Mobile phones and language learning
Mobile phones may be useful in language education, as a means for students to communicate free of classroom pressures, and to help teachers in remote locations and/or working across a range of schools.
The Mobile Application for Language Learning (MALL) project investigated the use of mobile phones to develop secondary students' conversational use of Indonesian. Trialled in 11 schools across Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, the project was well received by the students and teachers taking part. The trial produced improvements in students' test outcomes suggesting that there is merit in considering this technology for more broad-based use in teaching languages and other subjects.
Through the mobile phones, students listened to pre-recorded questions in Indonesian delivered over a computer. They gave spoken answers drawing on facts supplied in support material such as a street map and a hard copy restaurant menu. The students were required to have some prior knowledge of Indonesian, both in listening and interpreting text and culture. The language of the questions was at the same level of formality as that found in contemporary spoken Indonesian. For some questions students were asked to take the role of informant, such as waitress or estate agent, to foster a greater sense of intercultural communication.
Student answers were recorded and uploaded to a website for marking and commentary, through a system provided by Learnosity (www.learnosity.com). On the site, students could listen to and re-record their answers before submission for marking, and could later review their mark and listen to model answers.
All the students already owned mobile phones, but for the project used separate phones containing Vodafone SIM cards that had been locked down, limiting them to the 'conversations' with the computer and interaction with their cohorts in the project. The use of mobile phones for schoolwork was a new concept for the majority of the students.
The MALL project took place over six weeks toward the end of an academic year. It was conducted by The Le@rning Federation (TLF), an initiative of all Australian and New Zealand governments that produces and acquires a broad range of digital curriculum resources (K–12) and makes them available at no charge for distribution to all schools. The project is an extension of these activities by virtue of incorporating the ubiquity of mobile phones, an emergent technology in education, into the teaching and learning processes.
The trial schools were selected for their geographical spread and their demonstrated levels of support for Indonesian language learning and innovation in teaching. In most cases only one class of students from each school took part. The students were mainly from Years 8–10, with a few from Years 7 or 11; the 196 students undertook a total of 1298 conversations.
The teachers, self-nominated for participation, attended a one-day introductory workshop and throughout the project both teachers and students were offered technical support from TLF staff.
The evaluation process
Students' progress was tracked through test conversations, developed by a subject expert. Students took these tests at the beginning and end of the project. Students also provided formal feedback through mid-project and post-project questionnaires, which focused on their interaction with the technology.
Teachers took part in a focus group and individual interviews at the end of the project, and a post-project questionnaire focused on feedback on student progress and any issues that arose during the project. Teachers also offered informal feedback throughout the trial.
Teachers were also invited to discuss issues pertaining to the project with TLF support staff and other participating teachers through a specially created online forum. This was new technology for the majority of teachers. While they welcomed the language learning trial they did not embrace the forum as they saw it as one too many new things for them to undertake in the overall process. Some teachers indicated that they might participate in a forum site in a longer-term project.
Overall there was an 11% increase in students' mean score between pre- and post-testing, which suggests that this project had a positive impact on the language skills of the participating students. This finding is broadly supported by feedback from students and teachers.
The post-project questionnaire was completed by 91 students: 71% reported that participating in the project had improved their Indonesian listening skills, 65% indicated that their confidence in using Indonesian had increased, and 64% described the project as 'fun'.
All the participating students were comfortable in taking responsibility for a second mobile phone device. All students felt that the mobile phones gave them privacy and freedom to attempt speaking Indonesian that was not possible in a classroom situation. They welcomed the fact that their conversations could be recorded and subsequently reviewed by their teachers.
For the students, the most negative aspect of the project was poor telephone connectivity, leading to limited access and poor reception. The other main difficulty was related to the demands of language content and its verbal delivery. Some students quickly grasped the topics and were reported to be joking and colloquial in their responses – something which they had never demonstrated in class. However, others found that the questions were asked too quickly and that insufficient 'think' time for responses was provided; these students thus became discouraged early in the project. There was also a suggestion that, in offering topics with a local Indonesian bent, some students struggled to 'pick' any words that gave them a clue to the question.
Teachers generally reported that students' learning outcomes and 'time on task' improved as a result of participation in MALL. They felt that students took a keener interest in feedback from the teacher and reflected on their answers by means of the project website. While not every student showed the same degree of improvement, teachers reported that the percentage of success was higher than normal in a class of students undertaking a project. Teachers reported a marked increase in the confidence of many of their students. However, the teachers did comment that where the students found the material too hard, they quickly lost interest in the novelty of using mobile phones. Teachers suggested that the questions could have been graded more, to cater to a greater range of student ability levels.
The teachers felt that listening to individual students' conversations through MALL facilities was more effective than classroom interactions in allowing them to identify difficulties with vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It should be noted, however, that the system did not automatically improve students' scores pre- and post-test. While technology as used in this project serves to enhance good teaching practice, it is not a substitute for good pedagogy.
The teachers found it easy to incorporate the MALL approach into their teaching plans, and were happy to explore further ways to integrate mobile phone technology into their teaching. Podcasting in particular was seen as a means by which students could collaborate with anyone in the world to improve their language skills and, where the characters are compatible, texting was also seen as an option.
When asked if teachers saw any impediments to implementing this or a similar initiative more widely, their primary concerns were with computer access and connectivity and the issue of cost in producing and preparing the course material. They were concerned to ensure that all project participants would have access to computers when they wanted it, and called for increased technical support for teachers and students.
Teachers sought more support material and flexibility to use the system under their more direct control in order to select themes and record their own questions. This response is an endorsement of the project as it indicates that the teachers were already considering ways in which to move forward with this technology.
They supported the value of an approach such as MALL for distance education teachers and those working across a number of schools, and were positive about its effectiveness for delivering course material. Having a tight lockdown of the phones was seen as important for parents and the schools.
Conclusions and recommendations
This project sparked enthusiasm in both teachers and students by combining ubiquitous technology with teaching practice and formal learning. It generated positive learning outcomes despite some infrastructure issues. Broader implementation of this approach to learning languages and other subjects should therefore be explored.
Acquiring mobile phones for the trial was not a major difficulty, but acquiring SIM cards with the level of 'lockdown' required proved to be a significant challenge. Connectivity issues disadvantaged some students as the chosen provider did not have coverage in some areas. For future implementation, ways should be explored to allow students to use their own mobile phones, through credits with their existing service providers.
It is understood that the object of learning languages is to be able to understand locals who do speak fast and not always clearly. However, for future projects, it is recommended that the questions be structured with a greater variety of levels, with keywords to assist students in deciphering the rest of the question; and that topics, while still in Indonesian, should be more familiar to Australian learners.
Other recommendations were that schools should be assisted in developing plans to expand access, connectivity and usability of technology in its current form, and with a view to high-speed broadband capability in the future; and that the timing for projects be discussed with participating schools to ensure maximum opportunity for their full implementation and ongoing support.
Subject HeadingsLanguages other than English (LOTE)
Language and languages
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)