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Three “Justs” of Mobile Language Learning

This post is inspired by Pete Sharma’s talk on English UK’s Management Conference in Oxford earlier this month. I really enjoyed this conference: it was a source of many ideas, plans and projects for me.

One of my big interests discussed in Oxford was m-learning: as the ELT industry begins to catch up with the developments in mobile learning, the philosophy and expertise around the subject becomes more concrete and inspiring. Lindsay Clandfield and Pete Sharma made it clear: m-learning is something that language educators should start taking very seriously, very soon. We have seen and discussed evidence of it already happening for English – and #ELTchat was quick to follow with a lively discussion – but what really nailed it for me was something that Pete Sharma mentioned only in passing in his talk: the three “justs” of mobile learning. Today, I’m going to focus on each of them – from a language learner’s point of view.


Just in time

This concept isn’t entirely new – JIT has been present as a strategy in business for quite some time – but for language learners, the idea of taking control of when and what to study may seem awkward. It used to be the teacher’s role: introducing and revising material, providing content, organising the syllabus – along with tests and revisions…attending a language class meant that your efforts and energy were focused on that classroom time – and possibly an hour or two of homework. You revised more for tests, and were on your own when the school was closed (e.g. for holidays).

Mobile learning changes this quite significantly. Having a smartphone or a tablet about you means that you can take over a lot of responsibility for managing your learning time:

  • – you decide when, what and how much to revise (e.g. by using flashcards)
  • – you can choose to access your lesson content, or interact with other language learners (by using social media)
  • – you take advantage of any unplanned, “empty” time to access your learning material and your learning network
  • – you decide on “priority” content (e.g. revising phrases for negotiation before a business meeting, reading up on a dialect when travelling out, etc.) – and not your teacher / syllabus

It’s hard to get used to the fact that you are in full control of your language learning – and believe me, teachers often find it even more unsettling! Once this feeling kicks in, however, the idea of “just-in-time” language learning feels good.


Just enough

On the face of it, this concept focuses on minimalism – and stresses that it’s important not to overburden oneself with material that isn’t needed. It’s true – mobile learning means that you no longer need to carry stacks of books, dictionaries and learning aids. Everything fits neatly into your pocket.

It only takes a while to realise, however, that “just enough” is actually about abundance as well. In a world of nearly-free, digital media, we are sentenced to live with abundance (as this talk so cleverly describes). For language learners, this is an important counterpoint to the argument about saving space in your backpack.

Here’s an example: as a German learner, I always regretted that my course books lack authentic spoken German and real-life magazine articles. Sure, I could start clipping and recording them myself, but that meant work, research and – let’s face it – I was lazy. Today, this excuse would no longer work: my teacher would only have to set up a podcast directory and an RSS reader for me – and voila, a constantly refreshed stream of articles and interviews in German!

“Just enough,” then, seems to be a two-fold decision. Sure, m-learning enables us to save time and energy by focusing only on the items and resources that matter, thereby reducing waste and clutter. At the same time, however, it is an invitation to go for more: whatever the traditional learning resources seemed to lack, m-learning can make up for.


Just for me

This, probably, is the biggest advantage of mobile learning done well. It made sense, some time ago, to establish and impose reading lists and required learning materials. Even for language schools, it seemed logical to agree on a course book, and to use it as a backbone of the course. In most cases, quality language learning content was scarce. It was the school’s job – and the teacher’s – to provide content for learning to take place.

Fast forward to mobile learning, and the situation is completely different. Every minute, over 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Magazines, podcasts, interviews in all possible languages – are instantly and widely available. Scarcity is no longer a problem, and teachers are no longer “content enablers” at the centre of language learning experience.

It makes sense, today, for the learners to decide what they want to read, watch and listen to. It makes sense for them to interact with other language speakers and learners on social networks, to download and try out language learning apps, and to take over a lot of responsibility for language learning.

So why do the teachers ban mobile phones in class? Why do most schools still focus on course books and build a “one-size-fits-all” syllabus for their learners? If m-learning means that students expect content that is “just for them” – shouldn’t schools and teachers rethink their roles in the language learning process?


I’ll admit it: mobile language learning still puzzles and amazes me. Which of the “justs” above do you consider most important? Would love to hear your ideas!

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One Responseso far.

  1. paul says:

    Great post. Thanks Wiktor. I think these three key ‘justs’ are essential to helping educators realise the need to embrace mobile devices in learning. While there is still much resistance in many circle, it’s about people understanding what benefits ubiquitous devices offer learners.