Innovating in English learning

BAAHE Conference
Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
1 December 2017

Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

A snowy morning in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

It was great to have the opportunity to head to snowy Belgium at the start of December to open the annual BAAHE Conference, which this year focused on the theme of  ‘Let’s Inter-Act! Innovative Teaching Practices in English Studies’. A series of papers covered innovative approaches to language teaching, many of them referencing digital technologies.

In my opening plenary, Revisiting mobile learning: Seizing new opportunities for language learning and cultural exploration, I outlined innovative teaching and learning approaches in the form of mobile augmented reality language learning and literacy acquisition initiatives from Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. I pointed out that although not all of these projects are solely focused on English, all have lessons to teach us about how to support our students in using their everyday mobile devices to approach the English language, English literacies, and English-speaking cultures.

In their presentation, Giving students’ writing skills a boost: Towards a self-learning platform for an optimized use of online resources, Gaëtanelle Gilquin and Samantha Laporte spoke about their research on students’ use of online tools for writing, captured via screencasts and logs of their writing processes, with the ELAN software being used for video annotation. In their preliminary results, they found that students spent around 12% of their time using writing tools, making 17 searches each on average. There was however no correlation between the number of searches and their final grades; it may be that proficient writers need less help. Bilingual dictionaries represented 47% of students’ searches, and bilingual concordancers 20%. There was thus an overwhelming use of bilingual tools, and in general there was a conspicuous absence of corpus and collocation tools. It was discovered that most students stuck to a limited number of tools when seeking help. In nearly 70% of cases, it was found that students’ searches were helpful in improving their texts; but in other cases, the searches led to incorrect or partly incorrect formulations, or had no effect. The presenters concluded that there is a need to raise students’ awareness of the range of tools available, when to use them, and what help they can provide.

In his presentation, Using a ‘flipped classroom’ teaching modality to help English Master’s students master text-editing skills, John Linnegar spoke about a 10-week course involving three in-class sessions complemented by autonomous, self-directed learning. The textbook took on an even more central role in this context, he suggested. There were downloadable weekly video or audio clips by experts, as well as exercises and assignments. In addition, there was a closed Facebook community of practice. Students were generally very positive about the approach, and felt that the work was evenly spread over the 10 weeks. They were also very positive about the three contact sessions, but this may be partly a product of the fact that they were already so used to face-to-face teaching approaches. Unexpected outcomes included the fact that some students expressed a preference for more structure in their learning; a number did not participate fully or at all in the Facebook group; and they rarely emailed the lecturer. Areas for improvement in future iterations of the course include: making better use of video and audio clips and perhaps webinars; encouraging greater involvement on Facebook; giving more regular feedback on assignments; and above all more tightly planning and structuring the course. He concluded that a flipped approach requires a much tighter structure than a traditional face-to-face approach.

In her presentation, Online training module for language professionals: Promoting the uptake of open educational NLP [natural language processing] resources in language learning and teaching, Fanny Meunier spoke about a Moodle course on new technologies created for teachers. Teachers showed a lot of interest in the teaching opportunities provided by the tools; they liked the easy, practical and free access to the tools selected; they also liked the NLP tools that helped them identify the level of the pedagogical materials; and they liked interactive tools that allowed them to collaborate with colleagues and share materials with students. They appreciated the fact that learners could increase their autonomy, engage in more personalised learning, and use the target language within an online community. Problems included school bans on smartphones; lack of easy learner access to technologies in the classroom and/or at home; lack of a good internet connection in some schools; the preference of some teachers and students not to use digital technologies; a lack of computer literacy; and some less user-friendly and more linguistically complex tools. She demonstrated the use of one of the tools covered with the teachers, namely Acapela Box, discussing its potential to support learner-centred, independent, differentiated learning. Lessons learned by the project organisers include: keeping only the best tools; identifying additional ways of presenting the tools; and offering in situ presentations and teacher support. In future the organisers will take a learning-by-design approach where they ask teachers to discuss how they might actually employ these tools within their own teaching contexts.

In the closing plenary workshop, Audience response systems (clickers): How to enhance interaction with and between students, Ingrid Bertrand demonstrated the use of three different polling apps, namely Kahoot!, Socrative and Wooclap. Clickers are not a magic bullet, she said, but they have many possible benefits: they make learning fun, involve students in more active learning, provide immediate feedback, indicate to teachers whether more explicit teaching is needed, and improve students’ communication skills. It was suggested that when a student vote produces between 35-70% correct answers to a multiple-choice question, students can be asked to engage in peer discussion to convince their classmates of the correct answers, and then to vote again. The percentage of correct answers is likely to increase if those students who originally had the correct answers have presented strong enough arguments to their peers. In the peer discussion process, students also need to hone their communication skills as they engage in conversations with classmates and seek to persuade them of the correctness of their views.

All in all, this intensive one-day event was an ideal chance to gain some insights into the tools currently being explored and implemented by those involved in English teaching in Belgian higher education, and for lecturers to share with colleagues what is working in their particular contexts, thereby facilitating the spread of the most effective, locally relevant technological practices.

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.

Learning on the move in Brunei

ISITL Symposium
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
22-23 August 2017

Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The 3rd International Symposium on Innovative Teaching and Learning, on the theme of “Mobile Learning and Innovation in Technologies”, focused squarely on the role of mobile learning within the larger field of innovative technology-enhanced teaching and learning. The symposium was opened by the Minister for Education of Brunei, who stressed the value of using mobile technologies for collaboration and independent learning within the Bruneian education system.

In my opening keynote, Making the most of mobile: Developing literacies while on the move, I presented some recent theories of mobile learning, connected to key themes – authenticity, situatedness, learning design, and game-based learning – which have emerged in recent years in the mobile learning research. I followed up with case studies of AR projects from Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Vietnam to illustrate the range of possibilities currently being explored in cutting-edge projects around Asia.

In a follow-up panel discussion facilitated by Danial Azizan Henry from Microsoft Brunei, and with a panel consisting of Don Carlson (Microsoft Asia Pacific), Abbes Sebihi (SEAMEO VOCTECH) and myself, we touched on a range of issues such as how to gradually change the mindsets of policymakers, educational leaders, teachers, students, parents and the wider public; how to align the interests and contributions of different stakeholders in implementing mobile learning; and how to create spaces for exploration and experimentation. It was apparent from audience questions and comments that there is a lot of interest in this area in Brunei, suggesting considerable potential for future development.

In his opening keynote on the second day, Educational digital transformation, Don Carlson discussed some of the major changes taking place in employment worldwide: factory workers being replaced by robots; manufacturing occurring at the point of purchase thanks to 3D printing; or the construction of prefabricated high-rise buildings within a matter of weeks. As educators, we have to ask how what we are doing is relevant to the changing world around us.

Major issues include equity (ensuring that no students are disadvantaged), youth unemployment, youth interest in bigger global issues than what they may encounter in education, youth turning away from universities as they fail to see their relevance, and the mobility of students between universities and countries. Is technology the answer, he asked. He discussed the 2015 OECD report Students, Computers and Learning which indicated that there have been no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, maths or science in countries that have invested heavily in ICTs; but the report went on to say that to build on the promise of technology, countries need better strategies to build teachers’ capacity, and policy-makers need better strategies to build support for this agenda. In other words, technology is not the problem; it is about building capacity around the technology. He spoke about three key clusters of issues: the quality of education; skills for employability; and equity and access.

From the point of view of educational institutions, he suggested that there has been a recent realisation in higher education that we need to become better teachers. From the point of view of students, there is a growing expectation of personalisation in all aspects of life; and yet when they come into the classroom we put them in rows, give them all the same materials, and wonder why it is ineffective. He added that the question of what is real or not real (generated on computers) is less and less important; there is a blur between the real and the unreal. Data analytics which allow personalisation of teaching and learning are one of the biggest areas of current innovation worldwide.

Feedback from industry indicates that many of today’s graduates do not have the skills which employers are seeking. Challenges in this area were flagged up in the 2016 report Managing Skills Challenges in ASEAN-5. From the point of view of Microsoft, there are many jobs in this region that are currently unfilled because qualified candidates are not available; this will be increasingly the case in the future. It may be that we are not conveying to students the ways in which disciplines like engineering or computer science could enable them to help address some of the world’s largest contemporary challenges. There need to be accompanying policy shifts to encourage students to move into STEM and related areas from the earliest levels of education. Minecraft is now having a huge impact at school level, involving students in STEM without them necessarily making the explicit connection. He went on to talk about approaches such as the Skype-a-thon, which allows students to connect with experts and/or peers in other countries.

He concluded by presenting Microsoft’s Education Transformation Framework with its ten components, on each of which a white paper has been developed. It is important for educators to share their learning experiences, and for us to learn from each other what works and what doesn’t.

In his talk, Encouraging teachers’ creativity and bravery for innovative teaching in primary school, Abdul Walid bin Misli spoke about the importance of teachers helping students develop their 21st century skills in the context of working towards the Brunei Vision 2035 – Wawasan 2035, linked to the Ministry of Education’s SPN21 vision. He introduced Vivian Robertson’s concept of student-centred leadership and the eHijrah Whole School ICT Development (WSID) project in Brunei. In one example of a ‘brave story’, he demonstrated that even in settings with relatively restricted hardware and software availability, there is still some scope for creative use of new technologies, drawing on the mobile devices available to the teacher and the students. In another story, he showed how email and Skype were used to underpin a real-life English language exchange between students in Brunei and Taiwan, helping them to engage in collaboration, inquiry and global learning.

In her talk, Flipped classroom and mobile learning in the 21st century, Kalpana Kishorekumar stated that the value of a flipped class is in the repurposing of class time into a workshop where students can inquire about lecture content, test their skills in applying knowledge, interact with one another and engage in hands-on activities. Advantages include the fact that students have more control over their learning; they develop 21st century skills such as collaboration and self-regulation; lessons and content are more accessible; parents have easier access to an overview of students’ learning; and efficiency. Disadvantages include the possible existence of a digital divide; extra teacher workload; reliance on preparation and trust; the fact that it may not be a standard test preparation approach; and student workload. Much flipped learning occurs nowadays via mobile devices. Successful channelling of m-learning, she said, is not about digitising educational systems, but rather catering to the needs of 21st century learners.

She presented a series of screenshots of the flipped system she uses, where she creates slides with Microsoft Office Mix. As she showed, Office Mix provides data analytics reflecting the work completed by students. She also demonstrated the use of OneNote as a space for organisation, materials delivery and note-taking, as well as for student-teacher interaction and student-student collaboration. She then explained the ways in which it is possible to use Skype, for example for recording and sharing the experiences of educators or students in different parts of the world, or for bringing scientists and other experts into the classroom. She concluded that innovative spaces do not create innovative teachers, but that innovative teachers will always find ways to create innovative spaces.

In his workshop, Facilitating formative assessment and student monitoring on the mobile platform through CLOUD services, Saiful Anuar Abdul Rahim started by asking the audience to complete a pre-workshop survey in Google Docs, demonstrating the aggregated data he was able to obtain instantaneously about the demographics and ICT experience of the cohort, and indicating that this would allow him to tailor his delivery to the needs of those in the room. Similarly, a post-task assessment allows a presenter or teacher to check how well a lesson has been understood. He demonstrated the use of Kahoot! for this purpose. Mobile formative assessments, he suggested, can increase students’ motivation, participation and collaboration in mapping out their own lesson progress.

In her presentation, Challenges and opportunities of mobile learning, Jaya Priah Kasinathan opened by quoting from recent reports on the spread of smartphones, including Deloitte’s 2016 There’s No Place Like Phone. Nonetheless, there are some challenges for teachers. Technological challenges include screen sizes (a particular concern in BYOD contexts when students bring devices of quite different sizes to class), different phone types, app compatibility with different phones, unstable connectivity, and a lack of power sources; but many of these are interim problems that will be solved in time. The real challenges, she suggested, are in areas that involve more human factors: digital literacy, ICT anxiety, and ICT teaching self-efficacy. She went on to describe some easy-to-use tools that could provide an entry point for lecturers who might not yet have much experience of using ICTs in higher education: Kahoot! (where you can create gamified quizzes, or find quizzes created by other teachers), Socrative and Poll Everywhere.

In his presentation, Educational applications development with virtual world and mobile technology, Mohamad Saiful Haji Omar explained that virtual worlds are persistent and allow for continuing and growing social interactions; they give users the ability to carry out tasks that would be difficult in the real world due to constraints such as cost, scheduling or location; and they can grow and adapt to meet different user needs. The UTB (Universiti Teknologi Brunei) 3DVLE (virtual learning environment) was developed with OpenSim, combining aspects of game-based learning and simulation, mimicking the real world and providing flexible learning spaces. It can be viewed using the virtual world viewer Firestorm. He showed images and videos of educational activities on the UTB virtual campus in OpenSim. It was found that 3D VLEs have great educational potential, with user acceptance (as per the Technology Acceptance Model, or TAM) being the key element. Nevertheless, he concluded, there is a need for balance in education, meaning that ICTs have a place in learning but do not have to be used all the time.

In his presentation, Use of augmented reality (AR) in teaching secondary science students, Au Thien Wan indicated that the concept of AR has been around for a while but has only recently become implementable and reliable thanks to high quality image capturing, and image processing by CPUs (central processing units) and GPUs (graphics processing units). AR users feel less separated from the real world than virtual reality (VR) users, he said. He demonstrated a chemistry project where students were asked to scan markers to view simulated 3D models of chemical elements, which would otherwise be hard for them to conceptualise or visualise. Comparing an experimental group to a control group on a post-test of understanding, it was found that the former had significantly higher scores.

There were also a number of presentations which were partly or wholly from an industry perspective. In his talk, The application of learning and innovative technologies in business – Case studies from two UK companies, Ian Wall began with an example of a firm providing training to a field-based sales team through online coaching materials and workbooks, along with one-to-one videoconferencing coaching sessions. Advantages included flexibility and self-pacing, and anywhere, anytime learning; drawbacks included the need for self-discipline, and intrusion into personal time. In a similar system set up for training office and warehouse staff – to avoid training eating into their working time – similar advantages were found: flexibility to use the resources on various mobile devices, presentation of the material in manageable chunks, progress checks, and self-paced learning; participants identified disadvantages as including the requirement for an offline component, and the inability to download content.

In a second case study, he explained that about a year ago the Automobile Association (AA) in the UK gave all its mobile staff an iPhone to access instruction manuals and training materials; order spare parts, supplies or uniforms; access HR resources and submit forms; communicate by phone or email; and view requests for help, customer details and locations. The benefits were immediate access to information and resources; patrols were more empowered; and, from the point of view of the company, the staff were more accountable for their activities. Drawbacks reported were that documents and videos were difficult to view, and that phones were sometimes lost or stolen. The company subsequently released an AA app for customers to report breakdowns, track the recovery van, gain real-time traffic information, plan routes, find fuel and view prices, and find restaurants offering discounts to AA members. Moving in the direction of connected cars, AA has also now released a plug-in Car Genie device which checks the car’s health, sending notifications to your mobile phone.

He concluded that the advantages of mobile learning in industry are similar to those in education:

  • flexibility (fits into daily schedule)
  • mobility (can be used while travelling, with everything on one device)
  • self-paced (can work at your own pace within a timeframe)
  • suitable content (best if bite-sized and fitted to screen)
  • feedback & response (system can provide immediate feedback)

In her talk, Virtual reality learning, Malina Raman explained the relevance of virtual reality to training in the context of the oil and gas industry. A distinction was made between 360 video where you can observe a scene from one point of view, looking in different directions but without interacting with or moving through the scene; and VR, which was demonstrated through the use of an Oculus Rift headset displaying a simulated oil rig environment, where the user can move around at will. The latter took the form of a game where users have to identify hazards. She concluded that conventional teaching involves photos/videos, no mobility, a 2D perspective, and desktop or mobile devices; 360 video involves live action, restricted movement, a perspective dependent on the camera movement, and desktop or mobile devices; and immersive VR involves a digital environment, an immersive world, free walkthrough, and head-mounted displays or mobile devices.

In their presentation, ISPI next – Digital BMW and mini service consultation, Sivakumar Krishnan and Wee Jeau Liang focused on a system called ISPI (Integrated Service Process Information) Next, which represents a move away from the traditional manual approach to car servicing. This means that, with the aid of an iPad, service consultations will be much more streamlined and efficient, and car inspections can even be carried out at a customer’s home. Overall, there will be a deeper involvement of the customer in the consultation process. They demonstrated how, just by scanning the car’s connected key, a whole range of information about the car can be displayed, and a history of past servicing and repairs can be accessed. Photos of any damage can be taken with the iPad and stored, and written notes can be made using voice recognition.

An app for making car service bookings, the QAF Auto Services Mobile App, is now being created by students at Politeknik Brunei and will eventually be rolled out by BMW across Brunei. The students explained key design considerations behind the app, including usability, availability (for both Apple and Android devices), scalability, flexibility (referring to ease of use), productivity (because it will save both customers’ and administrative staff’s time), and customer loyalty. They demonstrated the prototype app in action, taking the audience through the screens that a customer would typically see. Once the app has been fully developed, the students will be involved in testing it before it is marketed through social media and made available to the public.

The lake at Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Ceremonial stone boat, Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

The symposium wrapped up after two busy days where educators and industry representatives exchanged views on the applications of mobile ICTs in education and training. Indeed, there appears to be some interesting potential in the crossover area between education and industry, suggesting that we should perhaps be paying more attention to the mutual benefits that can emerge from closer partnerships between the two.

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.

When mobile makes a difference

DL4D/World Vision Project
Phnom Penh & Takéo, Cambodia
5-7 June, 2017

Provincial school, Takéo, Cambodia.

Provincial school, Takéo, Cambodia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

It was a great privilege to spend several days in Cambodia as part of the evaluation team for an early reading project entitled Total Reading Approach for Children Plus (TRAC+), a follow-up to the original Total Reading Approach for Children (TRAC) project which ran from 2012-2014. This project focuses primarily on improving the L1 Khmer literacy of struggling students in Grades 1-3.

In addition to meetings with World Vision and World Education staff, my visit involved travelling to schools in the Takéo province to meet with school directors, teachers, librarians and literacy coaches, and to observe primary students using the Aan Khmer app and engaging in benchmarking Interval Tests. In time, the evaluation team will produce a report, and subsequently discuss with the project team how best to disseminate what we have learned about using mobile technologies to support early literacy development in the Cambodian context.

Tablets in a provincial school library, Takéo, Cambodia

Tablets in a provincial school library, Takéo, Cambodia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

While using digital technologies in developed locations can lead to certain improvements in teaching and learning, using digital technologies effectively in developing locations – with due attention to the local context and stakeholders’ needs and wishes – has the potential to really transform students’ learning opportunities and experiences. It is very inspiring to see the efforts being made by NGOs, ministries of education, and educators at all levels to open up the learning horizons of children in developing contexts.

The CALL of the beach

EUROCALL Conference
Limassol, Cyprus
24-27 August, 2016

St Raphael Resort, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

St Raphael Resort, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

This year’s annual EUROCALL Conference, focused on the theme of CALL Communities and Culture, took place at the St Raphael Resort in Limassol, Cyprus. With daily temperatures in the mid-30s, delegates made good use of the beaches and swimming pools before and after the conference sessions. In the conference sessions themselves, meanwhile, key themes emerged around the potential for using digital technologies to support learning in areas which to date have in some ways fallen outside of mainstream conversations about language teaching: in the teaching of less widely spoken languages, in the development of digital literacies and 21st century skills, and in the promotion of multiculturalism and even multilingualism. Running through many of the presentations was a strong sense that it’s time for educators to help students make greater use of digital technologies to shape their own learning environments and experiences.

In my opening keynote, Why mobile devices aren’t enough: Learning languages, building communities and exploring cultures, I spoke about the role to be played by educators in drawing our students’ attention explicitly to the potential inherent in their everyday mobile devices, used in their everyday contexts, to support language learning, community building, and cultural and intercultural exploration. While there is clearly a place for social justice projects which make use of basic technologies and traditional pedagogies in under-resourced contexts, it’s interesting to note that many of the most creative of today’s mobile learning initiatives, at least those located in better-resourced settings, combine the learning of languages with the development of digital literacies and 21st century skills, often in multicultural contexts, and sometimes in multilingual contexts. In such initiatives, students produce their own user-generated content which not only supports their own learning, but can support the learning of peers and even wider communities.

In his keynote on the second day, Let’s play with constructionism, Panayiotis Zaphiris from Cyprus University of Technology began by introducing Seymour Paper’s theory of constructionism which, unlike constructivism, is not so much about learning by discussing, but learning by creating and building artefacts. He then went on to outline the newer idea of social constructionism, which adds social components to the original concept of constructionism. Artefacts, he explained, can be physical or digital constructions. Through a series of case studies based in the Cyprus Interaction Lab, he went on to indicate six key elements of implementing social constructionism:

  • developing physical learning spaces for constructionist learning
  • learners constructing shared/common understanding
  • learners playing and having fun
  • constructing learners’ communities of interest/practice
  • giving learners tools for constructing their knowledge
  • involving learners in designing their learning

The last of these elements, he suggested, is the most innovative. He reported on a study entitled Constructionism, Participatory Design and CALL focusing on a course called Learn Greek Online, where people can learn the Greek language without a teacher necessarily being online. The site was developed using participatory design and distributed social constructionism. A set of old audio lessons were posted online without further guiding materials, but the learning community then began to support each other and to create materials: transcribing audio files, correcting each other’s transcriptions, and so on. By 2002, there were 50,000 students; this was a kind of MOOC before MOOCs.

In her keynote on the third day, Deconstructing digital literacy practices: Identity narratives from the South, Leila Kajee explained that digital technologies provide children with alternative platforms to engage in social interaction, and multiple identities are the norm. The South African Cyber Lives project maps digital practices across generations, contexts and communities, looking at how users construct their identities digitally and what the implications are for teaching and learning English. Often children’s out-of-school digital literacy practices are not recognised inside the classroom, but in fact these out-of-school practices have important implications for the classroom. The New Literacy Studies movement focuses our attention on the shifting landscape of home, community, work and schools, and gives us a set of theoretical lenses to examine the interconnection between these. Digital literacies, she went on to say, have many components from access through information analysis to sharing and safety. Drawing on the work of Stuart Hall and Chris Weedon, she explained the postmodern perspective that a person has no single fixed identity, and that history, language and identity are intertwined. She gave a range of examples of how ordinary individuals are using social media platforms to construct identities, to engage socially, and to develop a voice under sometimes difficult circumstances.

She then looked at three examples of young learners’ use of digital technologies. Firstly, she talked about the use of the children’s game Moshi Monsters by a young girl, Eva, who created a story around her reality and cyberreality, embodying her chosen persona through an avatar, while also creating a second, male avatar. Secondly, she showed a digital video narrative by Khutso, a second language speaker of English, explaining his journey to becoming a teacher; he constructed an identity as poverty-stricken and wearing a mask to school, before reaching a turning point – inspirational teachers – who made him want to become a change agent himself. In another digital video narrative by Watkins, who also chose to become a teacher, the narrator began by characterising himself as a rebel before reaching a Eureka moment when he realised that he himself could be the change he wanted to see in wider society. Thirdly, she discussed a girl, Cassie, who used Facebook as a way of establishing her diasporic identity, having moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to South Africa, through mechanisms such as selfies and wall posts, where she sought to establish her own voice.

Exploring digital literacies with students in school, she said, can be a way of reimagining opportunities for connections across institutional and community contexts, and providing permeable boundaries between home and school. In the process, students can develop voice and identity. It is important, she concluded, to reimagine opportunities for identity construction across contexts.

In the first series of parallel sessions, I chaired a strand in which presenters outlined the use of digital technologies in teaching a variety of less commonly taught languages. It was intriguing and inspiring to hear about the uses of new technologies to support languages which, because of smaller numbers of speakers and/or learners, are much less well-resourced than more widely spoken languages.

In her paper, CALL and less commonly taught languages – Still a way to go, Monica Ward spoke about the fact that there is still a distance to go before new technologies become normalised in the practice of teachers of less commonly taught languages (some of which may be quite widely spoken, but not so commonly taught in some geographical areas). Using the examples of Arabic, Irish and Nawat (from El Salvador), she outlined issues with the kinds of access pathways students may have into potential language learning materials. Teachers should learn from others’ practices, and can pick and choose among the options, starting with the ‘low-hanging fruit’, that is, widely available and relatively simple tools that we know to work well.

In their paper, Teaching Turkish in low-tech contexts: Opportunities and challenges, Katerina Antoniou and Antigoni Parmaxi spoke about teaching Turkish in Cyprus, where they introduced Kahoot, with students using internet-connected computers and answers displayed via a projector (since mobile devices could not be used due to a lack of wifi). This allowed all students, who were of different ages, to participate. Students were motivated and involved, and were willing to discuss their answers with the group. At the beginning, however, the adult students thought Kahoot was just a game which was a waste of their time, but over time they came to see its benefits. While older students could help younger students with language, the roles were reversed when it came to helping with technology. Challenges, the presenters suggested, can be opportunities when diverse skills, interests, motivations, goals and abilities complement each other. Despite the challenges, they concluded, a low-tech context can still offer more opportunities than a no-tech context.

In his presentation, A platform and customization toolkit for error-tolerant search of language resources, Anton Rytting described the need for a platform that allows language learners to search for words they have heard in an error-tolerant context so that they can find what they are looking for, even if they have misheard sounds or if they miswrite words. He showcased a ‘Did You Mean’ (DYM) system for a language called Dhivehi, spoken in the Maldives, where possible dictionary entries can be displayed based on their closeness of fit with the word typed by the student. To make such a system, you need a dictionary, a query alphabet, an error model (based on the mistakes you think learners are likely to make), and a way of testing it based on likely queries. There is a DYM Toolkit available, created by researchers at the University of Maryland, that teachers and others can use to create such error-tolerant platforms for different language learners.

In his presentation, An audio-lexicon Spanish-Nahuatl: Using technology to promote and disseminate a native Mexican language, Aurelio López-López described the ALEN application that allows users to enter a word in Nahuatl or Spanish to hear the pronunciation of the word, and to see an illustrative image. The overall goal is to safeguard engendered languages, including by taking advantage of mobile devices which are widely used by young people.

Dealing in some ways with the opposite end of the spectrum, Jack Burston gave a paper entitled The contribution of CALL to advanced level foreign/second language instruction, in which he showed that there have been remarkably few publications in CALL journals about advanced-level instruction using technology. It is notable that advanced-level language barely rates a mention in the published CALL literature, and this research is very limited in terms of the L2 studied, with English the centre of attention followed distantly by German and French. There are four times as many studies about written language as about speaking/listening skills. Above all, these studies are vague about what an advanced level is, and the difficulty of the tasks students are required to undertake. To date, he concluded, CALL has contributed very little to our understanding or practice of advanced foreign/second language instruction. On the positive side, there is great scope for SLA research at the advanced level, with more methodological rigour needed where ‘advanced’ is defined and substantiated; there is a need for a focus on oral as well as written language; and there is room for considering innovative CALL applications such as mobile and/or cloud-based projects.

Another conference theme was digital literacies and 21st century skills seen as an accompaniment to language learning. In their presentation, Preparing Japanese students’ digital literacy for study abroad: How much CALL training is needed?, Travis Cote and Brett Milliner noted that previous research suggests Japanese first year university students lack core computer literacy skills. In surveys, they found that Japanese students assessed their own computer literacy skills as low. Ultimately, the presenters suggested, the students’ lack of ability to use productivity tools is preventing them from using computers effectively for critical thinking and problem solving, since students need to spend time focusing on using the technology itself rather than what the technology should enable them to do. Although smartphone ownership is at 100%, students tend to use these devices only for social and entertainment functions. In the future the presenters plan to encourage blogging to help students develop a range of skills including typing, composition and manipulation of images; provide opportunities to participate in online discussions; provide opportunities that incorporate presentation software; and introduce students to cloud computing as a way to expose them to collaboration.

In their follow-up paper, Tertiary EFL teachers’ digital literacy: Is CALL training still needed?, Brett Milliner, Travis Cote and Ethel Ogane reported on a study of 42 faculty members teaching English at Tamagawa University in Japan, conducted in order to determine their digital literacy levels, whether they could benefit from extra training, and whether they could lead students in using computers for CALL purposes. Teachers were relatively modest in their self-assessment of digital knowledge and skills. Most teachers said they enjoyed using computers and felt comfortable doing so, but also wanted to learn more about computers. Teachers thus believe in the use of digital technologies in the classroom and are open to further professional development in this area. Interestingly, they had often acquired their knowledge and skills independently or through peer-to-peer learning.

In her presentation, Digital literacies for language learning and teaching: Developing a national framework, Françoise Blin reported on a six-institution, nationally funded Irish project, led by the University of Limerick, with two major aims: to develop a national framework for digital literacies for language learning and teaching, and to curate and create a wide range of OERs accessible via an online portal. The first aim focuses on the intertwined strands of language skills and practice; digital literacies; and transitions and contexts. In time, all language courses in Ireland should contain learning outcomes for digital literacies within their descriptors. It is important that there is sustainability of e-learning – it has to meet the needs of present and future teachers and learners – as well as sustainability and normalisation of CALL. Surveys to date have revealed that students feel the need to acquire more digital literacies than are currently covered in their courses, while teachers feel that they are lacking in some digital literacies that their students might need them to teach.

Another strong theme of the conference focused on multilingualism and multiculturalism. In her talk, Multilingual CALL – The good, the bad, and the ugly, from the perspective of teacher training students, Judith Buendgens-Kostens suggested that multilingual CALL could involve participants using all the languages to which they have access, ranging from their native languages through to languages in which they might know only a few words. She spoke about the Erasmus project MElang-E, which takes the form of a serious game where players follow the progress of a young musician across Europe as he seeks to convince former bandmates to join in a music competition. Players are faced with a series of communicative situations in which they can make choices about what languages, or combinations of languages, to use in response to interlocutors. There are also many codeswitching situations presented to players, where they can see similarities and differences between languages. In reporting on students’ reactions to this game, she noted that there is much greater acceptance of widely spoken and taught languages, while there is little appreciation of languages that do not have an obvious market value, though they might in fact have other kinds of value in terms of identity or simply enjoyment. The question is whether stakeholders can be convinced that there is a role for this kind of multilingual game in education.

In their talk, Promoting multilingual communicative competence through multimodal academic learning situations, Anna Kyppö and Teija Natri reported on an interdisciplinary course of multilingual interaction piloted at the University of Jyväskylä Language Centre, focusing on the students’ effective use of their own linguistic repertoires and the enhancement of their agency in multilingual and multicultural settings. The learning environment was a combination of a face-to-face classroom, a web-based platform called Optima, and an educational mobile platform called REAL, all used within a task-based framework where language was the instrument for completing tasks (and students were free to use any languages at their disposal). Students’ multilingual and multicultural awareness grew, they were able to adopt skills for their future working lives, and they came to see their peers as learning resources. In the future, the presenters plan to introduce more multilingual and multimodal courses into subject study, to enhance students’ focus on successful communication rather than accurate language use, to more efficiently employ social media and multimodal interactive online resources, and to employ PLEs (personal learning environments).

In her paper, Preparing students’ mobility through telecollaboration: The I-Tell project, Catherine Jeanneau explained that the better prepared students are for experiences abroad, the more they will gain from the experiences. Students need practical advice, linguistic development, intercultural competence, self-awareness and learner autonomy; and there has been a suggestion that the preparation should be more formative than informative (Gutierrez, Duran & Beltran, 2015). The I-Tell project aimed to develop participants’ intercultural, linguistic and digital skills. Volunteer Irish and Spanish students were paired the semester before they went abroad. Over 8 weeks they completed one task per fortnight, using asynchronous and synchronous modes, multimodal communication, and 50% Spanish and 50% English; for example, they were asked to co-design a document giving advice to students going abroad for study. Students were generally positive about the project, but found that time was an issue. The technological platforms were not dictated to students, who chose to use a mixture of tools including email, VoiceThread, Skype, Facebook, Google+, WhatsApp, Instagram and FaceTime; social media in general were seen as authentic channels of communication. Students identified both similarities and differences between the cultures, and generally obtained a broader perspective on the other culture. They reported developing different language skills with the help of peer learning and peer correction. Students engaged in an exchange of practical information, but there was also a lot of psychological preparation involving emotional support. Lessons learnt include the importance of facilitators who can keep the project moving, getting the timing right, setting collaborative tasks, and considering the developmental needs of students.

A whole range of tool types, platforms, and approaches were mentioned in the presentations. Covering a popular tool in his talk, Quizlet: What the students think – A qualitative data analysis, Bruce Lander mentioned that the use of Quizlet has grown dramatically in recent years, with a number of well-known competitors now also on the market, including the recently popular Kahoot. He reported on a study involving text mining of Japanese students’ comments about Quizlet, showing that they were generally very positive about the vocabulary learning possible through Quizlet. He concluded by mentioning Mark Warschauer’s three main reasons for using technology in education – improving academic achievement, facilitating new kinds of learning, and promoting social equity – and linking these to Puentedura’s SAMR model. He wrapped up with a demonstration of Quizlet Live, suggesting that it can be a great tool to engage students in team competitions in the classroom.

In his presentation, Podcasting in a mobile world: Power, potential and pitfalls, Jaime Selwood, the producer of the English News Weekly and the lower-level English News Monthly podcasts, mentioned that there are now 130,000 English language podcasts available in iTunes, with the Chinese language in second place. Beyond the release of the iPod itself, he said, major game changers for podcasting have been the release of smartphones and the expansion of the mobile internet. He mentioned two key ways in which he uses podcasts with his university level English learners in Japan: as out-of-class assignments 4-6 times a semester where students complete podcast activities and later report back to the class; and as part of a podcast creation course where students make and publish 4 podcasts a semester, having recorded, written and edited all the materials themselves. In a student survey, 83% said they liked using podcasts in the first way, mainly because they had choices about which podcasts to listen to; and 77% liked the second way, again mentioning the freedom to choose their own topics.

In his talk, Enhanced tools for CLIL and Clil4U, Kent Andersen outlined an EU project which has developed a pool of resources to support CLIL, now publicly available on the Clil4U website. He then went on to describe another project, Improved Safety for Electricians, where there is an inbuilt CLIL element, allowing users to quickly and easily click on words in the English instructions for automated translations into many other languages. Teachers are able to make use of the Clilstore resource to develop their own materials of this kind. He suggested that to develop the CLIL element more fully, it is important to also build in exercises for students, and this functionality should eventually be added into Clilstore.

In her presentation, Urban explorations for language learning: A gamified approach to teaching Italian in a university context, Koula Charitonos outlined a pervasive and gamified approach to language teaching and learning. She described an Italian language learning game called ImparApp, created with the TaleBlazer authoring tool from MIT, and developed at Coventry University. There are gamified fictional narratives which involve participants in mixed reality, location-based quests using mobile devices in real-world settings. Players can interact with virtual characters, objects and data. In a pilot study, it was found that students thought this was a good orientation activity, permitting incidental learning and helping them learn about history. There were also challenges, such as students focusing mainly on finding the next location and not interacting with each other, with risks to health and safety as students focused on devices rather than their environment. Students also suggested incorporating more visuals, zoomable maps, and Italian background music, as well as ways of facilitating social interaction.

In his paper, Mobile-assisted language learning and language learner autonomy, Paul Lyddon spoke about the importance of learner autonomy – that is, the right to self-determination, or the “capacity to take control of one’s own learning” (Benson, 2011) – to support lifelong learning. He suggested that there are potential areas of interface between mobile technologies and autonomy: mobile devices allow learning anytime and anywhere; are conduits to rich, multimodal content; and are extensions of our mental and physical faculties in areas like observation, recall, research and communication. He went on to note that there is an incongruence between learner training courses which help students to develop independent goal setting, and to apply that know-how in informal learning contexts and, on the other hand, traditional formal learning contexts with course and programme standards, where times and places are administratively decided, and where there are classroom policies to prevent off-task behaviour. This dramatically constrains the versatility of the devices. In formal settings, students may have the ability and the possibility, but often not the permission, to use their devices as they wish to support their learning. He suggested that we could consider moving towards a model of socially responsible learner autonomy, where students fulfil the requirements of a course in terms of enrolment and assignment completion, with different degrees of autonomy being possible in the process of carrying out course tasks. To remediate the current situation, he concluded, we should explicitly acknowledge the limited nature of autonomy in formal learning contexts; inculcate expectations of learner characteristics aimed at helping students to fulfil assignment requirements in personally meaningful ways; and foster new forms of self-awareness and self-discipline to enable mobile devices to be deployed effectively to support greater autonomy.

The Mediterranean, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Mediterranean, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The last day of the conference wrapped up with a roundtable hosted by Mirjam Hauck, where a number of presenters were asked our opinions on the takeaway messages of the conference. For me, the first takeaway message concerns a changing sense of CALL, which is now extending into areas like lesser-taught languages, digital literacies and 21st century skills, and multilingualism and multiculturalism. This makes CALL as a concept somewhat more amorphous and diffuse, but simultaneously richer, as teachers and researchers who may not traditionally have been part of CALL conversations are drawn into our discussions.

My second takeaway message concerns differences between the CALL conversations (and more general educational technology conversations) in Asia and Europe. Much of the time, I attend and present at conferences in the Asian region, and it is striking to see how different the tone of the conversation is in the European region. In the latter case, there would generally seem to be a more widespread acceptance of the benefits of multilingualism and codeswitching as opposed to immersive target language learning, of communicative competence as opposed to linguistic accuracy, and of student input into learning designs as opposed to the mandating of learning content by ministries of education, institutions or teachers. At the same time, there are important pedagogical and technological developments taking place in Asia, perhaps most notably in the area of contextualisation of learning as a way of dealing with issues around transfer distance, as seen in the development of large, often state- or ministry-backed mobile augmented reality learning projects – but most of these projects seem to be almost unheard-of in Europe. There is clearly much to be gained from more conversation between European and Asian teachers and researchers about the most promising directions for future technology-enhanced language learning.

Technology meets language and literacy

CLESOL Conference
Hamilton, New Zealand
14-17 July, 2016

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Victoria Street, Hamilton, New Zealand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The biannual CLESOL (Community Languages and ESOL) Conference took place this year in the university town of Hamilton, south of Auckland. It addressed the theme of Learners in Context: Bridging the Gaps. 

In my keynote on the first main day of the conference, I addressed the conference theme with respect to mobile learning in a presentation entitled Learners in context: Bridging everyday language learning gaps with mobile devices. I focused on the way that mobile devices can be used to help bridge many language learning gaps: between the haves and have-nots, between traditional and contemporary pedagogies, between episodic and extended learning, between formal and informal learning, and between classroom and situated learning. I suggested that in addition to asking our students to use their mobile devices to support their formal language courses, we should also draw their attention to the opportunities for informal education, where they can use their everyday devices in their everyday contexts to support their everyday language learning.

In their workshop, Many rivers to cross: Engaging learners using computer tools and mobile apps, Patrick Coleman and Daryl Streat from Lincoln University spoke about the inevitability of ongoing technological development, suggesting that educators need to keep up with it because of the implications for learning and work. They took workshop participants through a series of interactive activities accessed on the Many Rivers to Cross Blendspace website. Along the way, they strongly advocated that there must be pedagogical reasons for using new technologies, rather than using them for their own sake. For example, social media tools can be used to extend learning outside the classroom space. They mentioned several models which can be employed to frame our understanding of how we’re using new technologies pedagogically:

  • Ruben Puentedura’s well-known SAMR model;
  • Joan Hughes et al’s alternative RAT model (referring to Replacement, Amplification, Transformation);
  • Chris Hesselbein’s modified RAT model which becomes the RATL model (where L refers to Leadership).

They noted, too, that generic technological training may not always be appropriate; it is important to consider what technological uses are appropriate for any given context.

In her paper, Online activity that works, Jill Hadfield from Unitec mentioned that there has been a considerable rise in the use of the terms interaction and interactivity in the area of educational technologies. While some people use the former to mean human-human interaction and the latter to mean human-machine interaction, most use the terms interchangeably.

Referring to her new book Interaction Online with Lindsay Clandfield, she went on to suggest that interaction between humans and machines could be called weak interaction, and that between humans and humans could be called strong interaction. Much of the former involves tasks that are very behaviourist in nature, while the latter is not only motivating but vital for learning. There are many platforms, ranging from Moodle through Edmodo to Facebook, where students can communicate with others as individuals and groups. She suggested that there are 5 main types of interactive language learning tasks:

  • factual (finding and sharing information on a factual topic)
  • personal (exchanging personal information)
  • fanciful (entering into an imaginary situation)
  • critical (exchanging opinions on a topic, as in a typical discussion forum)
  • creative (where students create something together)

She went on to give examples of interactive tasks pertaining to each of these categories, and showed how they can generate very different types of interaction patterns, such as:

  • Confetti (students all ‘throw in’ their responses to a teacher prompt)
  • Poker (students have numbers and respond in a set sequence)
  • Creative Commons (students are given rules for a collaborative task)

In her presentation, A blended collaborative approach to academic writing: Preliminary findings, Anita Pu outlined early findings from an action research study on an approach to ESL academic writing which blended face-to-face activities and online tasks using Google Docs and Google Hangouts. All participants reported that they liked face-to-face collaborative writing. Six out of 11 liked network-based collaborative writing using Google Docs and Google Hangouts; three commented negatively on passive group members, and difficulties in expressing or understanding opinions. Ten out of 11 liked the overall blended collaborative writing approach. All participants were positive about the convenience of using Google Docs. They were partly positive about Google Hangouts; however, it was found that it couldn’t be used on a phone with a Chinese ID, and they felt it was one more messaging app on top of those they were already using. Pu concluded that while using only network-based collaborative writing might not be a good idea in an ESL context, an overall blended collaborative writing approach is appropriate because it makes learning more fun, makes it easier to pool ideas and knowledge from different people, and provides more opportunities for interaction.

In her talk, Getting it write: Using technology (Google Slides and Blogger) to help engage reluctant writers, Navjot McCormack from Linwood College, Christchurch, spoke about the use of technology to help English language learners overcome barriers to writing. She reported on a research study of students using Google Slides collaboratively to create group presentations, followed by reflecting individually on the process on personal blogs. Despite initial hesitation, students generally demonstrated a high level of interactivity, negotiation, problem-solving and interdependence. Students reacted very positively and collaborated well in the slide creation task, and even during the personal blogging task they were seen helping each other. One important facet of this project was the co-construction of knowledge: students enjoyed playing the role of technology experts and helping the teacher and other. There were a number of challenges: students were less keen on editing the slides once they had been created; although they enjoyed sharing their presentations, they gave little constructive feedback, which is an area that needs to be trained; and technology issues and slow internet speeds were frustrating. Overall, this was an empowering exercise for students.

In his talk, Reflections of a late adopter: Language learning principles and MALL, John Macalister from Victoria University in Wellington suggested that we need to ask how new technologies add value to our teaching. Discussing language learning apps, he suggested that while they have some advantages, some of them also have key limitations: they do not always use language in meaningful ways; they do not necessarily present the most frequent language; and they may cause interference by presenting similar words and phrases simultaneously. He pointed out that these apps can play a useful supporting role for motivated language learners who already have some experience of the language, and suggested that they could be used in a targeted way by teachers to complement language learning in the classroom, especially if teachers exploit the gamification elements typical of these apps.

In his presentation, The future of language learning: AI and CALL, Wolfgang Sperlich from NorthTec asked whether we might see robotic language teachers in the future. He spoke about the trend towards automation of language assessment, where all components including writing and speaking are assessed by software using statistical matching. There are various dangers here, including that teachers will increasingly teach towards these automated tests, using the restricted conceptions of language that may underpin them, and the limited tasks that may compose them. He concluded that AI and CALL have positive potential but that we need to guard against their limitations.

In her presentation, Mapping the spaces between learners and teachers: A guide for critical pedagogy, Margaret Franken spoke about the interplay of complex epistemological and pedagogical space. In her discussion of pedagogical space, as a space within which there is a particular configuration and alignment of learning resources, she suggested that in addition to the well-known social constructivist concept of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), we should also consider the subconcepts of the ZAA (Zone of Available Assistance; that is, the resources available to provide assistance to a learner) and ZPA (Zone of Proximal Adjustment; that is, the subset of the ZAA which is appropriate for a learner at a given moment). These are concepts drawn from the work of Rosemary  Luckin in particular. She went on to mention that we need to take into consideration spaces which are beyond our educational gaze, such as those social media forums where students exchange academic support with other online community members, who thus come to function as brokers of literacy practices and knowledge.

It was very  informative to attend a language and literacy conference where presenters approached educational technologies from a specifically language-oriented viewpoint, thus bringing different perspectives to bear on the technology compared to those commonly heard at dedicated educational technology events.

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.

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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.

Regional roundup in Thailand

International Mobile Learning Festival
Bangkok, Thailand
27-28 May, 2016

Sukhumvit Skyline, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Sukhumvit Skyline, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

It was great to have a chance to attend the International Mobile Learning Festival for the second year in a row. It was transplanted this year from its original Hong Kong base to Bangkok, where it drew together global perspectives on the conceptualisation of mobile learning, interwoven with regional perspectives on the implementation of mobile learning. It was particularly interesting to note the importance of open resources and platforms in developing world contexts which are beginning to explore the possibilities of mobile learning. Fortunately, the proceedings are available online.

In his opening keynote, Empathic technologies and virtual, contextual and mobile learning, Pedro Isaías explained that researchers have concluded that emotional responses play a pivotal role in learning processes. It may be that an intelligent computer which can learn needs to have emotional responses. He gave an overview of recent generations of social robots, from Nexi to the Dragonbots at MIT. He went on to talk about the differences between affective technologies, which are typically robots responding to human emotions within the context of human-machine interaction, and empathic information systems, like online learning platforms which use emotional data in applications to provide a more personalised learner experience. He spoke about the EU Empathic Products research project, now concluded, which set up numerous trial scenarios involving empathic technologies.

Forums are empathic by nature, Pedro suggested, but we can increase the empathic elements. In particular, he demonstrated the Umniverse massive collaboration platform, an empathic online learning environment. Users have to add empathic data to posts and can tag existing posts with such data, in order to make them easier to sort and find later. Users also have access to system statistics allowing data mining on forum activities. Such approaches can help address the absence of face-to-face communication in distance learning, and can transpose interaction into an online context. They can have a positive effect on interest and motivation. He went on to outline the current, ongoing evolution from Umniverse to the 3D immersive environment TAT, and invited interested educators to contact him about possible collaboration in investigating this new platform.

In her keynote which opened the second day, Moving towards a mobile learning landscape: Effective device integration, Helen Crompton suggested that we should be asking what we can do with mobile technologies that we couldn’t do with tethered learning. She cited John Traxler’s list of five key aspects of this learning, which can be:

  • contingent
  • situated
  • authentic
  • personalised
  • context-aware

However, research shows that educators are not currently integrating mobile devices effectively into the curriculum. Educational leaders have many fears around mobile devices. Many educators stick to methods that they are familiar with, thereby using 21st century technologies with 20th century teaching methods. She commented that the TPACK and SAMR frameworks can provide useful supports for educators in incorporating new technologies effectively into their teaching.

Leveraging the insights of TPACK and SAMR, she then went on to describe an m-learning integration framework covering 4 elements as seen from the point of view of the teacher:

  • Beliefs (about the role of the teacher; socio-cultural influences; self-efficacy; past experience as a learner)
  • Resources (including training; technical support; access to technology)
  • Methods (online or face-to-face teaching; teaching philosophy)
  • Purpose (time-filler or meeting objectives; substituting or redefining learning)

M-learning integration framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

She further suggested that there is a nested social and ecological framework for mobile learning integration, with concentric circles leading from the educator (individual) through the microsystem (school), mesosystem and exosystem (school district) to the macrosystem (national scale).

M-learning integration ecological framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

M-learning integration ecological framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

In my own presentation, Mobile literacy: What it is, why it matters, and how it can be developed, I argued that in order for our students to get the most out of their mobile learning experiences, we need to help them develop their  mobile literacy, building on existing literacies like information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy and code literacy. I then wrapped up with some comments on critical mobile literacy.

In their talk, Mobilizing the troops: A review of the contested terrain of app-enabled learning, Michael Stevenson and John Hedberg outlined the progression through web 1.0 and web 2.0 and towards cloud computing. Apps, they suggested, have emerged as the key mode of learning with mobile devices. They outlined three key metaphors reflecting the issues that educators have had to face in recent years:

  1. Sending the Troops “Over the Top” Before They’re Ready?
  2. Equipping the Troops with an AAA: Atomized Arsenal of Apps
  3. “Smashing” the Arsenal for More Pedagogical Firepower

When teachers and students are literate enough in the use of apps, they can choose to combine a variety of apps to expand learning possibilities; this approach is known as “app smashing“, as demonstrated in the YouTube App Smash Tutorial by mrshahnscience:

In their presentation, A snapshot of teacher educators’ mobile learning practices, Kevin Burden and Matthew Kearney spoke about the mobile pedagogical practices of teacher educators. They referred to their Mobile Pedagogy Framework, as seen below, where word clouds offer some detail about the three constructs of personalisation, collaboration and authenticity:

‘Word clouds’ relating to the 3 constructs of the Mobile Pedagogy Framework. Source: Burden & Kearney (2016)

‘Word clouds’ relating to the 3 constructs of the Mobile Pedagogy Framework. Source: Burden & Kearney (2016)

They reported on a study which showed that teacher educators have a high focus on authenticity but less of a focus on networking and personalisation in their current use of mobile pedagogies. Teachers reported that the above framework is a useful tool in conceptualising mobile pedagogies, and a toolkit is now being developed to support the professional development needs of teacher educators. This involves a tool to help teachers and students evaluate task design with reference to the above framework, as well as multimedia case scenarios to illustrate best practices. There will also be a dynamic poster showing how certain apps might support the three constructs of personalisation, collaboration and authenticity. A course is being set up, and the presenters invited interested educators to contact them to become involved in shaping or participating in the course.

In his workshop, Do mobile devices have a central role in e-learning?, Spencer Benson focused on the changing landscape, with the move from teacher-centred to learner-centred education, and a parallel move from laptops to mobile devices. To a large extent, he suggested, students don’t discriminate between academic and non-academic uses of mobile devices; all uses are integrated on the same devices. Using Poll Everywhere, he surveyed the audience on numerous topics connected with the use of mobile devices in education.

In his talk, e-Seminar apps: Technology-enhanced learning interventions through “real-time” online interactive experiences, Kumaran Rajaram discussed the creation of the prototype  iSeminar e-learning app developed at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He explained that the app is designed to promote student interactivity and engagement, which is particularly important in a cultural context where students may be reticent to interact verbally. The app also facilitates group work and peer evaluation. A learning analytics component is valuable in giving the instructor an overview of students’ thoughts and understandings. Records of the discussion contents can also be kept for future review. In sum, the question that is really being asked here, he suggested, is how the technology can be of optimal use, so that online interaction can become an organic part of a routine class.

In his presentation, Mobile learning design and computational thinking, Thomas Chiu spoke about Jeannette Wing‘s (2006) claim that computational thinking will be a fundamental skill used worldwide; he suggested that, to obtain good employment in the Hong Kong context, it will soon be as necessary as an ability to speak English.  Computational thinking has three main components: problem formulation; solution expression; and solution execution and evaluation. In K-12 education, he went on to say, computational thinking is not just about technical details for using software, or thinking like a computer, or even necessarily programming. It does not always have to involve a computer. He presented three case studies which showed that problem formulation is fundamentally about collaboration and communication; solution expression is about visualising, modelling and presenting ideas; and solution execution is about implementation, sharing ideas for revisiting, and real-time experiencing of ideas. Mobile devices, he suggested, could have a role to play in supporting all of these.

In his presentation, Using wearable technology to improve the acquisition of new literacies: A new pedagogical approach of situated individual feedback coming from the activity trackers and reflected upon in the ePortfolio, Michele Notari discussed the intersection of new wearable devices with new digital literacies. He then went on to focus on eHealth literacy, which he defined as the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and to apply the knowledge to address or solve a health issue; it simultaneously draws on other literacies ranging from information to scientific literacy. He reported on a study involving undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong who wore Xiaomi MiBand fitness trackers over a period of 5 months. Students’ reflections revealed the considerable changes some of them made to their exercise and sleeping behaviour during this time, while a number did further online research to improve their understanding of the statistics being generated, especially in regard to sleep.

A broad regional perspective was offered by Jonghwi Park in her presentation, UNESCO and mobile learning, where she explained that the UNESCO Bangkok office serves a whole range of countries in the Asia Pacific region. She spoke about the successes of the UNESCO Education for All (EfA) goals in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in regard to more children attending school, but she mentioned some unanticipated side effects: these include a shortage of teachers; a global learning crisis centred on the quality of learning; and growing demand for higher education. Following the end of EfA in 2015, new United Nations Sustainable Development goals were set up for the 2015-2030 period. The fourth of these refers to universal quality education. ICTs, she suggested, will be crucial in making this a reality. She mentioned that there will shortly be a new UNESCO report released which examines member countries’ national education policy orientations, and compares the extent to which government policy emphasises opportunity vs risk mitigation and safety. She spoke about UNESCO initiatives to promote teacher training, and to foster gender equality in learning through mobile technologies; in connection with the latter point, she highlighted the 2015 UNESCO report Mobile phones and literacy: Empowerment in women’s hands.

A number of presenters spoke about individual country contexts. In his presentation, Thailand OER, OCW and MOOC: Strategy toward lifelong learning of Thai people, Anuchai Theeraroungchaisri highlighted the open element in all of these platforms: OERs, OCW, and MOOCs. He spoke about the role of the Thailand Cyber University (TCU) in creating an e-learning consortium of all Thai universities, providing online distance education, and engaging in research and development in e-learning including establishing quality assurance guidelines. There are now 9 universities in Thailand serving as e-learning hubs. The TCU open courseware project has led to the TCU-Globe initiative, designed to facilitate the sharing of open resources within and outside Thailand. The latest development is the Thai-MOOC project, which will be launched in 2016 and will tie into the goals of the larger Digital Thailand project, which involves creating a digitally driven knowledge economy.

In her presentation, The growing tendency of mobile-assisted language learning development in Kazakhstan, Damira Jantassova spoke about a whole range of MALL practices  employed in Kazakhstan. Reporting on an interview-based research project with 500 EFL learners at Karaganda State Technical University, she noted that the vast majority of interviewees placed most emphasis on learner mobility (focusing on the anytime/anywhere aspects of learning), a smaller number placed emphasis on device mobility, and a very small number placed emphasis on mobility of learning experiences. Mobile phones were primarily used for vocabulary development, according to students. She suggested that it is important to help students develop an understanding of the potential contextual benefits of mobile learning.

In his talk, Mobile solution for synchronized and offline version of audio-based open educational resources, Reinald Adrian Pugoy spoke about the recent dramatic increase in mobile phone ownership in the Philippines, with many students now preferring to use mobile devices rather than desktop or laptop computers to access educational materials. This is against a background of limited infrastructure and slow internet connections, with many educational institutions located in remote areas with little or no internet access. Offline OERs do not provide a viable solution because materials may quickly become out of date. He reported on a study at the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOP) exploring a mechanism to allow offline use of OERs, with an internet connection only needed to download the most recent updates. It was decided to explore audio OERs, to be stored in a WordPress repository. Offline accessing and syncing of OERs has been successfully achieved in this project, with the next stage being to conduct a usability evaluation among end users.

All in all, this was a conference which offered rich insights both into local contexts as well as into their connection with global themes and trends. It will be interesting to revisit some of these themes when IMLF takes place back in Hong Kong in mid-2017.

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