November 2016
Victoria Surtees, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

As a practitioner working with study-abroad students in Canada, I often wish I knew more about what my students were up to when I’m not around. I ask myself questions like: Do they have enough opportunities to use English in meaningful ways? Are they encountering and negotiating cultural difference? Are they being supported by their peer community? Like many instructors working with young adults far from their homes (often for the first time), I feel responsible for ensuring they benefit from the cultural and linguistic opportunities surrounding them. A few years ago, my concerns spurred me to undertake a small research project on out-of-class interactions with 12 undergraduate study-abroad English learners in Montreal. I thought if I could get study-abroad learners to report details about their experiences outside the classroom, I would have more insight into critical intercultural incidents that I could then discuss in my classroom. But how could I make sure my participants would actually take down details about their interactions? Notebooks? Diaries?

I decided to take a risk. Instead of using diaries or interviews as other researchers had traditionally done (Jackson, 2008), I asked students to use their own mobile devices to report their language use. Their task: to complete a 3-minute mobile survey each time they spoke English for a period of 10 days. After training them briefly to use the electronic survey, I set them loose in the world and crossed my fingers that I would get some usable data. What I ended up with was astounding.

My 12 participants submitted more than 800 surveys. What’s more, they didn’t just include public interactions like ordering pizza; they reported interactions I never thought to ask about. Every student reported moments when they failed to communicate or felt powerless. One participant described how a girl turned him down for a date. Another student described how she argued with her roommate about who ate the last of the yoghurt. After the project was finished, the students told me that via their participation, they had become more aware of features of their own English use. For example, one student noticed she only spoke to nonnative speakers. Another noted she spoke about the same number of limited topics, over and over. I started to think that perhaps this project could be used for more than just finding out what my students talked about. This kind of data could be easily used to fuel critical discussions about who is responsible for miscommunications or why some interactions are more difficult than others. It is in that spirit that I share my procedure and rationale, in the hopes that the creative readers of this forum will transform my project into a language awareness activity for their students.

Why Use Mobile Devices Instead of Paper Diaries or Logs?

The ubiquity of mobile devices in daily life makes them ideal research tools. Mobile devices are essentially invisible; they are already a part of many young people’s everyday lives and can be integrated seamlessly and inconspicuously into their daily practices (Bachmair & Pachler, 2015). Consider the sheer number of social network updates and SMS conversations that today’s youth engage in. Students use mobile devices to record and share all aspects of their lives with others, especially their noninstitutional activities (think Instagrammed dinners). Because I was interested in learning about informal everyday situations, asking students to use devices on which they already recorded such details seemed ideal for this project. My hope was that they could complete entries on the bus, in their houses, and at parties without drawing undue attention. What I did not expect, however, is that the use of personal devices seemed also to encourage the sharing of more intimate or vulnerable moments when they felt powerless as additional language speakers.

My Mobile Survey

For this project, I used a mobile survey platform called Survey Gizmo to create a short questionnaire that would be accessible from all devices and platforms, including Smartphones, tablets, and desktops (other mobile survey tools would likely also work well). My original intent was to obtain information on the social functions of the language students were using (e.g., how often they apologized or complained and which was more difficult). Therefore, my survey aimed to record the contexts, frequency, and relative difficulty of different interactions in study-abroad students’ daily life. I included the following questions:

  1. What happened? What did you say? (open-ended)

  2. Location (open-ended)

  3. Who were your conversation partners? (open-ended)

  4. How well do you know your conversation partners? (1–5 scale)

  5. Were any of your partners native speakers of English? (yes/no/I don’t know)

  6. How easy was it for you to speak English in this situation? (1–5 scale)

  7. In one week, how often do you use English to say something similar?(1–5 scale)

  8. Comments (open-ended)

These questions could be adapted to focus more narrowly on interactions in specific contexts (e.g., service encounters) or a particular kind of language (e.g., swearing).


Once I had created the survey,I recruited 12 undergraduate study-abroad students who were studying abroad at an English-speaking university in Montreal. They were from various first language backgrounds and had come on a one or two semester–long exchange. I then invited them to a group training session. Each person practiced using the survey and completed a trial entry. We also discussed the kinds of information that were good to include. For example, we watched video clips of friends interacting and practicedbeing specific about the kinds of language that was being used (e.g., instead of I talked about music use I explained what music I liked or I told her I didn’t like that music). Sufficient training was critical for gathering detailed information about their interactions. It also meant I didn’t have to include lengthy instructions in the mobile survey, which made it faster (and more attractive) to complete.

For 10 days following the training, the participants submitted surveys using whatever mobile device they desired. Some students preferred tablets and some smartphones, but they all tended to submit entries in small batches several times a day. The surveys took from 1–6 minutes to complete. Each time a survey was completed, the data were sent to a master account where I could monitor the times and number of entries submitted. The data were also automatically entered on a spreadsheet for easy analysis.

A week following collection, we met again as a group to discuss which kinds of topics or acts, such as apologizing or complaining, were easiest and which were most difficult. We critically reflected on why some might be more difficult than others, which led to discussions of cultural difference. Once I had all the data, I grouped survey entries by difficulty rating to see if there were patterns in the features of interactions which were rated difficult. I also grouped the interactions by location (e.g., residence or public) and by interlocutor type (e.g., peer or professor) to investigate how their English use was distributed. In this way, I was able to map out my students’ language use and understand the factors that made interactions challenging for them.

Creating a Language-Awareness Project Using Mobile Surveys

What stood out in this project is that by completing entries, students became more aware of patterns in their English use and were able to think critically about cultural differences. The practice of systematically recording details about interactions afforded them some distance and allowed for an analytical space that instructors could harness to explore critical language issues.

I believe that by asking students to analyse their own data (instead of the researcher), the power of this activity could be further enhanced. Here are a few ways this mobile-survey project could be modified as a course project to promote students’ awareness about their own and others’ language practices:

  • Students could choose entries in which miscommunication occurred, discuss why there was a breakdown, and rewrite the interaction.

  • Based on the data they collected, students could reflect critically on the different kinds of English used for different activities and with different people.

  • Students could choose an interaction rated as easy and one rated as difficult and discuss what aspects of the context made them rate it that way.

  • Students could be asked to produce maps of their interactions.

  • The survey could be modified to investigate a particular type of encounter or language, such as insults. Students could gather their observations in small groups and present on their experiences.


In many contexts, the quantity and quality of students’ English experiences outside the classroom are often the lens through which they perceive success or failure in language learning (Benson, Barkhuisen, Bodycott, & Brown, 2013). Bringing a critical discussion of those experiences into the classroom via data collected with mobile surveys could be one way to encourage them to consider the complex language issues they face in their daily lives.


Bachmair, B., & Pachler, N. (2015). Framing ubitquitous mobility educationally: Mobile devices and context-aware learning. In L.-H. Wong, M. Milrad, & M. Specht (Eds.), Seamless learning in the age of mobile connectivity (pp. 57–74). New York, NY: Springer.

Benson, P., Barkhuisen, G., Bodycott, P., & Brown, J. (2013). Second language identity in narratives of study abroad. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jackson, J. (2008). Language, identity, and study abroad: Sociocultural perspectives. London, England: Equinox.

Victoria Surtees is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. She works primarily with undergraduate study-abroad students and teacher candidates specializing in TESL. The project described in this article was part of her master’s research and was presented in 2014 at the Conference of the American Applied Linguistics Association in Toronto (presentation available here). In her PhD research, she continues to use mobile devices in innovative ways to explore students’ out-of-class experiences.