One of the more recent changes in English language teaching has been the use of cellphones and tablets in language learning. Through the use of the phones, students are learning fundamental components of conversational English. The use of mobile devices in the context of learning has been given the acronym of MALL which stands for Mobile Assisted Language Learning.
There are many distinct advantages and disadvantages to MALL and this post will explore them
One of the most obvious advantages of MALL approaches is the mobility. Students can study anytime and anywhere since they normally keep their cellphones with them. This leads to a second advantage of informal learning. Informal learning is unstructured learning while formal learning materials developed and by the teacher. Not always but often MALL approaches involve the use of materials that are not prepared by the teacher and thus are informal.
Another advantage is that cellphones and the apps that they use are often cheaper than computers. This means that the use of MALL approaches can be useful for saving on the investment of a regular size computer. The use of apps specifically can allow for student choice in that the students could decide for themselves which apps to use to develop their language skills. This is critically important since choice is a critical part of self-directed learning. This opportunity in directing their own learning helps students with decision-making as well as critical thinking skills.
Despite the autonomous nature of many MALL approaches, MALL can also encourage collaborative learning. This is often done by using Web 2.0 technologies such as twitter, facebook, and Youtube. Through social media, students can develop language skills together. This form of learning also leads to authentic assessments, which provides clear evidence of what the students are capable of doing. One example would be the use of infield mobile learning in which learning activities are conducted outside of the classroom during a trip such as to the museum. Students complete the assessment en vivo, in the field rather than in the classroom.
Disadvantages of MALL
There are also some problems with MALL. For example, if texting is employed in the learning it can become expensive for students and teachers. Tracking performance is another issue. In a world of evidence-based learning, it is difficult to monitor how several dozen students are doing on their phones to learn English. In addition, any new approach to learning requires the training of the students to utilize new tools.
Another major concern is that the current crop of MALL approaches and the apps that go with them are focused primarily on lower-level thinking. Apps consist of dictionaries, translators, and flashcards. Such approaches are useful for memorizing but not as beneficial for higher level thinking such as summarizing, compare/contrast, and or evaluating. As such, MALL is most beneficial for beginners but not as valuable for advanced language learners who are trying to communicate for academic purposes. This poses a problem for such settings as universities where the English requirements are beyond the conversational level.
Stockwell and Hubbard (2013) found both physical and pedagogical issues with MALL. In terms of physical issues, they specifically mention the screen size, battery life, and the processor speed of phones as problems. For pedagogical issues, they list that the task must be appropriate for the mobile phone. This may be the reason that flashcards and quizzes are so popular for mobile phones as they are highly useful in allowing students to work whenever it is convenient for them.
Another pedagogical concern was transferring classroom task to an m-learning environment. This transition is not always smooth as classroom behaviors are not easy to mimic in the real world. However, transfer knowledge from one context to another is a problem for traditional teaching and learning. Lastly, student motivation is a challenge for the MALL environment. Choice was mentioned as a positive in learning but choice is not significant if the student is not motivated. Since performance tracking is difficult, it makes it easy for students to avoid doing MALL related task if there is no follow-up by the teacher.
In light of these limitations to MALL, Stockwell and Hubbard (2013) developed several concepts to keep in mind when conducting M or mobile learning. One, teachers need to be observant of the limitations of MALL. This includes the disadvantages already discussed. Two, teachers should limit texting. One obvious reason for this is the cost involved. Three, MALL tasks should be kept short in order to assure student completion. Lastly, students who need support should be trained in using their smartphone and or the app that is required to complete the assignment. This point was shared earlier but even though we live in a digital age, there are still many who lack the tech savvy to complete MALL task.