A special treat in our latest interview as we have the pleasure of speaking to renowned edtech and mobile learning expert Nicky Hockly. We discuss mobile learning, gaming and VR and their potential in the language classroom. Nicky also shares her thoughts on the future of learning technologies and how they might impact on the world of ELT. Enjoy!
EdTech & Language Learning
DD: Yours is a name synonymous with edtech in ELT. How did you first get involved with using digital technology with language learners?
NH: I actually started out using digital technology with teachers rather than with learners. Back in 1997, I was hired as the Academic Director of one of the first fully online VLE-based MA in TEFL programmes in our field, offered through a consortium of Spanish and Latin American universities. I always think of myself as having come to technology ‘through the back door’ – that is, through a pedagogical role, rather than any particular interest in technology per se. I tutored on the online MA programme, and trained other online tutors for the programme, and I had to learn how to use the technology as I went along! I was mainly involved in teacher training at that stage of my career, but whenever I got back into the classroom, I found I was keen to try out new technologies (such as social networks, and mobile devices) with language learners too.
DD: You have researched and published articles and books on CALL, online learning, mobile learning and many other aspects of edtech. Can you tell us what you are working on at present?
NH: Right now I’m working on an article for my regular ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal) column, about how digital technologies impact on researchers. In the pipeline is a book on blended learning, and a book chapter or article (with Mark Pegrum and Gavin Dudeney) with an updated take on our digital literacies framework. Apart from that, most of my time at the moment is being taken up by a large-scale consultancy project that my company (The Consultants -E) is involved in, monitoring and evaluating a regional educational project that is taking place in secondary schools across six countries in the Americas.
DD: Many edtech enthusiasts are excited about the potential of virtual reality (VR) in learning contexts. Others are wary of it being another expensive investment for schools that teachers will not be adequately trained for. What’s your stance on VR as the ‘next big thing’ in edtech?
NH: As with most new developments in educational technologies, we need to be wary if we start to hear the rumbling of distant wheels. It’s the bandwagon, and we’ve heard it before – for example, with expensive educational technologies like interactive whiteboards (IWBs), that were installed in massive numbers in schools with not a single shred of research indicating that they could actually improve learning for students. VR does seem to have been used successfully in vocational training, but until I actually see some solid research evidence into how it supports and enhances students’ language learning, I’d be wary. That’s not to say that VR can’t or won’t support language learning, but I’d want some hard evidence before shelling out cash for expensive VR headsets in my school!
DD: Based on your extensive experience with mobile learning, what factors should teachers take into consideration when using smartphones or tablets with their students?
NH: Gavin Dudeney and I have written an entire book about this (Going Mobile, Delta Publishing, 2013), so it’s difficult to summarise the range of factors that need to be taken into account in one short paragraph! But essentially, you need to take into consideration technical issues (e.g. Wi-Fi connections), logistical issues (e.g. whether students use their own devices, or the school provides a class set), and pedagogical issues (e.g. designing mobile based tasks that support language learning). There is also a difference between using mobile devices with adults and with learners under 18. With younger learners, factors such as e-safety, appropriacy, and acceptable use policies become important too.
DD: What do you think about the potential for mobile games as learning tools?
NH: It depends on what games we’re talking about, and what students do with them. Sitting alone playing Candy Crush on a mobile device is unlikely to do much for language learning. However, playing educational or so-called ‘serious’ games in pairs, or using mobile games as a springboard for other language work, can in theory be very effective, and there is plenty of research evidence available to back this up. I think your own blog has lots of really good ideas about how digital games (including those played on mobile devices) can be used to support language learning in and outside of the classroom!
DD: Thanks! In my experience, many stakeholders dismiss mobile devices, apps and digital games as superficial fun, while others seem to think they will work magic with the learners just because they are modern and ‘cool’. How do you go about addressing these opposing concerns?
NH: I think stakeholders who are unfamiliar with educational technologies have a right to be concerned. For teachers who would like to start using mobile devices and/or digital games with their learners, then there needs to be a strong pedagogical base for doing so. It clearly needs to bring something to the lesson, not just in terms of student engagement, but also in terms of actually helping students to learn the language. We’ve worked with several schools and universities in the last few years, helping them develop a strategic approach to implementing mobile devices. For it to work, it requires teacher training, and an understanding on the part of everyone (teachers, students, directors –even the parents of younger learners) of just how mobile devices will be used in the classroom, and most importantly – why. Once concerned stakeholders actually see the evidence of how something like mobile devices or digital games can actively support learning, they can almost always be persuaded of the value. But I think the first step is to listen to stakeholders’ concerns, and to give these concerns a respectful consideration. You need to start from where your stakeholders are, rather than from where you think they should be.
DD: Your latest Etp article (Five things you always wanted to know about digital games (but were too afraid to ask)) highlights MMORPGs like Warcraft as the ‘most promising’ for language learners. How can these kinds of games support language learning?
NH: This is what research seems to show. The research that I’ve come across on MMORPGs refers to self-motivated learners (usually adolescents or young adults) who play these games outside of the classroom, and are exposed to English by communicating with other players as part of the game. It’s not that they deliberately choose to expand their vocabulary or grammar by playing MMORPGs – it tends to happen the other way round. In other words, these learners want to play the game, and incidental language learning occurs when they do so. So we’re talking here mainly about informal, out of class learning or acquisition. However, Minecraft (which one could argue is a sort of MMORPG) has been used in more formal classroom settings to support learning across a range of subjects, and it also seems to hold potential for learning.
DD: What do you see as the future of edtech in ELT (or in general)?
NH: Hmmm, that’s a good question. There is a lot of pressure from educational technology vendors, particularly in North America, for schools to implement adaptive learning software as part of blended approaches to learning. This is happening with students of all ages, and across the curriculum. ELT is also witnessing the rise of adaptive learning materials, and increasing numbers of schools and universities are starting to offer blended and online language learning options to students. This is a trend that I think is going to grow, and we need to keep our critical faculties well-honed, especially when we have vendors telling us that their product or software is a ‘solution’ to language learning. I think we also need to keep in mind that in some contexts, technology is simply not an option, but that doesn’t mean that the teaching is not effective. It’s never about the technology, it’s about the teaching (and the learning), and we need to not lose sight of that!
DD: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions! It’s been a pleasure.
NH: My pleasure!
Nicky Hockly is Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, and has been involved in ELT since 1987. She is author of several prize-winning methodology books about technology in EFL, and she gives plenary talks and runs training courses all over the world. Her research interests include blended and online learning and she sporadically blogs at eModeration Station. Nicky lives in Barcelona, and is a technophobe turned technophile.