of the use of punctuation, including specifically about the disappearance of the period. They distanced themselves from Crystal’s view of “linguistic free love” and the breaking of rules in the use of punctuation on the internet, suggesting that there are clear patterns emerging.

Reporting on a study of the use of punctuation in WhatsApp conversations by German students, they found relatively low use of the period. This suggests that periods are largely being omitted, and when they do occur, they generally do so within messages where they fulfil a syntactic function. They are very rare at the end of messages, where they may fulfil a semiotic function. For example, periods may be used for register switching, indicating a change to a more formal register; or to indicate unwillingness to participate in further conversation. Use of periods by one user may even be commented on by other users in a case of metapragmatic reflexivity. It was commented by interviewees that the use of periods at the end of messages is strange and annoying in the context of informal digital writing, especially as the WhatsApp bubbles already indicate the end of messages. One interviewee commented that the use of punctuation in general, and final periods in particular, can express annoyance and make a message appear harsher, signalling the bad mood of the writer. The presenters concluded that digital punctuation offers evidence of ongoing elaboration of new registers of writing in the early digital age.

In his presentation, The text is reading you: Language teaching in the age of the algorithm, Rodney Jones suggested that we should begin talking to students about digital texts by looking at simple examples like progress bars; as he explained, these do not represent the actual progress of software installation but are underpinned by an algorithm that is designed to be psychologically satisfying, thus revealing the disparity between the performative and the performance.

An interesting way to view algorithms is through the lens of performance. He reported on a study where his students identified and analysed the algorithms they encounter in their daily lives. He highlighted a number of key themes in our beliefs about algorithms:

  • Algorithmic Agency: ‘We sometimes believe the algorithm is like a person’; we may negotiate with the algorithm, changing our behaviour to alter the output of the algorithm
  • Algorithmic Authority (a term by Clay Shirky, who defines it as our tendency to believe algorithms more than people): ‘We sometimes believe that the algorithm is smarter than us’
  • Algorithm as Adversary: ‘We believe the algorithm is something we can cheat or hack’; this is seen in student strategies for altering TurnItIn scores, or in cases where people play off one dating app against another
  • Algorithm as Conversational Resource: ‘We think we can use algorithms to talk to others’; this can be seen for example when people tailor Spotify feeds to impress others and create common conversational interests
  • Algorithm as Audience: ‘We believe that algorithms are watching us’; this is the sense that we are performing for our algorithms, such as when students consider TurnItIn as their primary audience
  • Algorithm as Oracle: ‘We sometimes believe algorithms are magic’; this is seeing algorithms as fortune tellers or as able to reveal hidden truths, involving a kind of magical thinking

The real pleasure we find in algorithms is the sense that they really know us, but there is a lack of critical perspective and an overall capitulation to the logic of the algorithm, which is all about the monetisation of our data. There is no way we can really understand algorithms, but we can think critically about the role they play in our lives. He concluded with a quote from Ben Ratliff, a music critic at The New York Times: “Now the listener’s range of access is vast, and you, the listener, hold the power. But only if you listen better than you are being listened to”.

In her presentation, From hip-hop pedagogies to digital media pedagogies: Thinking about the cultural politics of communication, Ana Deumert discussed the privileging of face-to-face conversation in contemporary culture; a long conversation at a dinner party would be seen as a success, but a long conversation on social media would be seen as harmful, unhealthy, a sign of addiction, or at the very least a waste of time. Similarly, it is popularly believed that spending a whole day reading a book is good; but reading online for a whole day is seen as bad.

She asked what we can learn from critical hip-hop studies, which challenge discourses of school versus non-school learning. She also referred to Freire, who considered that schooling should establish a connection between learning in school and learning in everyday life outside school. New media, she noted, have offered opportunities to minorities, the disabled, and speakers of minority languages. If language is seen as free and creative, then it is possible to break out of current discourse structures. Like hip-hop pedagogies, new media pedagogies allow us to bring new perspectives into the classroom, and to address the tension between institutional and vernacular communicative norms through minoritised linguistic forms and resources. She went on to speak of Kenneth Goldsmith’s course Wasting Time on the Internet at the University of Pennsylvania (which led to Goldsmith’s book on the topic), where he sought to help people think differently about what is happening culturally when we ‘waste’ time online. However, despite Goldsmith’s comments to the contrary, she argued that online practices always have a political dimension. She concluded by suggesting that we need to rethink our ideologies of language and communication; to consider the semiotics and aesthetics of the digital; and to look at the interplay of power, practice and activism online.

Given the current global sociopolitical climate, it was perhaps unsurprising that the conference also featured a very timely strand on superdiversity. The symposium Innovations and challenges in language and superdiversity, chaired by Miguel Pérez-Milans, highlighted the important intersections between language, mobility, technology, and the ‘diversification of diversity’ that characterises increasing areas of contemporary life.

In his presentation, Engaging superdiversity – An empirical examination of its implications for language and identity, Massimiliano Spotti stressed the importance of superdiversity, but indicated that it is not a flawless concept. Since its original use in the UK context, the term has been taken up in many disciplines and used in different ways. Some have argued that it is theoretically empty (but maybe it is conceptually open?); that it is a banal revisitation of complexity theory (but their objects of enquiry differ profoundly); that it is naïve about inequality (but stratification and ethnocentric categories are heavily challenged in much of the superdiversity literature); that it lacks a historical perspective (he agreed with this); that it is neoliberal (the subject it produces is a subject that fits the neoliberal emphasis on lifelong learning); and that it is Eurocentric, racist and essentialist.

He went on to report on research he has been conducting in an asylum centre. Such an asylum seeking centre, he said, is effectively ‘the waiting room of globalisation’. Its guests are mobile people, and often people with a mobile. They may be long-term, short-term, transitory, high-skilled, low-skilled, highly educated, low-educated, and may be on complex trajectories. They are subject to high integration pressure from the institution. They have high insertional power in the marginal economies of society. Their sociolinguistic, ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds are not presupposable.

In his paper, ‘Sociolinguistic superdiversity’: Paradigm in search of explanation, or explanation in search of paradigm?, Stephen May went back to Vertovec’s 2007 work, focusing on the changing nature of migration in the UK; ethnicity was too limiting a focus to capture the differences of migrants, with many other variables needing to be taken into account. Vertovec was probably unaware, May suggested, of the degree of uptake the term ‘superdiversity’ would see across disciplines.

May spoke of his own use of the term ‘multilingual turn’, and referred to Blommaert’s emphasis on three key aspects of superdiversity, namely mobility, complexity and unpredictability. The new emphasis on superdiversity is broadly to be welcomed, he suggested, but there are limitations. He outlined four of these:

  • the unreflexive ethnocentrism of western sociolinguistics and its recent rediscovery of multilingualism as a central focus; this is linked to a ‘presentist’ view of multilingualism, with a lack of historical focus
  • the almost exclusive focus on multilingualism in urban contexts, constituting a kind of ‘metronormativity’ compared to ‘ossified’ rural/indigenous ‘languages’, with the former seen as contemporary and progressive, thus reinforcing the urban/rural divide
  • a privileging of individual linguistic agency over ongoing linguistic ‘hierarchies of prestige’ (Liddicoat, 2013)
  • an ongoing emphasising of parole over langue; this is still a dichotomy, albeit an inverted one, and pays insufficient attention to access to standard language practices; it is not clear how we might harness different repertoires within institutional educational practices

In response to such concerns, Blommaert (2015) has spoken about paradigmatic superdiversity, which allows us not only to focus on contemporary phenomena, but to revisit older data to see it in a new light. There are both epistemological and methodological implications, he went on to say. There is a danger, however, in a new orthodoxy which goes from ignoring multilingualism to fetishising or co-opting it. We also need to attend to our own positionality and the power dynamics involved in who is defining the field. We need to avoid superdiversity becoming a new (northern) hegemony.

In her paper, Superdiversity as reality and ideology, Ryuko Kubota echoed the comments of the previous speakers on human mobility, social complexity, and unpredictability, all of which are linked to linguistic variability. She suggested that superdiversity can be seen both as an embodiment of reality as well as an ideology.

Superdiversity, she said, signifies a multi/plural turn in applied linguistics. Criticisms include the fact that superdiversity is nothing extraordinary; many communities maintain homogeneity; linguistic boundaries may not be dismantled if analysis relies on existing linguistic units and concepts; and it may be a western-based construct with an elitist undertone. As such, superdiversity is an ideological construct. In neoliberal capitalism there is now a pushback against diversity, as seen in nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. But there is also a complicity of superdiversity with neoliberal multiculturalism, which values diversity, flexibility and fluidity. Neoliberal workers’ experiences may be superdiverse or not so superdiverse; over and against linguistic diversity, there is a demand for English as an international language, courses in English, and monolingual approaches.

One emerging question is: do neoliberal corporate transnational workers engage in multilingual practices or rely solely on English as an international language? In a study of language choice in the workplace with Japanese and Korean transnational workers in manufacturing companies in non-English dominant countries, it was found that nearly all workers exhibited multilingual and multicultural consciousness. There was a valorisation of both English and a language mix in superdiverse contexts, as well as an understanding of the need to deal with different cultural practices. That said, most workers emphasised that overall, English is the most important language for business. Superdiversity may be a site where existing linguistic, cultural and other hierarchies are redefined and reinforced. Superdiversity in corporate settings exhibits contradictory ideas and trends.

In terms of neoliberal ideology, superdiversity, and the educational institution, she mentioned expectations such as the need to produce original research at a sustained pace; to conform to the conventional way of expressing ideas in academic discourse; and to submit to conventional assessment linked to neoliberal accountability. Consequences include a proliferation of trendy terms and publications; and little room for linguistic complexity, flexibility, and unpredictability. She went on to talk about who benefits from discussing superdiversity. Applied linguistics scholars are embedded in unequal relations of power. As theoretical concepts become fetishised, the theory serves mainly the interests of those who employ it, as noted by Anyon (1994). It is necessary for us to critically reflect, she said, on whether the popularity of superdiversity represents yet another example of concept fetishism.

In conclusion, she suggested that superdiversity should not merely be celebrated without taking into consideration historical continuity, socioeconomic inequalities created by global capitalism, and the enduring ideology of linguistic normativism. Research on superdiversity also requires close attention to the sociopolitical trend of increasing xenophobia, racism, and assimilationism. Ethically committed scholars, she said, must recognise the ideological nature of trendy concepts such as superdiversity, and explore ways in which sociolinguistic inquiries can actually help narrow racial, linguistic, economic and cultural gaps.

Rio de Janeiro viewed from Pão de Açúcar

Rio de Janeiro viewed from Pão de Açúcar. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

AILA 2017 wrapped up after a long and intensive week, with conversations to be continued online and offline until, three years from now, AILA 2020 takes place in Groningen in the Netherlands.

From China to the world: Mobile tech in teacher education

MTech Conference
Guilin, China
27-29 June, 2017

Shanhu Lake, Guilin, China

Shanhu Lake, Guilin (杉湖, 桂林), China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The inaugural MTech Conference, based on the MTech Project and its underpinning MTech Survey, drew together teacher educators from Asia and Europe to discuss how best to integrate mobile technologies in teacher education internationally. It is hoped that this will be the first in an ongoing series of collaborative events involving the MTech Network.

In our opening presentation, Mobile learning in teacher education: Beginning to build a global overview, Kevin Burden and I gave an overview of the MTech Project and the underpinning survey of technology use by teacher educators around the world. We outlined initial insights emerging from the first round of data collection, based on 96 responses, with a little under two thirds from Asia, and a little over a fifth from Europe. We showed for example that relative to the iPAC Mobile Pedagogical Framework (see image below), teacher educators typically report more evidence of personalisation and collaboration than authenticity in mobile learning activities.

iPAC Framework

iPAC Mobile Pedagogical Framework (Kevin Burden, 2017)

Interesting insights are also beginning to emerge around themes of seamlessness and intercultural learning. We invited attendees and their colleagues to complete the survey, which has now entered the second round of data collection, with the aim of increasing the overall number of responses and especially obtaining responses from regions of the world which are currently underrepresented in the data.

In a presentation reflecting the Chinese context at GXNU, Developing pre-service teachers’ ICT in education competencies and curriculum leadership, Xibei Xiong referred to the TPACK Framework in describing a proposed ICTs in education curriculum which should include TK, TPK, TCK, and TPCK. Curriculum leadership, she said, shapes teacher education programmes by providing supportive policies, managing the curriculum, and evaluating pre-service teachers’ learning outcomes. Teacher education programmes may in turn shape the practices of curriculum leaders in terms of changing the education system requirements. Curriculum leaders at university level have a role to play in policy formulation and resource allocation; at school level, they have a role in determining educational curriculum structure, course objectives and academic credit management; and at classroom level, they have a role in developing course content and pedagogy.

In a presentation from the Singaporean context, Understanding teachers’ design talk for the co-creation of seamless science inquiry, Ching Sing Chai discussed the TPACK Framework and its various revisions and extensions in recent studies, before coming to focus on TPASK (Technological Pedagogical And Science Knowledge). He suggested that teachers need to design instruction with technology in order to develop their TPK; they should learn through designing in a collaborative community; they should be supported with appropriate scaffolds; and finally they need to engage in reflective experiential learning. Design talk embedded in a dialogic design, he went on to say, is key to supporting the emergence of TPACK. Sustainability and scalability ultimately come through teachers, so teacher development is more and more important in today’s world.

He described a Singaporean study involving the  5E (Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration and Evaluation) approach for science inquiry-based learning, used as a PCK framing. Teachers talked about designing lessons for Grade 3/4 students. Mobile devices were used in various ways, including for seamless science learning (for example, students taking pictures and explaining heat sources in their own houses). The software used included KWL, Sketchbook, MapIt, Blurb (from the University of Michigan) and other tools (Nearpod, PowerPoint, Google, etc). The content of teachers’ design discussions was analysed to identify references to TK, PK, CK, TPK, TCK, PCK, TPCK, and CTX (representing context). A lot of the initial discussion was about TK but this element declined over time; conversely, the amount of discussion involving PCK increased over time, as did the discussion involving TPASK (but this was at a much lower level). CTX featured strongly but also decreased over time. The resulting model is quite different from the theoretical TPACK model (see image below).

A possible depiction of TPASK in design

A possible depiction of TPASK in design (Ching Sing Chai, 2017)

In a presentation from the Hong Kong context, Cultivating academic integrity and ethics of university students with augmented reality mobile learning trails, Theresa Kwong and Grace Ng showcased the mobile AR TIEs (Trails of Integrity and Ethics) developed by HKBU and its partner institutions in a Hong Kong-government funded project (a project on which I am also a consultant). As she pointed out, this is learning in the style of Pokémon Go, but in fact this project began around 18 months before the release of Pokémon Go. It is all about linking the environment to relevant educational content, in this case related to themes of academic integrity and ethics. Given that students find these AR trails motivating and helpful in connecting theoretical content with their everyday lives, this is an approach which is highly relevant to present and future educators and teacher educators.

In a presentation from the Taiwanese context, Mobile learning x cloudclassroom = ?, Chun-Yen Chang suggested that the spread of mobile devices along with BYOD policies means that the moment is right to be implementing mobile learning. The Taiwanese Ministry of Education has run collaborative projects on mobile learning in schools, and has set up a Teaching Application Mall of educational apps. He went on to describe his CCR (CloudClassRoom) project which supports mobile-assisted anonymous quizzes and presents teachers with aggregated data. It can be used, he said, in museums, outdoors, online, and in the ‘Asian silent classroom’. Polling students before and after lessons can be an ideal way of tracking changes in their understandings.

In a presentation from the Australian context, Teaching teachers how to go mobile: What’s happening in Australia?, Grace Oakley suggested that although mobile technologies are being used in many Australian schools, mobile learning is not developing as quickly as might be hoped, nor are its boundaries being pushed. There are many policy barriers, she added, including duty of care issues, funding, behaviour management issues, cybersafety, testing regimes, school processes, and equity issues. She then illustrated some activities with mobile devices being carried out in primary schools: oral retelling with Puppet Pals; learning prepositions with a camera and the Book Creator app; media presentations with Tellagami; and mobile augmented reality learning trails created with FreshAiR. She wrapped up with a discussion of how digital technologies, digital literacies, and mobile learning are beginning to feature in initial teacher education courses as well as in resource platforms for practising teachers, such as the Digital Technologies Hub. She indicated that some pre-service teachers are beginning to create mobile learning activities for their students, but she concluded by asking whether they are getting enough opportunities to do so.

In a presentation from the Irish context, Mobile learning on an initial teacher education progamme – MGO programme, Seán Ó Grádaigh showcased the technological changes that have occurred in the last decade. Uber is the largest transport company in the world, but has no cars; Facebook, Twitter and WeChat are the largest content platforms in the world, but they produce no content; Alibaba is the largest shopping mall in the world, but it has no shops; and Netflix is the largest cinema in the world, but has no movie theatres. However, he argued, we haven’t seen a game-changing application in education yet. Still, given the speed of changes, we need to be educating students for the future.

There is a misconception that better technology – from kitchen mixers through cameras to gym equipment – will lead to changes by itself. The same is true in education. But what is required is a vision, a plan, professional development, and pedagogical (as opposed to technological) training. In terms of the technology available, most schools are way ahead of most teacher training programmes, a situation that needs to change.

He went on to suggest that using technology to facilitate reflective practice by pre-service teachers may be a game changer. His students are asked to do reflections – hot reflections straight after a class, and cold reflections where they later revisit their initial reflections – using text, audio, video, or videoconferencing. He showed an example of a teaching video with a voiceover where the pre-service teacher provided commentary on her performance. She then received feedback from two tutors. The five steps followed in this task are:

  • Students create and construct a lesson
  • Students deliver and record it
  • Students watch and analyse it
  • Students create a reflective voiceover on their video
  • Students receive feedback on their reflection from tutors

He continued by suggesting that digital technologies can help to recreate immersive learning contexts for language learning as well as other subjects. However, rather than passively listening or watching, it is better to build inquiry activities around multimedia materials like videos. Teachers and students can also become actively involved in multimedia creation. Involving students in ‘teach-back’ activities is a great way to check that they have understood what they are learning.

In another presentation anchored in the Hong Kong context but with wide global relevance, entitled Learning design and mobile technologies in STEM education, Daniel Churchill explained that STEM is an approach to learning that removes traditional barriers separating science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and integrates them into real-world, rigorous and relevant learning experiences for students. It aims to improve learning in STEM areas; improve teaching effectiveness; deal with the shortage of STEM professionals in the future; include minorities, achieve gender balance, and provide opportunities for low-income members of society; decrease unemployment; foster international competitiveness in the 21st century; and help provide solutions to internationally pressing problems. Ideally, STEM should be not only multidisciplinary (where concepts and skills are taught separately in each discipline but housed within a common theme) or interdisciplinary (where there is the introduction of closely linked concepts and skills from two or more disciplines with the aim of deepening understanding and skills) but transdisciplinary (where knowledge or skills from two or more disciplines are applied to real-world problems and projects with the aim of shaping the total learning experience). There are both scientific and engineering approaches to STEM; in the latter, there are phases of problem scoping, idea generation, design and construction, design evaluation, and redesign. Challenges include insufficient teacher training; insufficient teacher knowledge of STEM; insufficient funding; insufficient laboratory resources and technicians; insufficient community support and media coverage; preferences for music, sport, and academic subjects; a student focus on exam preparation; learning computer coding without any logical or systematic thinking; and a focus on rote memorisation and a lack of depth of conceptual understanding.

He went on to explore six key affordances of  mobile technologies for STEM:

  • multimodal content (e.g., in the form of dynamic, interactive learning objects)
  • linkage of technologies (i.e., a mobile phone can connect to a whole ecology of digital devices)
  • capture (e.g., taking photos or making videos, capturing GPS position and acceleration, etc)
  • representation (e.g., programming a robot, making a digital story, creating a presentation, etc)
  • analytical (i.e., processing and looking for patterns in data)
  • socially interactive

Combining these affordances, he suggested, leads to new learning possibilities. Key tools include robotics, 3D printing, and cognitive tools.

He concluded by saying that STEM should not be just another science, maths or technology class. Learning design based on (pre-) engineering tasks is the critical strategy for STEM education, he argued, and STEM can be conceptualised based on an interaction model. Mobile and emerging technologies are essential for enabling STEM: these include virtual reality, augmented reality, wearables, and so on.

In his presentation, Key issues in mobile learning: A research framework, Pedro Isaías spoke of a range of current developments and challenges in mobile learning. He began by talking about the ubiquitousness pillar of mobile learning. He described the development of mobile LMSs, but mentioned that they have generally not really been designed for mobile devices. He asked whether they can be truly mobile-friendly without compromising navigation. He went on to emphasise the importance of creating responsive designs by following these guidelines: use mobile-friendly layouts, compress content, concentrate on the essential, format your text, and test the course on several platforms.

He went on to address the authenticity pillar of mobile learning, stressing the role of wearable technologies in education: for example, for interactive simulations, facial recognition for identifying students, creating first-person videos, and enhancing game participation. The challenges include cost, design concerns, privacy issues, familiarisation with the interface – digital literacies are needed here – and technical challenges. Augmented reality, he said, also has an important role to play in promoting authentic learning: it increases student engagement, mediates between students and the world, supports problem solving, enhances motivation, and provides access to real-world scenarios. One challenge is that students may become overly focused on the technology rather than the learning, and there are cost implications. He illustrated his comments with a video about the SNHU (Southern New Hampshire University) AR app, and a video about simulated 3D objects generated from textbook images with Arloopa. Gamification, too, can contribute to authenticity. Gamification should not be about external rewards, but about learning objectives. It enhances student motivation, provides ubiquitous access to resources, facilitates authentic and situated learning, improves peer interaction, promotes technical literacy, and fosters teamwork. Mobile learning game essentials, he said, are: an introduction and logo, instructions, a game objective, questions, feedback and results.

He then addressed the personalisation pillar of mobile learning, which is linked to mobile learning analytics, artificial intelligence, and geolocation. There are some concerns around data privacy and informed consent with analytics. With mobile intelligent systems, advantages include the fact that students can be taught according to their knowledge; adaptive learning methods; individualised adaptive teaching; explanation of teaching content; and automatic generation of exercises. Some LMSs provide geolocation features: this allows delivery of content according to location, designing of location-based online content, reaching a global audience, and consideration of cultural differences. Geolocation examples include language-adaptable subtitles, scavenger hunts, and geocaching games.

Finally, he addressed the collaboration pillar, which is about social learning and the e-society. Mobile learning harnesses the potential of social learning, promoting collaboration, discussion and knowledge exchange. But it is important to consider the quality of the interactions, and to think about the role of the teacher in the students’ discussions. Mobile learning involves the production of multimedia content, allows ubiquitous access to information, encourages the development of digital literacy, and creates informed citizens. There may be some issues around data privacy and security, and we must ask whether an increasingly mobile society may lead to an expansion of the digital divide.

In a presentation looking at future developments in mobile learning through wearables, The research on pedagogical feedback tactics of affective tutoring system based on physiological responses, Qin Huang suggested that in time wearable devices will be able to detect humans’ real emotions by registering physiological signals. She gave details of a study making use of the OCC emotional classification model, which is one of the most complete models and the first structural model used in the field of artificial intelligence. With good calculability, she said, it is widely used in the field of emotional computing.

Sun Tower & Moon Tower, Guilin, China

Sun Tower (日塔) & Moon Tower (月塔), Guilin, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The conference concluded with an MTech Steering Group meeting to discuss future directions for the MTech Network, how to gather more responses to the MTech survey and collaboratively publish our research, and when and where to meet again for another conference event. It is likely that the second MTech Conference will be held in China in late 2018.

A springtime of language learning & technology

IAFOR ACLL/ACTC Conference
Kobe, Japan
11-14 May, 2017

Kobe, Japan

Kobe, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

The annual conferences, The Asian Conference on Language Learning and The Asian Conference on Technology in the Classroom, came together over several days in an IAFOR-organised event in Kobe in the midst of Japanese springtime this year. Along with keynotes that gave broad overviews of the conference theme of ‘Educating for Change’, there were numerous papers presenting different aspects of teaching and learning with digital technologies.

In his opening keynote, Change in Japanese tertiary education: Implementing content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in Japan, Ted O’Neill spoke of how the European concept of CLIL is beginning to make inroads into Japan, with content being taught through the target language, and the target language simultaneously being investigated through the content. In CLIL, there should be constant feedback, he suggested, between content and language. It is possible to have both soft and hard versions of CLIL, with educators at either end of this spectrum potentially being able to meet, over time, in the middle. Offering CLIL, he went on to say, helps prepare for globalisation; helps students access international certifications; and sends a strong message about plurilingual education. In preparing students for future studies, he mentioned, it is possible to offer modules focusing on ICTs incorporating international lexis.

In my own keynote, Beyond web 2.0: Designing authentic mobile learning for everyday contexts in Asia, I suggested that we need to move beyond web 2.0, while retaining the best of its elements of personalisation and collaboration in learning, but using mobile devices and especially mobile augmented reality to add in greater elements of authenticity, situatedness and contextualisation. I showcased mobile AR learning trails from Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong to demonstrate how educators are already establishing successful precedents in this area.

In her keynote, Instructional designers as agents for change: Facilitating the next generation of technology-enhanced learning, Barbara Lockee outlined the ADDIE Learning Design Model, involving stages of analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation. The wider setting is now changing, she argued, leading to the need for instructional designers to address the advent of learning sciences, the rise of flexible opportunities through for-profit institutions, the emergence of a culture of innovation in universities, and the renewed interest in personalised learning opportunities. She went on to say that the field of instructional design and technology originated in the convergence of media and technology, and suggested that designers can leverage what is known about human learning in the systematic design of instructional solutions. Ultimately, instructional designers can function as change agents across a range of disciplines. Importantly, she also noted that technology doesn’t always have to be part of the solutions that instructional designers propose.

She finished by suggesting that the next generation of technology-enhanced learning can be sparked through collaborative, creative thinking about how to leverage the affordances of technological innovations and overcome barriers to the adoption of innovation for the advancement of learning – something that is possible at conferences like this one.

Among the many presentations on the use of digital technologies in education, the tools and techniques considered ranged from educational apps and platforms, digital storytelling and gaming through the flipped approach to mobile learning, including mobile augmented reality (AR) and robots.

In her presentation, An investigation of the integration of synchronous online tools into task-based language teaching: The example of SpeakApps, Nouf Aljohani reported on an initiative where female Saudi students, who normally have insufficient opportunities to practise spoken English outside the classroom, were asked to use SpeakApps to increase their amount of practice. The video chat function allowed up to six students at a time to engage in an online chat, with the recorded conversation being uploaded to a blog where it could be revisited to identify strengths and weaknesses. Students met online for an hour a week outside of class. Each speaking task had a communicative purpose, involved students in authentic tasks to develop critical thinking skills, and related to the Saudi context.

In their presentation, A case study of using Edmodo to enhance language learning for Japanese and British students at tertiary level, Shinji Okumura and Miho Inaba suggested that the term CALL is somewhat outdated, with TELL (Technology Enhanced Language Learning) and MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) being more contemporary expressions. He described the Edmodo platform, indicating its similarities to Facebook. He went on to report on a project where Japanese and British students conversed on Edmodo, using a mixture of Japanese and English language. The Japanese students felt that they had improved their English skills, including in areas such as organising texts in English and learning native English expressions; the British students also felt that they had gained valuable Japanese language practice and learned more about Japanese society. Most Japanese students used their smartphones to participate, and did so in moments of downtime, such as when waiting for trains. However, more frequent opportunities for interaction would have been preferable, and the groups were a little too large to permit close interaction. For the British students, who were at a lower level in Japanese, it was very time-consuming to type posts and read replies, and they needed teachers’ help to complete the tasks.

Turning to the use of technology in an underdeveloped context in their presentation, Shifting the paradigm in higher education: Students’ progression towards ICT-supported learning in a resource-constrained context, Peshal Khanal, Prem Narayan Aryal and Ellen Carm outlined a blended learning project for continuous professional development of teachers in Nepal. Within the project, Moodle was used as a platform along with Classjump (though the latter is no longer available), and teachers were encouraged to interact on Facebook as well. Aside from access and opportunities, students’ progression towards the use of ICTs was found to depend on factors such as perceived benefits, prior knowledge, learning difficulty, and the role of change agents (teachers) in motivating them. Over time, many students came to appreciate the learning potential of the internet. Issues included: access and reliability of technology, the dominance of traditional pedagogy, and teacher favoritism of bright students over others. Gender issues also surfaced: girls were reluctant to take the lead voluntarily in group work, and there was a feeling of insecurity around girls working and learning in what was generally understood as an unusual time and environment.

In her talk, Digital storytelling as assessment for learning in mathematics education, Sylvia Taube spoke about addressing early childhood pre-service teachers’ fears of mathematics through digital storytelling. Drawing on the work of Helen Barrett, she suggested that digital storytelling facilitates the convergence of four student-centred learning strategies:

  • Student engagement
  • Reflection for deep learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Effective integration of technology in instruction

Drawing on the work of Robin (2006), she went on to say that there are seven key elements of digital storytelling. These help students to convey their messages and their associated emotions effectively:

  • Point of view
  • A dramatic question
  • Emotional content
  • The gift of voice
  • The power of the soundtrack
  • Economy
  • Pacing

Digital stories may be personal narratives; may examine historical events; and may inform or instruct.

She explained that she formerly asked her pre-service teachers to write about their own experiences of learning maths at school, but now she asks them to create multimedia digital stories. She showed an example of a story which was created in PowerPoint overlaid with other tools like Snapchat, including extensive use of AR effects to emphasise emotions in the video narration. Other students used Prezi, Animoto, PowToon, VoiceThread or Adobe Spark. Reflecting on past negative maths learning experiences helped many of them to realise what they need to do to help their own students in the future. She suggested that these digital storytelling skills will be very useful for these future teachers who can use the technology to help explain mathematics concepts to their students.

In her presentation, Digital games for English language learning: Students’ experiences, attitudes and recommendations, Louise Ohashi referred to the work of James Gee (2005), mentioning key learning principles of good games:

  • identity
  • interaction
  • production
  • risk-taking
  • customisation
  • agency
  • well-ordered problems
  • challenge and consolidation
  • just-in-time or on demand
  • situated meanings
  • pleasantly frustrating
  • system thinking
  • explore, think laterally, rethink goals
  • smart tools and distributed knowledge
  • cross-functional teams
  • performance before competence

She went on to report on a research project where she asked Japanese learners of English (n=102) about their experiences with digital games in English, and their attitudes towards games as a learning tool. Smartphones were the devices most commonly used by students to play games in English; in the previous 12 months, 31% had played an English game in class, and 50% out of class. There was a mixture of commercial games (Call of Duty, Battlefield, Grand Auto Theft, etc) and educational games (TOEIC Galaxy, Quizlet, Kahoot, etc). The majority of students thought it was valuable to play digital games in study time. Their comments suggested that they found games motivating and that in many cases they helped them to improve their English.

In her presentation, Flipping the classroom: Voices of teachers, Anna Ma reported on her research on the flipped approach in Hong Kong. She indicated that many teachers are already flipping their classes, though they may not be using video, and they may not be calling what they do a flipped approach. The flipped approach is in fact nothing new, though it may be becoming more popular. She outlined five key misconceptions about the flipped approach among teachers, as found in her research:

  • Video is a must (though it can be very effective, it’s not a requirement)
  • I have not done any flipping (teachers don’t realise they may already be doing this but without using video)
  • It’s very time-consuming because I have to redo everything
  • To flip or not to flip: there are no other options (it is possible to partly flip a class)
  • I am not a techie; I don’t know anything about video or creating a video

Challenges include motivating students to watch the videos or do the other preparation before class; the sense of competition among teachers to create flipped classes; parents who think a flipped approach is akin to a kind of home schooling; a lack of technological resources for teachers; and the time demands on busy teachers.

The key point about the flipped approach, she concluded, referring to the work of Bergmann and Sams, is not about the videos, but about what can be done with the additional time in class.

In a different take on the flipped approach focused at primary level in the Philippines, The flipped classroom: Teaching the basic science process skills to high-performing 2nd grade students of Miriam College Lower School, Mark Camiling outlined some advantages of using a flipped approach: asynchronous quality; having class at home and doing homework in school; and more time for the teacher to detect students’ difficulties and needs. Challenges include internet connectivity; resource quality; student resistance; and deciding on curation versus creation of flipped content. Although some people might consider that primary students are not responsible enough or digitally literate enough, he found in his research that a flipped approach can be effective at primary level. It may also help to prepare younger students for future use of ICTs in school. It seems, however, that the flipped approach may work better for high-achieving than low-achieving students.

In their paper, Maximising the tablet learning experience: A study of MCHS Mathematics 7 teacher awareness and readiness in using tablet-based pedagogy, Lyle Espinosa, Mon Ritche Bacero and Lady Angela Rocena reported on a study of teachers’ attitudes to tablet use. It was found that teachers mainly used tablets as e-book readers in the classroom, and they used them in their lesson preparation to search for supplementary online resources and apps. Nevertheless, teachers agreed unanimously that tablets helped them explore new teaching techniques, and that they promoted student collaboration. The teachers viewed themselves as ‘engineers of lessons’ with the tablet as their tool. At the same time, teachers always prepared backups in case of technological problems. They were concerned that students were more knowledgeable than they were, and that there was an expectation that teachers should learn about new technologies without formal training.

In their paper, Using and developing educational applications for mobile devices as a tool for learning, Andrey Koptelov and James Hynes reported on a survey of teachers around Houston, USA, where they discovered that the three most commonly used educational apps were Kahoot, Plickers and Nearpod. While these are not pedagogically sophisticated, they can be engaging for students. The authors went on to suggest that students can be asked to create their own mobile apps, and that it is useful for pre-service teachers to have this design skillset. Their students created Android apps with MIT’s open source App Inventor, an example of a cloud-based IDE (Integrated Development Environment), which provides all the tools needed to develop a programme, in this case a mobile app. Other IDEs that can be used by students with no previous programming experience include Ionic Creator (iOS and Android) and Apple Swift Playground (iOS only).

When the pre-service teachers were asked to design an app, they had to fill in a spreadsheet covering the following details:

  • Name of app/cost
  • Platform/need for internet connection
  • Detailed description of app
  • Subject/grade level where app could be used
  • Main use of app in the classroom (instruction, assessment, collaboration, etc)
  • Which students will benefit most (ESL, special education, gifted and talented, etc)
  • Blooms Taxonomy level or Vygotsky’s ZPD that could be targeted with app
  • Benefits of app for teacher/school or parents/community
  • Other comments

Only after undertaking this exercise were students asked to begin work with App Inventor to build the app itself. They got help from group members and guidance from the instructor. The next step then involved testing, feedback and reflection.

In their presentation, Augmented reality design principles for informal learning, Eric Hawkinson, Parisa Mehran, Mehrasa Alizadeh and Erin Noxon showcased a variety of case studies of AR, demonstrating how it can lead to real world connections and learner customisation. In one case, they showed the engagement of participants at TEDxKyoto. In another, they showed how students undertook an orientation activity to familiarise themselves with the university library, which involved students scanning AR markers placed around the library as they participated in an imaginary story where they had to search for clues to hunt a thief. Using the AR cards produced by the research team, students can also set up links to digital content they have created. Examples of these and other uses of AR can be seen in Eric Hawkinson’s ARientation Project YouTube channel.

In his presentation, Social robots as peer tutors for pre-travel study abroad preparation, Paul Wallace explained that when students are preparing to go abroad on study placements, they need greater familiarity with everyday norms of language use.

Social robotics focuses on developing machines capable of interacting with humans to assist and achieve progress in convalescence, rehabilitation, training and education. Robots are designed to be engaging but not threatening; embodiment in human form is engaging, and the non-threatening design aids belief that the robot is non-judgemental. The NAO V5 Robot “Max” has speakers, microphones, eyelids, cameras, sonars, prehensile hands with sensors, and a wifi connection to retrieve information from the web. It can have 19 different languages installed. It is programmable (using a software package called Choreographe) and is semi-autonomous, and it is possible to create scenarios and levels for its interactions.

The robot can be programmed as a language and cultural tutor for students who are going abroad. Programmes can be launched by showing the robot a NAO mark, which functions something like a QR code; it can then switch into a pre-programmed scenario. Levels can be set so that the robot recognises a range of pronunciations, or so that pronunciation must be very precise – this can be adjusted depending on the levels of the language learners. The robot is not meant to replace a human tutor, but it does offer advantages in terms of:

  • availability (e.g., languages not available locally)
  • access (24/7)
  • flexibility (it never gets tired or offended)
  • customisation
  • adaptability (threshholds, speaking speeds)
  • personalisation
  • feedback (visual or audio feedback, recording and repeating students’ responses)
  • interactive help
  • student anxiety (non-threatening design to counteract foreign language anxiety)
Kobe cable car

Kobe cable car, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

All in all, we spent several days in rich discussions about the theme of educating for change. On the technological side, a key overarching theme was that different technology types and levels are appropriate for different teachers and students in different contexts, but that bringing together a range of researchers and practitioners from varying backgrounds facilitates the emergence of new ideas and insights in intercultural, interdisciplinary conversations.

New hardware, new software, and new questions about learning

mLearn
Sydney, Australia
24-26 October, 2016

syd16b

Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

After an absence of three years, it was great to be back at mLearn, which took place this year at the University of Technology Sydney. As always, this conference brought together an international spread of expertise and contemporary research in mobile learning, focused in 2016 on the theme of Mobile Learning Futures: Sustaining Quality Research and Practice in Mobile Learning. Presentations covered new hardware (such as wearables), new software (such as AR and VR interfaces), new strategies (such as gaming), new questions about mobile teaching and learning, and the intersection points between all of these. Many of these presentations are written up in the conference proceedings.

New hardware – in connection with  new software – was showcased in the presentation, The use of wearable technologies in Australian universities: Examples from environmental science, cognitive and brain sciences and teacher training, where Victor Alvarez, Matt Bower, Sara de Freitas, Sue Gregory and Bianca de Wit began by showcasing the Vandrico Wearables Database, which lists the main wearables available for different parts of the body (see Figure 1).

Vandrico Wearables Database. Source: http://vandrico.com/wearables/

Figure 1. Vandrico Wearables Database. Source: http://vandrico.com/wearables/

They went on to give some examples of the use of wearables at Australian universities.  The first example was Murdoch University’s Conserv-AR mixed reality mobile game to promote awareness of wildlife conservation in Western Australia; there is an augmented reality field trip followed by a visit to a conservation island in virtual reality. The second was Macquarie University’s Portable Teaching Laboratory, involving a gaming headset to monitor brain activity in the cognitive and brain sciences. The third was the University of New England’s Virtual Teacher project involving student teachers engaging in classroom roleplays in the virtual world Second Life as part of their preparation for their first professional experience placements. As the authors pointed out, wearable technologies can thus be used in a wide variety of different ways in a wide variety of different areas; in some ways, wearables involve more research complexities than handheld mobiles because there are so many possible variations in the hardware, software, and pedagogical approaches.

In the presentation, Perceived utility and feasibility of wearable technologies in higher education, Matt Bower, Daniel Sturman and Victor Alvarez mentioned key areas where wearables are being used, from medical diagnosis through aged care to the social implications of facial recognition augmented with personal information. They gave an overview of the educational affordances of wearable technologies, as showcased in Bower and Sturman’s 2015 article ‘What are the educational affordances of wearable technologies?‘ They then went on to discuss eight use cases of wearables that were rated for utility and feasibility in an international survey, noting that there were significant differences in many cases between perceived utility and perceived feasibility. Key issues surrounding wearable use mentioned by respondents were cost; technological issues; lack of pedagogical benefits; distraction or disruption; resistance to change; and privacy and legal issues. This is an area where there is really a considerable gap between potential utility and current feasibility in education, notably in terms of cost.

Contemporary software was showcased in the presentation, WhatsApp in mLearning: The (learning) medium is the message(r), where Christopher Pang spoke of the phenomenal rise in popularity of the OTT (over the top) platform, WhatsApp. He asked how habitual use of a mobile platform like WhatsApp shapes a learner’s practices. M-learning offers an additional platform for e-learning, he suggested, and can be a motivational aid to e-learning. Beyond this, it can support collaborative learning and informal learning, and supports the blurring of boundaries and role distances.

In this study, he created weekly replacement, supplementary and complementary tasks for business students, given to trial and control groups, followed up by self-reported questionnaires, revisiting of conversation threads, and selected interviews. However, even in the control group which was not specifically asked to use WhatsApp, students were already using it extensively.

Overall, he found that the use of the mobile app drove online completion and led to higher completion rates. Students demonstrated self-directedness and elements of lifelong learning. They were very willing to receive formative feedback through WhatsApp, including students who normally would not ask questions in class. Students also used WhatsApp groups for group sourcing of answers; the dilemma for a tutor in a WhatsApp group is whether to intervene or allow students to work out the answers for themselves. In conclusion, he noted that active WhatsApp students were likely to show greater learner negotiation, greater agency, and greater learning effectiveness; and were more likely to show a drive towards self-directed learning, to seek personalised learning and co-creation of learning opportunities, and to connect data to generate new learning.

In my own paper, On the path to situated learning: Embedding academic integrity via mobile augmented reality learning trails, co-authored with Eva Wong and Theresa Kwong, my colleagues from Hong Kong Baptist University, I spoke about the outcomes experienced to date, at approximately the midway point of a 3-year Hong Kong-government-funded project where AR TIEs (Trails of Integrity and Ethics)  have been developed to help students connect formal learning about integrity and ethics with the everyday situations they face on campus. The trails immerse students in collaborative problem-solving tasks centred on ethical dilemmas, addressed in real-world locations where such dilemmas might arise, with contextually appropriate digital advice and information available on hand. By allowing students to play out the consequences of their decisions, this approach is designed to complement classroom engagement and, in particular, to reinforce the links between theoretical learning and the practical application of such learning in everyday contexts. Results to date indicate the value of situated learning in helping students to integrate ethical understandings into their everyday study practices. At the same time, numerous challenges have arisen, leading to an ongoing reshaping of the trail designs as we seek to capitalise on the potential of mobile learning to turn academic integrity and ethics from a formal requirement into a set of considerations that inform students’ daily lives.

In another paper, Factors in designing an augmented reality m-learning trail with place-based pedagogy in residential education, my colleagues Kevin Yue, Lisa Law, Hiu Ling Chan, Jade Chan, Elaine Wong, Theresa Kwong and Eva Wong spoke about the Hall Tutors TIE (Trail of Integrity and Ethics), which is one of the subject-specific trails forming part of the same Hong Kong project outlined above. It was explained that ethical reasoning and judgement skills can be more effectively developed when linked with personal experiences. Therefore a learning trail was created in which student hall tutors explore a scenario-based story to help them develop a more personal understanding of their roles. The presenters used a visualiser to demonstrate the underpinning mobile app, giving the audience a sense of the digital screens, information and choices through which students move when taking the trail. Visualisations of keywords used by students in pre- and post-trail online discussions have revealed a shift from a focus on ‘rules’ to a focus on being a ‘role model’, suggesting a change of mindset among the student hall tutors, who seem to have developed a new sense of their roles.

In their presentation, Understanding the relationship  between augmented reality games and educational pedagogies, Christine Redman and Joanne Blannin discussed the educational potential of the AR game Ingress (an older but more complex game from the same company, Niantic, that created Pokémon Go; see Figure 2) in terms of motivation, learning theories, pedagogical strategies, 21st century skills, and a STEM focus. They are using Positioning Theory to understand people’s motivation to play and continue playing. The game requires players to move between the real and the virtual and to connect with other people. In the game, players receive constant and instant feedback, and there is a complex, multifaceted reward system. There are 16 levels, with each level taking longer than the last, and more badges are needed to move on. There are two teams, Green and Blue, which need to remain in communication, with team members collaboratively planning major goals.

ingress1

Figure 2. A comparison of Ingress and Pokémon Go player views. Source: https://goo.gl/7kTDgm

From an educational perspective, we can say that learners know where they are up to and can predict strategies to move on in the game; have clear intentions; have explicit success criteria; and have constant feedback on progress. Playing a game like this, the authors suggested, can lead to the development of enterprise skills, 21st century skills, and the 7C skills. In particular, the game rewards strategic thinking, problem solving, memory, spatial awareness, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. Elements of geography and environmental awareness, history and architecture, mathematics and spatial skills, are also prominent in the game. It is played by people of all ages and there are numerous women in leading roles. Active participation in the game often involves learning, and sometimes also teaching others.

In the presentation, Location-based mobile learning games: Motivation for and engagement with the learning process, Roger Edmonds and Simon Smith suggested that GPS and maps can power up experiences with authentic location interaction, while storytelling and rich media deliver learning, personalisation and an emotional connection, and gameplay helps with retention and recollection of knowledge.  They described location-based mobile learning games created using the Mobile Learning Academy platform, which does not require programming knowledge; some have been created by lecturers, but students are now also generating their own games. Typically, the design stage of a game involves identifying and scoping out the game and creating context with a story. The development stage involves using gaming software to link rich media to places, and adding location-interaction tasks and gameplay, before testing and publishing. The play stage involves walking to places, triggering the activation of content and tasks, performing challenges, answering quizzes, uploading photos and notes, and finally sharing experiences via Facebook and Twitter.

In a study of students’ responses to the four lecturer-created games, engagement did not vary much between the four different disciplines, but whether the students thought they understood more about the topic did vary – key considerations were design factors (e.g., content, duration, level of difficulty, location, tasks, and competencies) and implementation strategies (how the game is integrated with tutorials or excursions, and whether it is mandatory or voluntary). In conclusion, location-based mobile games do provide active, authentic, engaging educational experiences in higher education, but the pedagogical benefits are influenced by game design factors and implementation strategies. Further information is available on the project’s companion website, Pedagogy Go.

In their presentation, Using mobile serious games technology to enhance student engagement and learning in a postgraduate ethics classroom, Gillian McGregor and Emma Bartle explored the opportunity for technology to contribute to the teaching and learning of applied psychology skills in the form of a serious game called How Do You Feel (which can be downloaded for Android devices here or played in the Firefox or Internet Explorer web browsers here). Intended to supplement rather than replace teaching in a professional psychology programme, the game involves a series of scenarios where clients present a variety of issues, allowing students to safely build up their skills in dealing with clients. In preliminary findings, it has been established that student engagement is greater when using the serious game than when reading a static case study. Students liked the connection to real life, being able to see the theory in practice, seeing examples of what psychologists could say when encountering different scenarios, and discussing the scenarios with peers.

In their presentation, A mobile learning framework for developing educational games and its pilot study for secondary mathematics education, Yanguo Jing and Alastair Craig described how they structured a game around GCSE maths skills, with each level of the game focusing on different skills. Students enjoyed the game and thought it helped them learn key concepts and skills. Learning theory and game design principles are fundamentally important in creating successful educational games. The future plan is to employ more social and multiplayer elements to increase the level of student engagement.

In their presentation, Survive with the VUVU on the Vaal: Eyetracking findings of a user interface evaluation of a mobile serious game for statistics education, Seugnet Blignaut, Gordon Matthew and Lizanne Fitchat suggested that balancing fun and teaching in serious games can be challenging. They described a game for students at a rural South African university which teaches everyday life skills alongside basic statistics. Eyetracking software provided quantitative data revealing where students were and were not focusing on the screen. Qualitative data revealed students’ concerns over the user interface (including for some students who were familiar with mobile technologies but not with a mouse when the game was played on a PC), game instructions (including the need to have these available throughout the game), 3D graphics (which were limited compared to commercial games), and the game challenges (with a need to individualise the levels and adjust them to players’ competencies). Two key lessons learned were that eyetracking devices and usability interviews are not unobtrusive and reduce players into subjects; and that students should be continuously involved in the conceptualisation and production of the game.

Key teaching and learning themes were flagged up in the paper, Does the mobility of mobile learners across locations affect memory?, where Chrysanthi Tseloudi and Immaculada Arnedillo-Sánchez opened by stating that mobile learning research focuses on the flow of learning as learners move through physical, technological, conceptual, social and temporal dimensions. This paper focused on the physical contexts, and asked whether learners’ memory is challenged when they try to recall learning from one context in a different context. Environmental elements can become encoded in memory along with the learning that is taking place; it may be a struggle to remember what we have learned in a different context where the same environmental cues are not present. This is a major challenge for mobile learning. Possible strategies include mentally reinstating the original learning context, i.e., essentially remembering the place you were in when learning (though learners vary in their ability to do this), or suppressing the surrounding context when learning (which may be difficult to do in an environment rich with stimuli, some of which might be relevant to the learning). Decontextualisation of learning may be a preferable approach; in other words, it may be more promising to learn in multiple contexts, and make the learning available in many different places.

In sum, should we really be trying to learn “anywhere” – and should we be learning in the exact place in which we need the information, or in many different places? This is currently unanswered. We need to research how much mobility is needed to facilitate decontextualisation, how artificial and real contexts interact, and what elements learners can manipulate to reinstate or vary their own contexts. In mobile learning research, they suggested, we should be investigating contextualisation in parallel with decontextualisation.

In an interesting follow-up discussion, Jocelyn Wishart raised the idea that a key advantage of mobile devices is allowing users to recreate contextualisation of learning through the multimodal records we make at the time when learning occurs. It was suggested by others that the context may sometimes but not always be relevant to learning, and that different strategies might be needed depending on the case. Kevin Burden commented that another advantage of mobile devices in learning is reducing the cognitive load because information can be partly offloaded to the device and carried with the learner.

In the presentation, Choosing between a student-generated animation or written assignment: Students know what they want, Hardy Ernst and Laurel Dyson talked about introducing a video-based assignment instead of a written assignment in a course, but although the quality of learning was similar, the videos were disruptive, time-consuming and not appreciated by all students. The following year students were given the choice between a video or written assignment, and it was found that students employed very individual learning strategies. It depended on students’ visual and digital literacy skills, time management, group work preferences, and engagement, with having a choice being more engaging for students. When asked in 2016 about the main reason for their choice of a video or written assignment, it was found that those who didn’t like group work chose the written assignment; other factors influencing the choice either way were students’ perceptions of their ability to manage time, interest, better learning opportunities, and leniency of marking (with many students thinking the videos would be more leniently marked). In a thematic analysis of students’ responses about why they chose the video option, key factors mentioned by students were interest and fun, as well as a belief that the visual mode is a good way to present knowledge, a wish to share ideas, and novelty; these are generally positive factors. Among the students who chose the written assignment, the key factors were working at their own pace and independent learning, as well as the time-consuming nature of making a video and past negative experiences with group work; here there are more negative factors mentioned. In sum, students demonstrated a solid understanding of their own abilities, allowing them to adopt deliberate individual learning strategies.

In his plenary which opened the final day, The role of education in identity transformation and acculturation, John Traxler raised some concerns around mobile learning. He spoke of two ‘elephants in the room’: the notion that mobile technologies are value-free conduits which are morally neutral and serve no-one’s particular interests; and the linked notion of the completion of the European project of modernity.

He spoke of the only partially successful inclusion agenda in Western higher education, which led to a massification process as non-traditional students were brought into education, accompanied by the introduction of computer laboratories as industralised workshops; in this context, mobile devices might represent a more flexible, user-friendly kind of industrialisation. He asked whether the process of acculturation into education adds to or replaces one’s sense of identity, in a process of ‘them’ becoming ‘us’. However, he speculated that with mobile technologies, there is more pressure from the outside world where mobile technologies are widely used, which is beginning to transform education from without – with ‘them’ perhaps starting to transform ‘us’.

Technology, he suggested, distorts the relationship between people and language because of the encoding of characters and the available input mechanisms. Moreover, computing is arguably underpinned by a programming paradigm which does not map well to many natural languages. Technology also has the effect of changing pedagogy, notably as international aid agencies have sought to make their educational missions scalable and sustainable through mobile devices, pushing them towards transmissive pedagogies rather than more constructivist pedagogies, and without taking into account locally relevant pedagogies. Furthermore, much of the education takes place in English. In a sense, technology is a Trojan horse for education, but education itself is a Trojan horse.

The hegemony of US technology, the English language, and European models of pedagogy may be especially challenging for cultures and languages which differ substantially from these; but is the hegemony of middle class values equally challenging for working class, non-traditional students? He spoke of the work of Richard Heeks on ICT4D 2.0, and the need to distinguish between:

  • pro-poor innovation (outside of but on behalf of poor communities)
  • para-poor innovation (working alongside poor communities)
  • per-poor innovation (within and by poor communities).

He went on to discuss the concept of epistemicide, where whole ways of looking at the world are killed off, starting with examples from the European 16th century. This is linked to the hegemony of the European university system around the world, with the University of Cape Town resembling the University of Florence, he suggested. In a different way, it is linked to the growing hegemony of mobile technologies, though the latter may also be producing a kind of postmodernity where knowledge can be generated outside the academy and everyone can discuss and share ideas. As Traxler commented in response to an audience question, the fundamental question may be whether the technology is hegemonic or enabling; and this may depend at least in part on whose hands it is in.

In her workshop, Debating the future for mobile learning in schools, Jocelyn Wishart mentioned that the use of mobile devices in schools varies enormously across the world, ranging from outright bans to an expectation that students will bring and use mobile devices. Mobile phones are also being used in a wide range of different ways, from ways that support learning to ways that distract students from it. She showcased a series of mobile phone policies from schools around the globe to demonstrate just how different the approaches taken by schools are. This was followed by a group discussion about how to balance up the benefits and drawbacks of using mobile devices in education.

In their workshop, The Handbook of Mobile Teaching and Learning, Aimee Zhang and Dean Cristol described the 2015 publication of this book through Springer, as well as outlining plans for a second edition. Given the number of new possibilities emerging in the field, as showcased in the papers at this conference, there will be no shortage of material to include in the new version! Some key emerging focus areas are likely to include wearables and AR/VR.

Jacarandas in blossom, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

Jacarandas in blossom, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence

As always, then, this year’s mLearn Conference highlighted currently emerging themes around mobile learning, providing a snapshot of where we’re at, where we’re heading, and what our most pressing questions are.

New devices, new spaces, and new games

eLearning Forum Asia
Shanghai, China
13-15 June, 2016

Zhujiajiao Old Town (朱家角), Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Zhujiajiao Old Town (朱家角), Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The annual eLFA conference moved this year to Shanghai, where as usual it brought together a mixed group of educators and technologists, especially from the Asian region but also from further afield. There was a strong emphasis this year on the need to make room for students’ use of multiple devices, especially mobile devices, for learning. There was considerable discussion of online learning platforms or spaces where students’ learning experiences can be gathered together; these ranged from traditional LMSs through online platforms like Google Classroom to the cutting-edge developments around MOOCs, learning analytics, and the use of xAPI to track, collate and derive insights from students’ various learning devices and platforms. Another key theme to emerge was gamification, including how it can be applied to platforms ranging from apps through to MOOCs.

In his presentation, Reimagining education, Yves Dehouck, the Vice President of Blackboard, listed six key educational trends of the future as identified by Blackboard:

  • Learner-centric education
  • Non-traditional learners
  • Big data
  • Consumer preferences
  • Education is truly global
  • Online and mobile everywhere

He went on to pick up on the last two points. By 2020, four in 10 of the world’s young graduates in higher education will be coming from China and India. This means a need to further develop the educational infrastructure in those countries, as well as opening up opportunities for the educational systems of the surrounding countries. These students will want to learn anytime, anywhere, on any device.

In her presentation, Pedagogical intelligence: A student lens for inquiry into informal digital learning practices, Caroline Steel, also from Blackboard, argued that it is critical for students to understand the impact that their informal digital learning can have on their formal learning. Digital literacies are now essential for students, along with soft skills like critical thinking and creativity. She explained that we need help our students develop pedagogical intelligence, so that they:

  • gain an understanding of learning and teaching theories
  • gain insights into how they learn and how others learn
  • are aware that teaching styles are as diverse as learning styles (and some may not suit them)
  • are empowered to navigate learning and teaching, by developing the capacity to self-teach and self-regulate their learning
  • are better informed as co-partners in education

She gave an example of a Learning Challenge class where she helped students to develop their understanding in this area. Students benefited in terms of making better use of informal learning and setting their own goals, and they appreciated the inbuilt gaming aspects. Looking towards the future, she suggested that elements of pedagogical intelligence could be foregrounded through some kind of wearable mobile device which offers learning analytics, with gamification and social aspects included.

In my keynote, Developing mobile literacy, which tied in with the theme of the move towards multiple mobile devices in education, I outlined a range of ways that we can deepen students’ learning and engagement as we help them to develop the mobile literacy (and the constituent digital literacies which feed into it) that is so crucial in a digitally enabled mobile world.

In her talk, Seeding learning innovations in continuing education and training in Singapore, Zan Chen spoke about the current context of more global demand for innovation, as product life cycles become shorter and shorter, while we are simultaneously seeing a convergence of technologies, and a need for multidisciplinary research. In this context, there is considerable scope for open innovation. She went on to describe iN.LAB, part of the Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore, which focuses on providing a space to foster collaboration around innovation. She described the half-yearly InnovPlus event, a funded competition designed to catalyse innovation by bringing together organisations facing training/learning challenges and potential solution providers, or teams of solution providers.

In his talk, Using Google Classroom and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as a learning environment to deliver blended learning for a large cohort of students, Yik Sheng Lee reported on a Malaysian action research project involving a study of teachers’ use of Google Classroom and Apps. Despite teachers’ intentions, it was found that the technology was being used overwhelmingly for content delivery rather than to facilitate student collaboration. Drawing on Garrison & Anderson’s Community of Inquiry (CoI) model for online learning, Lee indicated that the affordances of the learning environment – to foster cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence – were thus not being fully utilised, with the current focus being on cognitive presence and students learning individually. This led to two types of interventions: more training, and sharing of teachers’ experiences. This has in turn led to greater adoption of the technology, and the next stage of the research will focus on whether the teachers are using the environment more fully and promoting interactivity.

In her talk, Self-paced learning through co-construction in MOOCs, Betty Hui from CUHK suggested that MOOCs offer a different learning opportunity from traditional classroom learning, with students choosing educators and what courses to take. MOOCs offer flexibility of learning in both self-paced and weekly content. Learning no longer happens in a set or individual context. The possibility for learning in tandem with other learners around the globe is unprecedented. There can be a real opportunity for co-constructing meaning through interactions with global peers.

In his plenary, Developing MOOC-enabled flipped learning courses, Jin-Hyouk Im from UNIST in South Korea suggested that to deal with falling income but higher demands in education, MOOCs and flipped learning are possible strategies worth adopting. He went on to discuss the nature of MOOCs (see figure below). One of the possible limitations of MOOCs is that students may learn passively; the pros include automation and instant feedback. MOOCs can also be used as SPOCs (small private online courses) for one class at a time; this would generally be a paid model, like paying for a textbook.

IMG_1198

Nature of MOOCs (Jin-Hyouk Im, 2016)

Traditionally, we have handled the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in class, and the higher levels in after-class activities; but flipped learning allows us to reverse this. Indeed, MOOCs could be used for the lower levels, and flipped learning for the higher levels, with the highest levels being addressed in class as part of an overall flipped approach; this is a kind of MOOC-enabled flipped learning. He gave the example of the Residential MITx programme as a way of realising this. A partly MOOC-based teaching approach can also offer students the advantage of being able to take some components of their courses from a range of international institutions.

In his presentation,  An analysis model and framework design for a MOOC platform, Nien-Lin Hsueh from Feng Chia University, Taiwan, spoke about the information that an instructor can gain from learning analytics regarding learners’ engagement, where difficulties have arisen, and learners’ performance. Researchers, for their part, can learn about behaviour in MOOCs, what is good video design, and behaviour vs performance. He concluded by emphasising the importance of a goal-driven approach to analysis, and a flexible architecture to tailor the analysis. However, data analysis alone, he said, is not enough.

In his talk, Using xAPI and learning analytics in education, Kin Chew Lim from SIM University, Singapore, spoke about the difficulties of the LMS-centric model: the LMS must always be connected to the internet; it can’t consolidate learning from different devices and social media; the teacher is still the knowledge dispenser and content organiser; the content is mostly text-based and linear; and the widely used multiple-choice questions always have single answers. He asked how, when students use many different types of devices and apps – from mobile devices to AR apps – it is possible to capture their learning.

xAPI has been developed to deal with this; the x stands for ‘experience’. SCORM, which is about packaging interoperable content and linking it into an LMS, is now 15 years old. People these days communicate and collaborate more with mobile devices, but they do not necessarily connect their devices to the internet 24 hours a day. People learn differently through texting, desktop learning, iPads or Android phones. Rustici Software was commissioned to come up with a new e-learning platform; this is xAPI, also commonly referred to as Tin Can API. It is a set of open specifications to track learning experiences, and is still evolving. It is commonly regarded as the next generation after SCORM. xAPI comes down to a noun-verb-object statement, e.g., ‘I watch a video on YouTube’, or ‘I practise yoga’, which can capture a learning experience. It uses JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) to specify the API statements. These records go into an LRS, or Learning Record Store; whether you play a game, do a simulation, write a blog, or watch a YouTube video, this can all be stored in the LRS.

In his plenary, Flipped class and xAPI learning data analysis, Lijie Chin from the Chinese e-Learning Association of Taiwan showed how xAPI has been used in the Taiwanese context. He emphasised the importance of problem-solving approaches and creativity. He spoke about using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy in the context of a flipped approach in such a way as to change the emphasis of learning in the classroom (see figure below).

Bloom's Taxonomy (Lijie Chin, 2016)

Bloom’s Taxonomy (Lijie Chin, 2016)

He then went on to discuss the value of gathering big data from students’ online learning experiences. He outlined the Taipei CooC-Cloud (Taipei CooC-Learning) system, which allows students to use multiple kinds of hardware to access software from diverse companies, all of which conforms to the same technological standard (xAPI) so that students’ learning data can be captured and analysed in a multi-platform database. Insights can be drawn together from all of a student’s learning activities, ranging from their actions in a MOOC to their interactions with an e-book.

Teachers can better understand students’ learning behaviour, allowing them to better support students and modify their teaching as appropriate. Students can also access their own records to gain insight into their learning strengths and weaknesses. More insight is thus available into students’ learning processes, not just the final results. He demonstrated some of the wide range of visualisations of student learning which are available. Students will be able to develop a cloud résumé that they can take away with them at the end of their studies.

In his keynote on Gamification for education, Ping-Cheng (Benson) Yeh from the National Taiwan University spoke about the value of gamification, which should have elements of competition, peer acknowledgement, and smart rules. He gave the example of a probability course where, rather than setting problems for the students, he had students create problems for each other; this meant the students had to understand the content well, and they were able to set complex, creative problems for each other. Students were highly engaged in setting and solving these problems. Gamification, he suggested, pushes students to their limit.

He went on to explain about a second gaming approach he developed, PaGamO, on the Coursera MOOC platform. Students had to complete problems in order to occupy land in a gaming environment, and could purchase monsters from a store to help safeguard the land they had taken over. A worldwide ranking board encouraged students to remain engaged in the game. It was found that there was a high correlation between students’ PaGamO scores and their Coursera grades. When surveyed, students agreed that they could now finish more challenging tasks. PaGamO is currently being used for K12 students in all subjects, for corporate training, and in higher education courses. A variation was also developed for students who, instead of engaging in competition, prefer to develop the land they have occupied in the game.

When it comes to flipped teaching, he suggested it is naïve to simply ask students to start watching lecture videos at home without preparation for this learning style. It is better to have them watch videos together in class to get them used to this kind of approach. When students are asked to watch videos at home, one possibility is to have a poll, for example on Facebook, so students can see that others are watching the videos; another possibility is to have a chat group on WeChat or a similar app where students can post messages as they finish watching the videos. It was found that this peer-to-peer approach increased the percentage of students viewing videos from around 60% to 90%. Those students who have not watched a video can be asked to watch the video at the back of the face-to-face class, while other students participate in the follow-up activities. With the majority of students carrying out these in-class activities, it becomes easy for the teacher to identify learning problems in the group.

MOOCs and gamification, he concluded, are here to stay. Gamification will soon be a must-have for education, and students may find it difficult to concentrate on anything that doesn’t have gaming elements. His ideas are outlined in his book Teach for the Future.

In his presentation, Gamified pedagogy: Examining how gamified educational apps coupled with effective pedagogy support learning, Ronnie Shroff talked about the importance of designing gaming apps in such a way that students can engage with them in a state of flow. Instructional design is important here: gamification should not be an excuse for simplistic learning designs. Points, levels, rewards, leaderboards, quests and customisation are good gamification elements to include. Feedback, including through elements like points and leaderboards, is also critical, and good game design builds in freedom to fail along the way.

In his bilingual presentation on the final day, Smarter education in China: Theoretical efforts and pedagogical practices, Zhiting Zhu from East China Normal University began by outlining international developments in smart learning environments in South Korea, Australia, and around the world. He went on to say that the Chinese translation of ‘smart’ is close to the idea of ‘wisdom’. He indicated that according to Confucius, wisdom can be gained in three ways: reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest), and experience (the bitterest). Zhu then gave his own definition of smarter education, which he said involves constructing technology-infused environments and creating a finer ecology of pedagogies, so that higher achievements of teaching, better experiences of learning, and personalised learning services can be enabled. Students should emerge with greater wisdom, including a better value orientation, higher thinking quality, stronger doing ability, and deeper potential for creativity. By contrast, ‘stupid education’ involves: not tailoring teaching strategies individually, solely emphasising book-based knowledge, severing history and culture instead of seeing them as a bridge connecting the past with the future, and countenancing higher costs but lower performance in developing educational informatisation in schools.

We need a technologically enabled smart environment combined with smarter pedagogy to lead to smarter talents. He suggested that the move we have seen from e-learning to m-learning to u-learning needs to proceed now to s-learning (‘smart learning’). He spoke about the importance of students having personal online learning spaces, and the role learning analytics might play in these, and he suggested that flipped classrooms can be a trigger for class-based smart learning. In smart classrooms, it should be possible to provide students with precise feedback based on their learning performance. He mentioned a range of ongoing initiatives, from multimodal e-books to physical makerspaces, and showed examples of school-based projects, from problem-based learning approaches to students acting as micro-learning designers.

Challenges include the need for more research on big data; teacher competency requirements; and the need for systemic changes and innovations to build smart schools. Smart education needs to promote whole person development.

eLFA Banner, Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

eLFA Banner, Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Participants would certainly have come away from this conference with a clear sense of key directions of development in contemporary educational technologies, notably including MOOCs, xAPI-enabled learning analytics drawing together insights from students’ learning on multiple devices and platforms, and the growing role of gamification. It will be interesting to see how these themes have developed further when the conference reconvenes in Hong Kong in 2017.

The brain, language and technology

JALTCALL
Tokyo, Japan
5-6 June, 2016

Street scene, Machida, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Street scene, Machida, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The JALTCALL Conference this year brought together a sizeable audience at Tamagawa University in Tokyo. For this conference, JALTCALL partnered with the BRAIN SIG (whose full name is the Mind, Brain and Education SIG) to focus on the theme of CALL and the Brain, with various presentations addressing the intersection of knowledge about the brain, language, literacy and educational technologies.

In her virtual plenary, Neuroconstructivism in the modern classroom, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa began with a warning that, although we know more than ever about the human brain, we still know relatively little. She pointed out that no two human brains are the same, because they are shaped by our past experiences, and that prior knowledge influences new learning. Therefore individuals need different amounts of exposure to new knowledge before they ‘know’ it, because it depends on prior experience with similar information. Neuroconstructivism is a framework focusing on the construction of representations of knowledge in the brain. People will interpret information subjectively depending on their past experiences, and it is important how they connect new knowledge with those experiences.

Language processing as a whole is very complex. To be able to read effectively requires the activation of at least 16 neural pathways in the brain. Writing is even more complex. It is easier to say what parts of the brain are not used in language processing, rather than trying to list all the parts that are. However, recent studies suggest that bilingualism and multilingualism lead to functional, rather than structural, changes in the brain. Neurolinguistics shows many benefits of bilingualism, and no disadvantages.

Three key ideas for teachers are:

  • Teachers need to attend to the multiple neutral networks needed to achieve a task, such as speaking a foreign language. More basic pathways must be laid down before more complex pathways can be laid down.
  • The individual brain constructs knowledge based on a combination of genetics and environment (nature vs nurture), so different people have different levels of potential.
  • Each brain will need different amounts of exposure before it learns, leading to the question of how teachers can respond to all learners.

One way of using technology to do this is through virtual bundles of information which can be presented in mini-libraries online. Each bundle for a weekly topic could, for example, consist of a video and slides introducing a topic and priming students to learn things they don’t already know, and a collection of instructor-recommended resources which allow students to gain further and deeper understanding. These virtual bundles allow learners to each approach the topic from their own starting point, thus providing different levels of entry to the topic; creating the opportunity for learners to fill personal gaps as well as to shine in later face-to-face classes; and enhancing the motivation level of learners due the Goldilocks Effect, where nothing is too easy or too hard. This flipped approach also has the benefit of allowing the teacher to work from a common starting point in face-to-face classes. She wrapped up by referencing the TPACK framework as presenting key considerations for teachers, who need subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge to support the first two of these and to help individual students to learn.

In his virtual plenary, Can neuroimaging inform the principles of learning technology?, Paul Howard-Jones discussed the value of uncertain, rather than certain, rewards in education. He outlined a current study entitled Does ‘gamification’ boost engagement and educational learning? which involves uncertain, escalating rewards, as well as competition with a peer. In another study entitled ‘Brain School’, a comparison was made between a study-only condition, a self-quizzing condition, and a game-based condition (with uncertain, escalating rewards and competing with a peer). In self-reported behavioural results, game-based learning was found to be more engaging than self-quizzing, which in turn was more engaging than study-only. In brain scans, there was found to be some default mode network (DMN) deactivation, which may be a useful neural marker for educational engagement. In other words, gamification increased self-reported engagement and learning, and deactivated DMN. More study is needed on various aspects of these experiments, including on how uncertainty, escalation and peer competition in gaming contribute to the brain’s reward response and learning.

In my keynote, Beyond traditional language and literacy: The rise of mobile literacy, which closed the first day of the conference, I gave an overview of key digital literacies which feed into mobile literacy, as well as making some comments on the need to balance up the advantages of mobile devices (for deepening students’ learning and engagement) with the challenges they present (in areas such as culture, socioeconomics, privacy and surveillance, health, and the environment). Facing up to the challenges of mobile learning, I suggested, will best allow us to capitalise on its possible benefits.

In their presentation, Digital literacy: A case of Japanese EFL students, Jeong-Bae Son and Moonyoung Park spoke about the fact that while young people may use technologies in many aspects of their lives, they often need training on how to do so for learning purposes. After considering various definitions, Jeong-Bae Son defined digital literacy as the ability to use digital technologies at an adequate level for creation, communication, and information search and evaluation, in a digital society. It involves the development of knowledge and skills for using technologies for different purposes. He indicated that there are 5 main elements:

  • information search and evaluation
  • creation
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • online safety

Moonyoung Park reported on a study of 70 EFL students at a Japanese university. Even though these were computer science majors, many said they were limited in their ability to create with digital technologies – for example, building webpages or recording digital videos. A considerable percentage did not know virtual worlds like Second Life, or key podcasting or photosharing sites. Students generally perceived their level of digital literacy as moderate to high, but recognised the importance of improving their digital fluency.

In his presentation, Gamification: The future of learning?, Guy Cihi suggested that the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding – lend themselves to memorisation through a gaming format. A good game is characterised by successive eustresses (positive stresses) experienced in your brain. Most good games use an element of uncertain reward, which produces consistently higher levels of dopamine than do unexpected rewards or certain rewards. This can be seen for example in the use of dice, and the point was illustrated with reference to the Candy Crush game. Almost any game you play with students can be modified so that certain rewards are treated as uncertain rewards. An app like Zondle, which has paired associate tasks, makes use of user-uploaded content, and allows for certain and uncertain game rewards, is an example of a learning game which applies uncertain rewards. The forthcoming Lexxica app Words & Monsters will work on similar principles.

In their presentation, Smartphones and homework, Douglas Jarrell and Emily Mindog pointed out that smartphones have both receptive and productive capabilities, and can be used for ubiquitous access as well as accommodating different learning styles. They discussed Schoology as a platform that can be used both on computers and on mobile phones, though the iPhone and Android apps are a little different. Speaking of childhood education majors, they emphasised the importance of the students improving their speaking and listening skills. They gave examples of activities where students made an audio recording of their speaking; where students had to draw a picture while listening to an audio recording of instructions by the teacher; and where students had to turn a sequence of activities described by the teacher in a video into written instructions. While most students said that using mobile phones for learning was good, convenient and modern, a number ran into data limit problems, and several Android users had problems.

Dangers of sitting all day, every day. Source: Fearless, J.H. (2015). DIY Desk. Made. www.custommade.com/blog/diy-desk/

In his presentation, Killing Them Softly with Phone Love, Brian Gallagher spoke about healthy and unhealthy approaches to our use of digital devices. He highlighted issues like bad posture and poor ergonomics (see figure above), and eye strain, including computer vision syndrome, or CVS (see figure below). He spoke about an annual survey conducted with Japanese students over 4 years, where students, over time, reported greater degrees of agreement with statements that they were using computers too much, felt their eyes were tired after using small screens, and felt dizziness or neck pain after using technology. The danger is that we may be harming our students by using too much technology too much of the time. We should employ good practice and teach this to students, with a key message being to use everything in moderation. We should also consider asking students for their opinions after informing them of good practice.

The 20-20-20 rule. Source: Butler, T. (2015). How to avoid computer eye strain. Lenstore Vision Hub. eyecare.lenstore.co.uk/how-avoid-computer-eye-strain

The 20-20-20 rule. Source: Butler, T. (2015). How to avoid computer eye strain. Lenstore Vision Hub. eyecare.lenstore.co.uk/how-avoid-computer-eye-strain

On the second afternoon of the conference, an unconference session took place where participants were invited to wander between rooms and dip into the various topics being discussed in each room. I dropped in on a series of discussions on topics ranging from voice recognition to physiological responses to screens, as well as an app exchange session which included a whiteboard sharing of useful apps and websites (see figure below). There is a full list of all the apps and websites mentioned, in alphabetical order, on Paul Raine’s blog.

App exchange, JALTCALL Unconference. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

App exchange, JALTCALL Unconference. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

It’s always interesting to come back to Japan – a country with an astonishingly, but unevenly, high-tech landscape – to see how the educational technology sector is continuing to evolve. There are always plenty of lessons here for the rest of the world.

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