Wednesday 25 September 2013

Evaluating authentic mobile apps for learning

Back in April 2013 I delivered a workshop at the IATEFL 2013 conference in Liverpool. The topic of the workshop was 'Criteria for Evaluating Web Tools and Apps' and in the workshop I encouraged participants to share and explore their subconscious criteria for deciding which apps and web based tools they used with their students.

I particularly encouraged them to think about 'authentic' apps rather than those made for learning. This is because in many ways I feel that most made for learning apps have made very little pedagogical progress beyond their roots in CALL from the last century.

I also believe that encouraging students to get 'hands on' with authentic apps has a much more important role in helping them to develop digital literacies which they can use outside of the classroom.

As a result of that workshop and the research that developed from it I've now developed this list of criteria for evaluating mobile apps for educational purposes.

Here I've divided the criteria into 4 categories and given some explanation of each. I welcome your comments and feedback as this is still very much a work in progress.


Accessibility - Will all the students have the necessary equipment to use it? Will it work across all / most mobile platforms and also work within a desktop web browser?
  • Unless teachers are working in a teaching environment where a uniform set of physical devices are provided for students, such as a complete set of iPads or Android tablets, then they need to check carefully that all the variety of devices that their students possess are all supported. The safest way to ensure this is to check to see if the app also has a browser based version, so that students without up-to-date mobile devices will still be able to participate.
User friendly - Will students be able to learn how to use it reasonably quickly?
  • Apps that are complex and take a long time to master may not be worth the commitment. Teachers need to ensure that they plan how to teach the students how to use the apps in a reasonable amount of time or have a strategy for gradually uncovering more features of an app as they develop more activities with it.
Registration - Do students need to register to use it?
  • Getting students and teachers to register and remember passwords can be laborious and time consuming, so apps that don’t require registration and particularly those which run in the browser on mobile or desktop can be very convenient to use. Registration does however offer students more protection and makes any potential misuse or mischief trackable back to its source.
Security - Is the app secure?
  • Although it can be difficult and time consuming to check, teachers need to determine that the app is secure and the creators will treat their students data and personal information responsibly and confidentially. If there is any form of social interaction enabled through the app teachers need to check if there is any mechanism or process for blocking and reporting abuse.


Price - Is it free or affordable?
  • One of the great advantages of apps is that many are free, freemium (have both a free and a commercial version) or are quite low cost. Having said that, even if low cost apps are being used it needs to be decided who will pay for them, especially if each student in the class needs one.
Business model - Is there a business model to support the app? Is it clear how it makes money?
  • Every app producer needs to make money somehow, so it is important to identify the business model supporting the development of an app. Although teachers and students are keen to use free apps, apps that have no visible business model may be generating money through advertising or by trading data. An app that has no visible means of financial support, may have a very short life span, rapidly become unreliable, and fail to develop and evolve due to lack of funds.


Digital literacy - Does learning and using the app help students to develop a useful or transferable digital literacy?
  • Just using an app in itself doesn’t necessarily constitute developing a digital literacy. The use of the app must in some way develop a digital skill that can be transferred outside of the learning context and used in some authentic way either in the workplace or as part of the students’ lifestyle.
Authenticity - Does it have an authentic purpose beyond language learning? Is it an app that a native speaker would use for a genuine purpose outside of a classroom?
  • Apps that are motivating for native speakers to use for a genuine purpose should also be motivating for language learners for that same purpose, so authentic apps that involve some sort of linguistic input or output are ideally suited to language teaching purposes.
Personalization - Does the app enable user to express some aspect of who they are and what they believe?
  • It’s important that language learners have the opportunity to use language creatively to express something of their own personality or identity. Apps which support this kind of creativity can be potentially very useful.


Learning goal / outcome - Is there a a possible learning outcome that use of the app will lead to?
  • Using an app is not in and of itself a learning outcome. Use of the app needs to lead towards some form of learning goal. In some cases it can be easy to see what learning goals can be achieved through using the app, at other times teachers may need to think carefully what learning outcomes can be achieved through building activities which include the use of an app.
Interaction / communication - Does it support interaction and communication between users?
  • Apps which are developed around social interaction and communication are much more likely to be able to find a useful place in the language classroom and should be easier to base tasks around as communication naturally fits with the aims of language acquisition.
Prolonged use - Does the app need prolonged use to achieve a satisfactory outcome?
  • Many apps are designed around short daily tasks build up over a period of time to achieve an outcome. If teachers choose to use these kinds of apps they need to factor this long term approach into their timetabling.
Assessment - Is the work on the app assessable by the teacher? Does the app support the delivery of teacher response and feedback?
  • Students need to know that teachers are evaluating, assessing and responding to their work, so apps which can support this kind of teacher intervention can be potentially very useful.
Collaboration - Does the app support collaboration between users?
  • The ability to collaborate on projects or producing some form of tangible outcome is viewed as being a potentially significant digital literacy so apps which foster these kinds of collaborative interactions in a meaningful ways have great potential.
Context - In what context would the app be useful? For whom is the app more useful?
  • There are a number of different contexts in which apps can be used. Some may be more appropriate for use at home by the student, or in the class by students, whereas others could be more appropriately used by teachers for their own development or the development of content for students.
Reusable - Does the app have sufficient depth of purpose to support multiple activities and tasks?
  • Many apps have great novelty value which can be motivating for students, but novelty can soon wear off, so it is wise to weigh the amount of benefit students gain from novelty apps against their potential for extended use and the amount of time it takes to download install and register them.
Learner autonomy - Can app be used independently outside of the class by the student to support some form of learning?
  • Apps that can be used by students working independently may well help to foster a degree of learner autonomy if there is some in built learning outcome.
As I said, this is still a work in progress, and I did struggle with which criteria fell in to which of the categories and with the categories themselves, so all comments are welcome.
I hope you find these criteria helpful in evaluating the apps that you choose for your students.

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Nik Peachey

Monday 9 September 2013

Making lectures and lessons more interactive with mQlicker

As the traditional lecture has come increasingly under fire for being completely out of touch with modern teaching and learning methods, there has been a move by many teachers, conference presenters and lecturers to make their teaching techniques more modern and interactive. One of the key technologies for enabling this has been a range of audience response systems that provide real time responses to polls, questions and surveys while the speakers is actually presenting.

It’s great that many teachers are taking this step, but some of these response systems like mQlicker can deliver much more than a simple audience response, in fact you can use them to initiate debates, brainstorm ideas or even develop complete units of elearning which can help you to ‘flip’ your classroom and create motivating blended learning materials which encourage and keep track of student engagement.

mQlicker has a number of ways of encouraging interaction and displaying results. To see a live demo of how mQlicker look at:

Be sure to tab through the different questions types, enter data and use the settings tab to change the way the data displays. I particularly like the word cloud type data display for text and numerical entries.

To set up your mQlicker interactions you need to register and log in on the mQlicker site. This is free to do.

Once you have done this you see the admin user interface. This is much simpler to use than it looks at first glance and the initial field shows you the 6 step instructions for how to create your poll or questionnaire.

Once you have created your questionnaire and launched it, participants just need to go to: enter a numerical code and then input their response.

Here are 3 short video tutorial which show you how to do that.

How to create an mQlicker questionnaire 1

How to create an mQlicker questionnaire 2

How to create an mQlicker questionnaire 3

Why I like mQlicker

  • For a start mQlicker is cross platform compatible so as well as working an app on all the major mobile platforms it will also run in the browser on both mobile and desktop.
  • It has a range of ways of displaying participants responses which you can choose from. I particularly like the one which shows responses to text input as a word cloud.
  • I really like that you only need to set up one fixed URL for responses and that respondents just enter a short digital code. This makes it pretty simple to get people to the right place at an event and they don’t have complex URLs to copy down or registration codes to handle.
  • mQlicker is pretty simple and straight forward just to get started with, but it also comes with a complete manual that you can download to start digging into the more complex capabilities.
  • You can embed mQlicker chart results into a presentation (PPT) and make it dynamic so that your presentation slide updates automatically when people vote.
  • It’s easy to reuse questions or questionnaires with multiple classes as it collects questions together in a question bank.
  • There are premium services if you want something that looks customized for your company or event.
Some tips for getting the best from audience response
  • Don’t limit participation to the room. Why not send out surveys and polls for response through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook or through a back channel chatroom, then you can get a much wider variety of opinion and get the people in the room to respond to that.
  • You can use the tool to brainstorm, especially with the word cloud data display. This would be great for brainstorming vocabulary based around topics, or words which collocate with ... etc.
  • You can set up before and after votes for in class discussions, to see how many people can be persuaded to change their minds.
  • You can create complete flipped interactive learning, by creating questionnaires with a video embedded into a slide at the beginning and then a variety of questions to get students exploring the video content. Then when you come to class students are prepared and you have some response data to get them working with and thinking and talking about in class. Using videos for flipped learning in this way when you are tracking the responses,  puts more pressure on students to actually do the work and watch the video as they know their responses are being tracked by the teacher.
  • You can create questions based around images, so be sure to take advantage of this feature to help stimulate response from the students.
  • You can allow students / participants to be anonymous, so this is a great tool for doing action research and to collect genuinely honest feedback on your teaching methods or content.
  • You can use it to make your classroom more democratic, by setting up votes to find out which parts of the book or course students most want to study or what kinds of activities they want to do next.
  • It’s great that mQlicker can enable open text input, so make the most of this feature. Participants are often frustrated wit questionnaires or polls that don’t really provide the answers that they want to give. Creating open text questions gives the respondent much more ability to express what they feel. This can though be more difficult for you to analyze statistically
  • And last but not least you can use it for assessment and set micro tests as you class progresses. This can assure you that participants are following and understanding your message.

mQlicker is a great free tool for making your classroom, lecture or conference presentation more interactive. It would be great to see more tools like this being used at conferences and in classrooms, but of course you do need to make sure that your venue or classroom has good connectivity and get people into the habit of coming along ready with devices to participate, but as mobile and tablet penetration grows in the education sector and educational authorities realize that we have to stop banning these devices from classrooms and start exploiting them more fully.

I hope you find mQlicker useful

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Nik Peachey

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