October 1, 2017
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María Mercedes Kamijo, TESOL Argentina, Corrientes, Corrientes, Argentina

Mobile devices are reshaping the ways we access information and interact with others, offering great educational potential that should be exploited by teachers and institutions. This article analyzes how mobile learning can enrich language learning in innovative ways and, at the same time, help learners develop skills that are essential in the 21st century.

Technology has changed almost every aspect of our daily life and has also had a massive impact on the way we communicate, access information, and learn. The students in our classrooms are radically differently from older generations: They prefer visual information and multimedia over text; they are tech-savvy and hyper-connected; and they communicate mainly through instant messaging services and social networks, where they share personal updates and photos and videos, and interact with other users’ content.

English language teachers need to consider new ways of integrating technology into the curriculum to address these new profiles and learning styles, engage students more effectively, and help them acquire a range of competencies that they will need to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.

Mobile devices can become powerful tools to engage today’s learners—as long as pedagogy is prioritized over technology. Mobile learning (also known as M-learning) is not about the physical devices themselves, but "learning across multiple contexts, through social and content interactions, using personal electronic devices” (Crompton, 2013).

M-learning can enrich language learning in innovative ways and offers many benefits:

  • Ubiquitous learning: By using mobile devices, students can have instant access to dictionaries, video tutorials, presentations, documents, and other type of content, anytime and anywhere.
  • Personalization: M-learning enables personalized and autonomous learning, as content and materials can be adapted to the students’ particular learning styles and levels. By using their own devices (e.g., to do a listening activity or an interactive quiz), students work at their own pace in a private, controlled environment.
  • Active, meaningful learning: Mobile apps allow students to create digital artifacts from personal photographs, videos, and audio. Objects, situations, and experiences that are relevant to students can be integrated into language activities easily.
  • Mobility and portability: Learning takes place “on the go” because students can access content and activities outside the classroom: at home, while commuting, in the park. Virtual field trips and online museums and classes are also engaging activities that can take learning outside the classroom. When used inside the classroom, mobile devices also allow learners to move around, which makes language learning engaging for kinesthetic students.
  • Digital skills: It is commonly assumed that learning with technology is second nature for today’s students. However, they generally do not know how to use mobile devices as a tool for learning. Therefore, by learning how to use their devices productively, they also develop digital skills that they will need in the future.
  • Higher order thinking skills: M-learning is a powerful medium to foster the development of higher order thinking skills, which have been identified by the United States–based Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) as the most important skills required for 21st-century education. The main skills can be identified as follows:
    • Critical thinking: Mobile devices allow student learners to record their reflections via text, picture, drawing, audio, video, or other creative means, which can be reviewed later on and changed or adapted. Students can also reflect critically with their peers using mobile tools and technologies (McCann, 2015).
    • Communication: Digital forms of communication (video, audio, text, instant messaging, video conferencing, blog posts, and social networks, just to name a few) require students to develop a range of skills to organize, evaluate, and communicate ideas and information effectively in a variety of forms and contexts.
    • Collaboration: Mobile apps and technologies can enhance collaboration and enable students to develop skills to work with diverse teams, assume shared responsibility for teamwork, and value individual contributions. Sharing documents and content; writing collaboratively; and creating timelines, mind maps, and photo collages are just some examples of mobile collaborative activities.
    • Creativity: Mobile devices are powerful tools that allow students to create their own digital artifacts and unlock creativity. Learners can create their own videos, podcasts, slideshows, mind maps, interactive presentations, augmented reality content, and other types of materials using mobile, digital technologies.

M-Learning Ideas and Activities to carry out in the English Classroom

See my handout, Mobile Learning Activities to Carry Out in the English Classroom, for ideas and activities with mobile devices that can be adapted for students of different ages and levels. They are organized as follows.

  1. Activities with microphones
  2. Activities with cameras
  3. Activities with apps that promote communication and collaboration
  4. Activities with apps that foster creativity
  5. Activities with QR codes

M-Learning Considerations

To implement a successful M-learning strategy, there are a few points to consider; these points will affect M-learning planning and design (Hockly, 2012).

  • Mobile device usage
    Where and when will students use their devices? They can either use them in the classroom to look up information, do quizzes and tests, and play games, or at home or on the move for additional practice and independent study. A combination of both modes is also a good option.

    Another point to consider is whether learners are going to use mobile devices in every class or just for occasional activities.

  • Device ownership
    Whose devices are learners going to use? A growing number of institutions are adopting BYOD (Bring your Own Device) programs in which students are allowed to use their own mobile devices for learning. When individual use is not possible (such as when not all students own a device), devices can be shared for group activities. Some institutions even provide students with sets of tablets to use in class.

  • Consumption and production
    How are students going to use mobile devices? They can either consume content (by watching videos, listening to podcasts, doing quizzes, using flashcards) or produce content (by creating artifacts with the microphone, camera, and native apps) to integrate into projects. A mixture of consumption- and production-focused activities will certainly enrich the language learning experience.

Challenges for Educators
M-learning is a relatively new methodology that poses certain challenges that teachers need to address (Kukulska-Hulme, Norris, & Donohue, 2015).

  • Cost and Wi-Fi connection
    Is there a free Wi-Fi connection in class? How strong is the signal? Will it crash if many users log on at the same time? There are many activities to do with mobile devices that do not require an Internet connection. However, students may need to continue their tasks after class. In that case, do they have Internet access at home or elsewhere?

  • Variety of devices
    Another important issue to consider is the wide variety of models, brands, and operating systems: iOS, Android, Windows 10 Mobile, BlackBerry, and so on. If apps are included in the lesson plan, make sure they are compatible with the different operating systems and devices. When in doubt, web-based applications should be used because they can be accessed through any device using a web browser.

  • Device physical features
    Mobile devices have small screens, no physical keyboards, inadequate memory, and short battery life. Therefore, having students write long texts or watch a video longer than 5 minutes will be counterproductive.

    It is also important to check how much free space there is on the learners’ devices: photos, audio and video recordings, and apps can require a considerable amount of space.

  • Privacy and security
    There are privacy concerns resulting from students sharing personal information inadequately. In addition, most apps require permissions to access certain features (e.g., location, photos, and contacts) to function. Both teachers and students should learn how to be responsible digital citizens, assess the risks of sharing information with apps and on the Internet, and understand what terms and conditions apply when agreeing to download and use apps.

  • Monitored use
    Teachers should create a class contract in agreement with students for classroom norms, rules, and consequences. Mobile devices can be a source of distraction and unethical use; therefore, the activities should be monitored by teachers if carried out in class.

    To keep learners on task, ask them to switch phones to flight mode and turn off push notifications to prevent incoming texts or news updates from appearing. Asking learners to put their devices face down at the end of the activity is also a good solution.

To conclude, institutions should implement an acceptable use policy to ensure that mobile devices are used responsibly to encourage learning and minimize disruption (McQuiggan, 2015). M-learning extends learning beyond the classroom and allows students to communicate, collaborate, and create in innovative ways while taking control of their own learning. Pedagogy should always be the primary consideration, and teachers play a key role in facilitating learning through mobile technologies and strategies.


Crompton, H. (2013). Handbook of mobile learning. London, England: Routledge.

Hockly, N. (2012). Mobile learning: what is it and why should you care? Modern English teacher, 21(2), 32–33.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Norris, L., & Donohue, J. (2015). Mobile pedagogy for English language teaching: A guide for teachers. London, England: The British Council.

McCann, S. (2015). Higher order mLearning: Critical thinking in mobile learning. MODSIM World 2015 (Paper No. 028). Retrieved from http://www.modsimworld.org/papers/2015/Higher_Order_mLearning.pdf

McQuiggan, S. M. (2015). Mobile learning: A handbook for developers, educators, and learners. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Mercedes Kamijo is an EFL teacher specialized in mobile learning and e-learning. She is a member of TESOL Argentina and currently teaches online courses in educational technology. She is coauthor of the e-book Mobile Learning: Nuevas realidades en el aula.

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