The 5 EdTech trends of ELT part 3: Tablets and Smartphones

This is the third in a series covering 5 key trends in EdTech, as identified by Edudemic a few weeks ago, but looked at from an ELT point of view:

1. Online learning
2. Alternative credentialing platforms
3. Smartphones and tablets
4. e-textbooks
5. Learning management systems

The first two posts looked at online learning and alternative credentialing platforms, and now it’s the turn of smartphones and tablets. Tablets in education are generating a lot of publicity right now, with the rise of the ‘paperless classroom’. Smartphones, have become ‘part of the furniture’ in learners’ lives. Mobile is the future – but why?

Access and convenience

The iPhone and then cheaper Android phones have taken smartphones from complex and super-expensive devices for power-users and business types to completely mainstream. In fact, smartphones are now outselling feature-phones globally, so it won’t be long before the word “smartphone” can just be replaced with the word “phone”. While access to the single most powerful feature of a smartphone (decent internet access) is still patchy, especially in poorer countries, it’s still much more feasible to get online now than it was when a PC and landline were needed.

Since the iPad appeared in 2010, tablet computers have rapidly become mainstream, too. In fact, they’re poised to pretty much replace standard computers in the consumer market over the next two or three years. Unless you’re a power user (or do a lot of writing), why lug around a few kilos of laptop with limited battery life? If you just want to keep up with what’s going on online, check Facebook, Twitter and emails, and your focus is more on content consumption than production, then a tablet will do everything you want while being small and light enough to have with you wherever you go, and with a full day of battery life. Tablets are now selling in the hundreds of millions of devices per year.

All of this means that, in large swathes of the world, we’ll soon be able to assume that most people have tablets; and where that’s not the case, they’ll have smartphones. That’s clearly something that’s going to transform the distribution and consumption of content in a way that could never have happened in the PC age. We’re talking massively increased access combined with a form factor that means users will always have their device with them – and that’s a powerful combination. If a billion people are learning English, then we’re soon going to have a billion permanently connected people learning English.


Photo Credit: Ed Karjala via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ed Karjala via Compfight cc

What both types of device have in common is convergence. They do the jobs that previously required a whole array of different devices. Internet, email, apps, phone calls, SMS, satnav, radio, iPod, portable video player, ebook reader, printed book, magazine… I remember convergence being a huge buzzword around the time of the dotcom boom. But now it’s actually happened, and the implications are big.

Access, convenience and convergence – so what?

Well, I may prefer printed books to ebooks, or vinyl records to MP3s, but if I have every piece of media I own with me at all times and instantly available, then soon I’m going to forget physical media altogether – apart from where I really value the actual object. I can’t think of any language learning products where the emotional attachment to the object is strong enough to counterbalance the massive convenience of having it on my phone and tablet. Can you? Do English language students feel that attached to their copy of English File?

Tablets in education

Education systems around the world are, right now, investing in so-called 1:1 programmes, whereby every student is provided with a tablet (usually an iPad at the moment). The success of these schemes is extremely mixed, and they’re often implemented for reasons of political posturing rather than educational improvement. It’s completely obvious, and everyone keeps saying it, but if you simply invest in the devices and tell teachers to use them, the result is total failure and a vast waste of money. School and teacher consultation and buy-in is essential, as is training in how to make best use of the devices. We all know this, but it’s still happening – money is invested in the hardware, schools are told to “go paperless” and then left to it. I’ve seen examples where all of the technology budget was spent on iPads, leaving nothing whatsoever for training or (unbelievably) software or content of any kind to actually put on the tablets. So they just sit there unused. However, I think these negatives will soon generally be outweighed by the positives, as the use of tablets in education becomes normalised. We’re at the ‘teething pains’ stage at the moment.

Where students aren’t having tablets thrust at them by schools or ministries, they’re often just buying them for themselves anyway. If I was a university student, I’d certainly have my iPad with me in class at all times, and I don’t think I’d be exactly unusual in doing that.

So, while we can’t yet assume that everyone being education has (or has access to) a tablet, its a rapidly growing minority. Don’t forget that in its first year, the iPad was the fastest selling consumer electronics device in history – and it’s selling much more now than it was then.

Smartphones in education

At the moment, smartphones aren’t making huge inroads into formal education in ELT. There are, of course, examples of phones being used on a large scale in education in developing countries (Bangladesh, for example), but we’re generally not (yet) talking about using smartphones to their full capabilities here. In informal learning, smartphones are a much bigger deal. Check out the Education section in Apple’s App Store in any non English speaking country and count the number of English language apps in the top 200, and you’ll see what I mean. We’ve mentioned Busuu and Duolingo on eltjam before – these are two of the best-known self-study online and mobile app language learning products – free in the case of Duolingo, and purchasable in small chunks for Busuu. There are hundreds of others of wildly variable quality. Even the ELT publishers have moved into the app world, although it’s still a tiny – if growing – part of their business. We’re starting to see apps designed to supplement specific ELT courses, but they’re not changing the world yet. The trend, though, is that people will simply expect to use their phones as part of every aspect of their lives – and that includes learning English.

So, what’s this going to mean?

These aren’t definitive, or in any particular order, but here are a few predictions:

1. More ebooks with more features

Photo Credit: jblyberg via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: jblyberg via Compfight cc

The rise of tablets is at last taking ebooks into the mainstream of education. If all of your teachers and students have tablets, then you’ll need something to put on them. And if you’re used to using textbooks, then you’ll expect to see them designed to work perfectly on your tablet – i.e. ebooks. There was a brief period when PDFs of coursebooks would do. Those days are gone. If students and teachers are used to the level of interactivity that’s commonly available in a $0.99 app, then they’ll expect the same – or better – in their much more expensive coursebook. We’re going to see ebooks become standard issue in ELT, with ever more features and interactivity thrown into them. This will also have an impact on print books – if you know your content is going to have to work well in ebook form, then that influences how you design your print book. More on that in the e-textbooks post coming soon!

2. More use of apps

The use of apps in informal learning will continue to grow, and the available (often free) options for language learning will improve. Meanwhile, providers of formal learning will up their game, since everyone knows that mobile is the future – so there will be big investment. We’re seeing an increasing range of tablet coursebook apps, although I’m not sure yet whether that has a big future, but that depends on how the technology pans out. Right now, ebooks can’t do as much as apps can. Talking of which…

3. The complete replacement of Flash with HTML5

Of course, no-one is developing content in Flash any more, right? I hope not. And that’s thanks to Steve Jobs and his insistence that Flash would never be supported on the iPhone and iPad. Three years ago, Flash was the stable industry standard for interactive online content. Now, it’s inconceivable that anyone would knowingly develop digital ELT content that won’t work on iPad. HTML5 is the new standard, although it doesn’t yet do everything that Flash did. If you want features like audio and video recording (and presumably you do if you’re developing content for language learning), then you’ll need an app.

4. More and more countries and language teaching providers going paperless

This has already happened in the UAE. The Fatih project in Turkey promises something similar. Same kind of thing planned in South Korea. It’s a growing list, and the pace is picking up. Given what I said about failures to invest in training and content, these initiative will see mixed success. The early failures will come to be seen as mere blips, though. In many countries, the near future of English classes is paperless, and that’s that. And again, this changes how ELT content is developed, which strengthens and increases the speed of the cycle of change – the more tablet-optimised content there is, the easier it is to go paperless. The more schools go paperless, the more publishers will seek to develop content for tablets. Rinse and repeat, and see what ELT publishing looks like five years from now.

5. Mobile learning and online learning will converge

This is going to take a little longer, but the future of the internet is mobile and tablet. That means the future of online learning is mobile and tablet. And that means online learning products will need to be designed specifically for mobile and tablet use. Some LMSs currently provide mobile support, but that usually applies to the admin features of the platform (checking assignments etc) rather than the learning content. At the same time, apps for language learning will be connected to online services (including LMSs) as a matter of course. HTML5 will become more capable. At what point do an app which connects to an LMS and an online course with rich interactivity become essentially the same thing? When that happens, we won’t be talking about ‘mobile learning’ any more anyway – it’ll just be ‘learning’.

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