English language teachers connect to mobile learning
A survey shows internet-linked phones are being embraced in the classroom

Sixth-form students using handheld personal computers. Photograph: AlamyApple's iPhone has caused a revolution in the way we interact withmobile phones and access the internet. With early sales of the new iPadbreaking records, and many pundits predicting that this will be the educational mobile device to transform the classroom and make e-textbooks accessible to students (who can afford an iPad), I decided to have a look at how mobile devices are impacting on the practice of English language teaching.

In June I launched an online survey to discover how teachers viewed the use of mobile learning, how many of them had access to web-enabled mobiles and to find out if and how they were using them.

My first surprise was the number of teachers who could already access the internet via their mobile phones. Almost 80% of the 500 teachers who responded to the survey claimed to have some form of web-enabled mobile device. When asked whether teachers planned to buy a mobile device in the near future, almost 60% responded positively, with 50% planning to buy either an iPhone or an iPad.

It would be easy to assume that the teachers responding to the questionnaire were all of the younger generation of "digital natives", but this isn't the case. Almost 80% of teachers who responded had 10 or more years of teaching experience and more than 60% were qualified to master's level or higher.

And the data was not only collected from the more technically developed and richer countries. The responses show a wide geographical spread from across South America, to Asia and eastern Europe.

Having a device capable of accessing mobile internet, however, is very different from having the ability and willingness to use it as a tool for teaching. Again, the majority of teachers who responded were very positive about the potential of mobile learning. More than 70% agreed that mobile learning would play an important role in the future of English language teaching, with only 6.7% disagreeing (the remainder were unsure).

A striking 34% of respondents claimed to be already using mobile learning with their students.

Accessing dictionaries, either online or dictionary applications they had downloaded, was a common activity. Many teachers are enthusiastic about this because it means that students don't have to carry around heavy dictionaries and also because the dictionaries they are accessing often have audio examples of pronunciation.

Podcasts are also popular and teachers are finding and recommending podcast materials for the students to download and listen to. Some are creating their own podcasts with their students.

Many are also using the video or audio recording capabilities of their phones to get students to record themselves or each other during speaking and pronunciation activities.

Teachers' use of mobile isn't limited to the more expensive smart phones. Many are also using simple phones with SMS texting capability to enhance learning. These are used to send quick quiz questions to students to help them revise or check their understanding of new vocabulary.

Many are sending their students definitions of vocabulary and expressions as they learn them. Some teachers are even sending their students gapped sentences for them to complete to check their grammar.

But this is only half of the 70% of teachers who claim they and their students have access to the technology. So, what is holding back the rest?

The obstacles mentioned are cost, mainly charges for mobile connectivity, and worries about students or the teachers themselves having to pay to access their mobile course materials. Another problem is the variety of different mobile devices being used by students and the fact that not all students have them. Last, and possibly the most significant, is the lack of available content specifically designed for language learning.

Whereas teachers and students seem willing to embrace this technology, ELT publishers are lagging behind. Services such as iTunes now provide simple payment and distribution platforms as well as the digital rights security that should allow publishers to start to generate large-scale online sales of e-products at much lower prices (many mobile applications cost between 10% to 20% of their desktop equivalents). Yet the response from many publishers has been slow. This is the ideal time for publishers to jump on the mobile wave and start delivering interactive and affordable mobile content.

Nik Peachey is a freelance learning technology consultant and teacher trainer. For more information about the survey go to http://bit.ly/eltmobile