Dubhgan Hinchey, John Blake; Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
Envisage a classroom in which learners are in charge of decisions such as whether to replay a listening, re-read a text, or move on to the next activity. Making the transition from teacher-centered instruction to autonomous, individualized learning was the primary impetus for our decision to adopt tablet computers as the means of providing instructional content. Tablets are an effective way to put learners in control of the choices, material, and activities that define their learning. Hardware quality has increased even as tablet prices have decreased, creating a win-win situation for both language teachers and learners. By harnessing the Internet and wireless LAN in the classroom, it is possible to take advantage of the exponential increase in the volume of English language content and the number of learning applications. Below are 10 aspects we considered in detail that facilitated a smooth transition to tablets.
1. Digital delivery system
Storing content, sharing data and collaborating online can be as easy as opening a Google account. We opted for Moodle, an open-source learning management system to create our virtual learning environment, but Canvas is also another easy-to-use, out-of-the-box choice.
2. Content creation
Content is key. MoodleReader (Robb & Kano, 2013) and commercial spaced repetition software (SRS) services such as iKnow! and EnglishCentral were made available to students from the outset (see Godwin-Jones, 2010 for a discussion on SRS and vocabulary learning). Four modular courses were created in response to an extensive needs analysis. Two recommendations we would make are to set up a shared Google account to use for online accounts, such as Prezi and Survey Monkey and to create how-to videos using screen capturing software, such as Screenium for Apple computers.
3. Wireless LAN
On a wireless network, students can easily form new conversation groups or change partners while having the lesson goals, example dialogues, and a list of core speaking strategies available at the swipe of a fingertip on their tablets.
4. School- or student-owned devices
Providing learners a standard tablet reduces compatibility issues and the need for testing content on multiple platforms, since content is accessed using the same type of device. However, incorporating learners’ own Internet-enabled devices means not only fewer devices need to be purchased, prepared, and maintained, but also that learners will be more familiar with the features of their own devices. We opted to encourage all learners to bring their own device, but purchased enough to distribute to those with no device or suffering technological difficulties. We found that over half the students brought their own device.
5. iPad or Android device
Although iPads are the preferred choice in some universities in the US and Japan, we selected tablets using the Android operating system because of their lower price, larger market share and open-source ethos. We also found that expanding external storage was much easier than for iPads.
6. Detachable keyboards
Slate tablets are perfect for in-class use, but we suggest buying a detachable, docking keyboard for administrative use. These keyboards bring various bonus features, such as USB ports for data transfer and longer battery life. Unfortunately for iPad and Google Nexus tablets, only third party providers sell keyboards that are not physically attachable to their tablets. Other advantages of detachable keyboards over Bluetooth keyboards include less lag time on connection to the tablet, easier charging and not having to buy extra cases to make the keyboard and tablet one physical unit.
7. Regular or mini size
Smaller or mini-sized tablets carry a lower price tag, but require more swiping by students to navigate online content. We chose Asus Transformer Pad Infinity tablets (approximately A4 size) to reduce the amount of scrolling needed to access our online courses and to make it easier to answer quiz questions, since learners could view both video clips and quiz questions simultaneously.
8. Application compatibility
The tablets should, of course, be compatible with any learning apps your students use. We chose Android tablets knowing that the commercial learning apps that our students use on their desktops and laptops would also sync data with the mobile apps of commercial services. This gave us the flexibility to fully test apps before considering them for student use. It also left the door open for tablets to be assigned to individual students and potentially be used outside of class.
9. Camera & microphone suitability
Most tablet devices have the ability to record audio and video. Depending on your course objectives, you may want to record your students; if so, we recommend selecting one with an option to decrease the quality of recorded video. Standard-definition video quality (480p) is fine for class use and avoids the larger file sizes of high-definition videos.
10. Time, energy, and finance
Each device needs to have the optimum interface to ensure that the tablet does not become a barrier to access the class content or online activities. In order to prepare each tablet for distribution to students, this involved (a) charging the battery, (b) selecting English as the OS language and selecting an English keyboard, (c) disabling the default Android browser and enabling Google Chrome, (d) setting the browser homepage to our online course with appropriate bookmarks, (e) registering the MAC addresses with the school wireless network, and (f) updating the Android OS. The entire process took 20 hours. Our key expenditure was purchasing a set of tablets for classroom use. Since our remit was to develop an e-learning program, we were supported by our division administrators who approved the purchase of 17 Asus Transformer tablets with the standard one-year warranty for just over 250,000 yen in 2012.
Considerable time and energy were required to get the project operational. Although it is difficult to calculate the exact amount of time we dedicated to this transition, we both feel that the rewards are well worth the time and effort necessary. Transitioning to tablets also provided us with valuable experience with e-learning for the future, and puts us in a prime position to take advantage of new, online developments such as the forthcoming free massive open online courses provided by Japanese universities. If you have any questions about making the transition to tablets, feel free to contact the authors.
Godwin-Jones, R. (2010). Emerging technologies from memory palaces to spacing algorithms: Approaches to second-language vocabulary learning. Language Learning and Technology, 14(2), 4-11. Retrieved from <lsa-cmsf5test.lsa.umich.edu/german/hmr/531/llt/emerging.pdf>
Robb, T. N., & Kano, M. (2013, in press). Effective extensive reading outside the classroom – a large scale experiment. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2).