Thursday, December 8, 2011

What did I do with my Acer?

Answer: Not a whole lot.

It was a great e-reader and Web access device, certainly. I didn't see much potential for using a single tablet in my beginning Spanish classes, so I pretty much played with the machine in my capacity as a computer nerd.

As a language teacher, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to how tablets might be used in language classrooms, and several possible uses have occurred to me.

One of the activity types most likely to fit well with tablets is the "information gap" activity. One popular language learning/teaching website defines an information gap activity as "... an activity where learners are missing the information they need to complete a task and need to talk to each other to find it. " (

The tablets seem to be a great way to provide information to individuals or small groups interactively. For example, one student (or small group) might get a tablet loaded with (or directed via the Web to) information that a travel agent would typically have. The other student(s) would have questions or checklists that help them collect travel information they need to make a decision on vacation plans.

There are many such activities throughout language teaching, at all levels of skill. Tablets seem ideally suited to supporting learners' needs during those activities. Such support could take a variety of forms:

  • presenting what students need to know to carry out their part of an activity and what they need to find out from others taking different roles in the activity (please note that while this is also easily done on paper in a relatively straightforward way, an app or web page delivered via tablet could selectively, and algorithmically, present the information over time and/or as discrete steps while the activity is in progress)
  • recording students findings during an activity
  • providing language support during activities via dictionaries and links within the activities to useful vocabulary and language structures
In addition to information gap activities, students could record (audio only or audio-video) their interactions for later review by the students themselves, by classmates, and/or by the instructor. In classrooms in which every student had a tablet (or similar device, such as a smart phone), quick mini-quizzes could be given and instantly evaluated, much as instructors do now with iClickers and similar clicker systems.

Perhaps a bit more pie-in-the-sky, but still possible and definitely useful, would be the use of augmented reality (see Wikipedia entry). Foreign language "treasure hunts" might require students to get up and move around the classroom, or even parts of the campus, as part of their information collecting tasks. I can imagine a variety of real-world tasks that would work, for example, understanding and following directions (e.g., "go to the end of the hall, then turn right"). Instructions and other signposts could be displayed virtually on the tablet, allowing instructors to create multiple activities that would not require taping up signs in the real world, for example.

Of course, I'm assuming that departments or programs will have access to a set of tablets and dependable wireless access in their classrooms. I don't think we're at the point where we can require students to have a tablet or a smartphone as part of our course's required materials. I do think that a Spanish 101 or 102 class with eighteen students and six or seven tablets (not counting the instructor's) could make good use of them. Doing so would require strong technical support (especially dependable and relatively fast wireless access in the classroom) and perhaps some custom programming of apps and/or websites to support the activities.

I'm tempted to flesh my thoughts out further and submit an Innovation Fund proposal next semester. To that end, any questions and/or feedback on what I've posted would be greatly appreciated.

Best End-of-Semester Wishes and Happy Holidays.


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