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.

New hardware, new software, and new questions about learning

mLearn
Sydney, Australia
24-26 October, 2016

syd16b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ingress1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech discussions in the Middle East

14th Oman International ELT Conference
8th  9th May, 2014
Muscat, Oman

The Corniche, Muscat. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2014. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The 14th Oman International ELT Conference was held from 8-9 May at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman, under the theme: ‘Bridging Traditions and Innovations in ELT’. A variety of papers and workshops contributed their perspectives on this theme over the two days of the conference.

In my opening plenary, Principles and Practices of Mobile Learning, I surveyed recent trends in mobile technologies before outlining three main types of mobile learning, and three agendas for mobile learning, which are seen around the world. I argued that all mobile learning involves a trade-off between affordability and affordances. I concluded with several case studies of mobile English language learning projects from different parts of the globe, showing how the mobile learning types and agendas are realised in practice – and how it is important to balance up affordability and affordances in order to design the optimal kind of mobile learning for our own learners in our own contexts. The practicalities of mobile learning were explored further in my workshop, Introducing Mobile Learning, which suggested a number of entry points into mobile learning for teachers and students with different levels of technological and pedagogical/educational experience and confidence.

In her plenary, Cohort-Based Learning, Susan Barduhn mentioned that the average completion rate in MOOCs is only 7-9%. One reason may be the lack of relationships between students and teachers, and students and their peers; there is little chance to co-construct understanding together. Cohort-based learning is about a whole programme through which students move together, and which they complete together. When students enrol at different times – e.g., in PhD programmes – they are often working alone and don’t have the support of peers. In cohort-based learning there are special administrative and instructional provisions, intense group identification, and powerful interpersonal relationships. The faculty are also a cohort. Learning, Susan suggested, is in the relationships between people; she quoted Earl Stevick: “Success or failure in a language course depends less on linguistic analysis and pedagogical techniques than on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”.  In this kind of learning, there is a need for a common space where the members of the group can find each other – and that space may be online.

The conference was intensely discussion-based, more so than many other conferences I’ve attended: I was constantly invited to join conversations in the halls and corridors, covering a range of topics, but often in the form of extended discussions about the possibilities for the use of new technologies in a variety of contexts around Oman, the Gulf, and further afield. I also managed to catch some other interesting papers, reflecting on the use of new technologies in general ways or with reference to specific apps, platforms and websites; these included Peter Waters’ paper The Road Ahead: Reviewing the Past to Design the Future, which reminded the audience that a focus on the recent must not come at the expense of forgetting the past; Is’haq Al Naibi and Marwa Al Hadhrami’s paper,  Whatsapp: The Harbinger of Collaboration in Language Learning, where they outlined numerous ways of using WhatsApp groups for training both receptive skills (with students for example taking notes in the form of mind maps in and sending in photos of these) and productive skills (with students for example sending in voice recordings on set topics); Munira Al-Wahaibi and Asila Al-Maawali’s paper Facebook Fosters Autonomous Learning in ELT Classrooms, where they argued that a Facebook group can be a good platform to support English learning – through online discussion, a student question-and-answer section, and an audio/video corner – while simultaneously developing students’ IT skills as well as developing student autonomy (which they suggested is a relatively new concept in Omani educational culture); and Fatima Al Shihi’s workshop, Online Vocabulary Learning, where she illustrated the use of the ESL Lab website for teacher-led or self-directed access.

There’s clearly a lot of interest in new technologies, and mobile technologies especially, in Oman and the Gulf countries, and experimentation has begun with these tools in English language teaching. With the proliferation of smart devices in the region, the time is ripe for mobile learning to contribute in a major way to language education.

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