Yea, there’s an app for that, but…

It seems like many of the groups I’ve been working with recently—from schools on up to states—are going gaga over touch-screen mobile devices (especially the iPad and sometimes the lesser known Android Honeycomb and Dell Streak, among others). I have to admit they look pretty sexy, from a technology standpoint, but the fervor with which some educators are throwing limited technology budgets at them has me a little concerned.

I recently complete a review of literature for a state department of education that was investigating the possibility of an iPad pilot. I found out some interesting things about the app market that I thought worth sharing.

And the winner is…

Foreign language, actually. In a review of apps available in the education section of the iTunes Store in 2009, Carly Shuler from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that the most popular content areas for apps were foreign language and literacy. That piqued my interest. A total of 92% of the apps available at that time targeted either adults (57%) or toddlers/preschoolers (35%)—very little for elementary, middle, and high school students. I did a quick review of the education section of the iTunes store a couple of weeks ago, and it looks like the foreign language apps are probably geared towards the adult (and older student) side and the literacy apps for the toddler/preschoolers. Makes sense to me.

Another nice finding was that most of the apps for children are very inexpensive. Most are only 99 cents and none were more than $2.99 (from Shuler’s 2009 report). Some of the apps for adults could be quite pricey—with one for $149.99(!)—but even with that outlier the average price was around $5.

The Sesame Workshop folks commissioned outside research on two apps, Super Why and Martha Speaks: Dog Party (see the Executive Summary at, that showed significant gains in learning for young children between the ages of 3 to 7. Both of these apps targeted literacy, not foreign language, and were based on popular children’s television shows on PBS. The researchers also found that most of the children had little problem operating the devices, and those that did required very little guidance to overcome them. The kids were persistent, too, and kept working with the device to overcome problems on their own. I was encouraged, however, to find at least one experimental study that focused on these new learning resources, as experimental research is quite difficult to find when it comes to educational technology in schools.

And the catch?

While the future of these lightweight, portable devices seem promising, there are also a few issues anyone considering implementing them should be concerned about. My belief is that these will be less of an issue over time, but there are some things to think about.

One of the most talked about issues is that the iPad does not currently support Flash, which is software that’s used to show much of the animated or video-based content on the web. There’s a lot of it out there, and if your textbook series or other curriculum contains online multimedia elements in Flash, it’s may be a deal breaker—for now. This is currently a marketing point for other makers of touchscreen devices. None of us know where this will end up, whether next generation iPads will support Flash or some third-party workarounds will evolve, but just be sure to test your favorite content on any device to determine whether it works for you or not.

Perhaps the most important issue is that anyone can create and post an app. Honest, there’s a group called Moms with Apps ( that consists of moms and dads who have created apps, whether they’re educators, instructional designers, or even software developers. Sound familiar? If you were teaching in the 1980s, you might remember the early software available for the then-new personal computers that were coming into our classrooms. Most of it could be summed up in one word: horrible. Primarily drill-and-practice programs that focused on low-level recall with rudimentary branching, limited learner control, and a bevy of multiple-choice questions, the early software had little to do with learning theory and sacrificed learning for novelty.

And how do you find the good  apps? There’s no universally accepted standard or quality metric for apps, and the app stores will list their top sellers, but you don’t have any information as to how good they are. A few school districts and individuals are now posting list of apps they use and some reviews, but little of the information relates to how effective the apps are and the reviews can be hard to search. My favorite review site for apps—so far—is Common Sense Media, that uses developmentally appropriate criteria at each age to review apps and other media, like television shows, books, and movies. You can check out their reviews and filter them by some helpful criteria at their review site (

Do Your Homework

If you’re interested in incorporating apps into your language teaching, just be sure to do your homework, just as you would with any curricular resource. It’s easy to find what’s selling well through the iTunes Store or Android Market, but even just a simple search for “foreign language” can be frustrating as it brings up many erroneous matches. The app descriptions are also often short and—again—most are focused on features rather than how well it supports learning.

Researchers for the Sesame Workshop also found that, at least with young children, that student usage either stopped or changed relatively quickly, even after a week. The problem was that most apps have a limited amount of content, and once the students master the content, the apps can be of little interest, so they start “gaming” the app and trying to earn high scores or try other strategies that don’t necessarily match learning. From this lesson, it’s important that you find apps that have a good deal of content or that release updates to the content over time.

On the plus side, as mentioned earlier, the low cost of many of these apps means that you may be willing to download one or two and try them out. If you do, let us know how it worked! I’d be glad to hear how you are using these new devices and software, your successes, and the challenges. Until the market matures and we have a better way of finding the best apps, we’re going to have to depend upon each other to share what we’ve learned.

For more information:

Chiong, C. & Shuler, C. (2010). Learning: Is there an App for that? Investigations of Young Children’s Usage and Learning with Mobile Devices and Apps. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available from

Rockman et al., (2010). PBS Kids iPod app study: Executive Summary. Available from

Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning, New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available from

Bringing the World to Your Language Classroom: The ePals Global Community

ePals logoLanguage teachers have long had a variety of technology-based resources available to support their instruction. Language labs with audio and video recordings, texts and workbooks, and other supporting materials go well back in to the era of analog media, and the digital revolution has only increased the number and type of interesting and helpful resources available to support language acquisition in today’s classroom. When I ask language teachers what needs still remain, many respond that it’s difficult for them to find native or fluent language speakers that their students can interact with. Most have access to a wide range of print materials and recordings they can use with their students, but finding a way for students to really engage with fluent language speakers remains a challenge.

In researching options over the past year to determine how language teachers might use technology to address this need, my paths kept crossing with Dr. Rita Oates, vice president of education markets for ePals. I’ve known about ePals for years, but there was some sort of synchronicity with our crossings, from her presentations in this world at the national ISTE technology conference in Denver last summer to my attending a session she presented in Second Life last fall. When we both appeared on the roster of an online learning Ning this Spring, I thought it was a sign I couldn’t resist and asked her to share some information about ePals and how educators from across the world are using ePals’ services to connect schools, classes, and students, especially in support of language acquisition.

More than a Pen Pal

In the textbook I co-authored and in workshops I present, I use ePals as one example that I encourage teachers of all disciplines to investigate, because the global connections it provides support multiple content areas and learning goals. In fact, ePals may best be known for successfully connecting classrooms from across the world so students (and teachers) can learn from each other and gain a better understanding the nuances of culture, society, politics, and exploring everything from what kids in other countries do for fun, have for lunch, and learn about in school. In fact, to date, ePals has connected more than 600,000 classrooms (that’s just classrooms, not people) in more than 200 countries or territories—for free! They have more than 2500 new schools sign up for their services every month.

Students from Sarah LaComb's French class in New York meeting their ePals form Arras, FranceStudents from Sarah LaComb’s French class in New York meeting their ePals from Arras, France

That all sounds good for some kind of classroom sharing, but in communicating with Rita, I wanted to know if ePals offered specific services that could help meet that one big need—providing access to native or fluent language speakers. She responded that this is one of the two main reasons teachers sign their classrooms up for ePals, the other being English as a second language teachers in countries where English is not the primary language looking for English practice for their students. If you think about it, it’s the same reason, really, with interaction with native language speakers being the ultimate goal. Need…meet solution.

Example of a French class in Spain seeking ePalsExample of a French class in Spain seeking ePals

The Menu: Taste or Feast

ePals offers a variety of services for educators, many for free, with new services developed and offered based on input from the educators that participate in its programs. One of the most common starting points for new members is the ePals Global Community, which is the traditional classroom connection that many people associate with a pen pal connection. But, of course, it has a 21st Century twist.

The ePals Global Community was built by educators for educators, so the sharing has learning outcomes in mind. The primary resource for sharing is e-mail, which might be common in American schools but not so in all participating countries. ePals provides a secure, filtered e-mail environment to support communication that includes several levels of protection for students. They hold TRUSTe certification, an especially rigorous data security certification, that makes them well suited to work with children of all ages, including those younger than 13. (According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, parents must provide consent for children under 13 to enter data to an online service, which is why sites like Facebook do not allow these younger people to participate.)

Teachers can choose to moderate all, some, or no messages before they are sent, and can request to receive notification of all or just questionable communications. ePals also offers the option of an online translation solution that supports 58 languages, and that number keeps growing. Many classes go beyond exchanging short e-mail messages and share everything from poems, stories, multimedia presentations, to video. Others have incorporated videoconferencing for real-time interaction, which obviously requires some coordination depending on time zones and school calendars. You can view a short video presentation by students with emerging Spanish skills from Darlington Community High School in Wisconsin at


The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

There are also student forums that are organized by topic and a Student Media Gallery, which provides a safe and secure place for teachers to post student work. Students can communicate with other students from across the globe on a range of topics that they find interesting, from the impression of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle to the impact cheating has on schoolwork. The forums are moderated by real people and nothing gets posted without review. Oates notes that music and sports are some of the most popular topics, however, the single most popular social issue based on student responses is “Do glasses make you a nerd?” So while the teacher-moderated communications in the ePals Global Community may be more formal and stress the use of academic language, the student forums provide a level of engagement through social interaction with other students with similar interests.

Teachers can choose the purpose and intensity of interaction, from once a month, once a week, or several times a week. It just depends on what they work out with the teachers they collaborate with. For example, one teacher required her students to compose three sentences twice a week to share with students in their ePals collaborating class in Italy. Oates recounted that the response from Italian students would often incorporate cognates that were familiar to them but not so much to the American students, who often had to look them up in order to reply—emphasizing the difference between academic and social language use and building connections between the two languages. (As an interesting aside to that particular story, the scores for the American students on their tests of English writing improved so much after the experience that the teacher was investigated by the state to ensure that the students hadn’t cheated!)

Teacher request for connecting via languageTeacher request for connecting via language

How to Get Started

One of the best ways to get started is to visit the ePals website at The home page scrolls the news ePals classrooms so you can see where the classes are located and view a profile with the age and grade level and number of students in each class and the type of interaction the teachers are looking for. A search feature allows you to find additional classrooms from the hundreds of thousands that are registered in the system based on location, grade, interest, and other parameters. You can also sign up your class on the ePals website but all new members are reviewed and must be approved before their requests are posted or they are able to participate in any activities.

If you’re not sure how you’d like to interact with another classroom, ePals has some suggestions and offers other products and services that could serve as a focus of a project. For example, in2books is a curriculum for grades three through five that incorporates eMentoring, and the ePals LearningSpace is an online collaborative environment that encourages the sharing of curriculum and supports common Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, wikis, and forums. New services are developed and delivered based on input from ePals uses, so you can have a say on what additional services might be helpful.

One of the many projects ePals offers participantsOne of the many projects ePals offers participants

If you need more information, it’s likely you’ll run across Rita or one of the ePals team members at a conference, but in case you don’t, you can attend a free webinar to learn more about ePals. Rita actually presented the webinar I attended. To sign up for the ePals 101 webinar, sign up at Get other questions about ePals answered at

There are other electronic pen pal services that you can investigate, so compare and find the solution that is best for you. I do want to thank Dr. Rita Oates, however, for working with me and sharing information about the technology-based solutions ePals provides that language teachers may want to use to address the critical need of student interaction with native or fluent speakers. It was nice to move from an awareness of the program to a better understanding of how teachers are using these services in their classroom. If you’ve used ePals or a similar program, I’d enjoying hearing about your experiences, as well.

All A-Buzz: The 21st Century Language Classroom

Last Fall I visited some schools in Henrico County, Virginia, which is on the outskirts of the Commonwealth’s capital, Richmond. During those visits I had the great fortune to observe a fantastic 21st Century lesson delivered by Spanish teacher, Patrick Wininger. Patrick teaches Spanish to seventh grade students and works in a district that has a one-to-one laptop initiative. While that may be a plus for technology integration, his lesson was an excellent example of varied and seamless technology use that not only supported skills often referred to as 21st Century skills, but repeatedly gave students practice in the critical areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking Spanish. It was also one that could be accomplished in classrooms without the laptops, but maybe just not as efficiently. Patrick graciously agreed to a follow-up interview and has some great tips to share for incorporating technology in language acquisition instruction.

Focus on the Student

While I was invited to visit showcase lessons for 21st Century skills, you could tell this was pretty much just another day for Wininger—a day brimming with excited and active students very much engaged in the business of learning language. In fact, the class was so full it was almost bursting at the seams, with some students squeezed into corners to accommodate the visitors. The noise, at times, rose to a pleasant roar of excited students clearly engaged in learning, collaborating, and communicating with and without their laptops. I love that sound.

When you visit a classroom, it’s usually pretty obvious when what you are watching is SOP—standard operating procedure. Students know what to expect, what to do, and are familiar with the transitions from one activity to the next. Wininger was a great conductor, but the students were truly the stars. He confirmed with me, later, that he really tries to give the students what they want. “Foreign languages, especially Spanish,” he told me, “are growing in popularity and students really want to be able to use it to speak with others who speak Spanish.” These may be other students who go to their schools, play on their sports teams, or others they meet in their communities. “Many people,” he says, “now see Spanish as useful in day-to-day life. It changes the reason why students take a language.” So he capitalizes on that.

In fact, Wininger is a career switcher who came to language instruction from corporate training and communications. In the business world, you focus on the customer, which is also what Wininger does in his classroom. He focuses on what the students want and uses the available technologies to engage them and help them learn language. “It has to be useful. If teachers can’t explain why this matters, they shouldn’t be teaching it.” He notes that students are becoming more consumer-oriented, and if what you are offering doesn’t have value, they won’t buy it.

Freedom to Learn

Wininger notes that “It’s more about how you teach than the tools you use.” Yes, his students have laptops, but in many places increased access to different technologies is blurring what one can do in the classroom and at home. He incorporates a textbook series with many digital resources, including handouts, recordings, presentations, and even a website where students can go online and listen to native speakers. The district has a web-based student information system, so students don’t even have to turn in homework at school. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t because then his instruction can focus more on active language acquisition than checking homework.

During the 45 minutes I was in the classroom, the students quickly moved through a logical sequence of instruction that was building to an assignment they’d complete for homework. Students focused on action verbs and vocabulary and worked through writing, listening, and speaking (and reading, of course) supported by digital handouts, presentation software, digital recordings and lots and lots of interaction. The digital resources served as a basis, but all activities were customized and required students to create their own examples, to relate it to their own lives, and to speak with others. They spoke with each other, they spoke with Wininger, and they responded to the digital voice that hovered over the room, with reminders all the way through—by Wininger—of where they were headed, why they were doing this, and constant reminders about the connection between reading, writing, listening and speaking. And what were they going to do? Students had to build on the sentences they wrote during class to post a blog response related to a favorite hobby or pastime. It was practical, relevant, and used tools the students enjoyed.

Wininger notes that foreign language classrooms have always had tools, like language labs, it’s just that the tools are different now and can all be in one place. “It’s not about what you have, it’s about being skilled at what you have.” Technology empowers students. Many of them are using it outside of school already, whether it’s texting on their smartphone, mastering multi-player games, or chatting with friends online. His students just use technology to learn a new language in ways that feel comfortable.

Wininger says his students are like sponges. They love to try new things, especially with technology. He said he’s never had a student not want to participate when technology was included. He says, “Whatever I’ve tried with technology, they’ve been willing to try it, too.” Even if it’s something new they don’t know how to use. Once they begin to use it, even in small ways, they feel empowered. One example was when the young girl next to me had a problem with her document, before Wininger could get to her, she had several classmates at her computer who overcame the issue in a few seconds. He notes that the more students interface with technology, they build a repertoire of skills they can use elsewhere.

The Tips

So, what are some of the activities Wininger and his students participate in during class—and beyond? I’ve already described what could have been a very traditional worksheet-based lesson that was put into overdrive and ended up being a blog post. Following are some additional technology ideas Wininger shared.

Create games to play in class or online. Many applications have multiple functions, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. With these, you can manipulate text, images, video, and include hyperlinks that connect information together. You can create a presentation to use during class, or add buttons and links that branch to different parts of the presentation.

Bring in the world. Most teachers have Internet access, and so Wininger uses it to go beyond the walls of his classroom to engage his students with cultural artifacts as a subject for language acquisition. One example involved a painting by the artist Frida Kahlo. He provided background information through a lecture supported by presentation software, and the students read a section about the picture in their text. But then Wininger “visited” the Smithsonian where the students not only got to see the image projected larger than life in class but explored more information about it. Students followed up by writing a reaction paper, which could be in Spanish for more advanced students.

Build a website. There are many different tools that you and your students can use to create a website, it’s how you frame those activities that matters. Wininger has had his students participate in the traditional travelogue activity in which students plan a trip to another country where Spanish is spoken, but he also requires students to create budgets and build a website based on their trip that includes a daily blog that they keep while they are “traveling.”

In another web-based project Wininger identifies 20 contemporary Spanish songs that students select. They learn the song, of course, but they also learn about the performer and partner with another student to develop a fan website. Some of the students didn’t want to stop, and even during the class I visited I could hear students singing along to some of the Spanish pop songs that played in the background during one activity.

Shoot a video. Again, you don’t have to have access to an expensive videocamera and suite of editing software to incorporate video into your instruction. Wininger’s students researched, wrote, and produced daily weather reports in Spanish…for Spanish-speaking countries. They searched the Internet for real-time data and presented the whole project in Spanish on video, even using green-screen technology so it could look like they were “on location.” He said the students were not only engaged, but motivated to do a good job and to deliver the reports convincingly.

Make it interactive. Wininger admitted he was a little reluctant to get a video beam projector, not wanting to give up his trusty overhead projector. But now that he has one he absolutely loves it. It projects large, clear images that the students find engaging and focuses their attention unlike everyone staring at their textbook, and is useful for a variety of video resources, as well. He’d like to have an interactive whiteboard, because he feels it would make it that much easier to move images and objects around and he’d like to get his students up and interacting with the content—highlighting, summarizing, matching, ordering…there are many possibilities. While he doesn’t have one currently, he suggested—my favorite tip—you can create your own interactive whiteboard out of a Wii game remote and an infrared pointer for about $40. Honest! There are dozens of videos on YouTube that show you how, so go check it out.

Practice What You Preach

Wininger does more than have his students do all the work; he has modeled 21st century communications for his students, friends, and teachers. He participated in a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad seminar in 2009 that took him to Mexico with 15 other teachers, and to keep everyone informed he kept up a daily blog ( A blog alone can be a lot of work, a daily blog even more so, but while traveling?!?

However, “the experience was really valuable,” says Wininger, as he was not only able to communicate with friends and colleagues back home, but it really helped him understand the potential of this form of communication. His blog entries include reflections, new learnings, and incorporate images and even videos. Some of the images make it into his instruction, as do some of the things he learned, like how the textbook he uses inaccurately described the Sun Stone in the Aztec room in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The textbook describes the stone as a calendar, but that’s not what the museum reports. Wininger can now not only describe its real purposes to his students but show them pictures he’s taken of the stone. His excitement on his blog is palpable, “…now I get to teach my students the RIGHT thing instead of the wrong.” The 21st Century has already emphasized the shift from receiving information to creating information, a key characteristic of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies. Wininger’s blog is a great example of creating information that is available not only for his students but with anyone with a web browser.

No, not those Natives vs. Immigrants again!

I get a little tired of people telling me I’m not a “digital native,” Marc Prensky’s famous description of students who grow up with digital technologies. And, no, I didn’t. I’m comfortable not being a digital native, because I think I do pretty well. I work in educational technologies, after all, and I work with others to try to help them figure out how to use them to support teaching and learning. I have never been one to think it matters much. But Wininger may have changed my mind…may have.

He notes that it’s not the digital natives that we have to be concerned about right now, it’s us digital immigrants. He agrees that 21st Century skills that promote communication and collaboration, solving complex real-world problems, and being creative and innovative are valuable. The issue is that most digital immigrants have never been shown how to teach them. He said they’re very different teaching skills, and since they haven’t really been valued so much in education until recently, teaching digital natives is a bigger challenge than being one.

I’d like to thank Henrico County Schools and especially Patrick Wininger for allowing me not only to visit but to follow-up with my many questions. Patrick may not be a digital native either, but his students don’t care. They’re learning, and having a great time while they’re doing it, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an immigrant or not when you make that happen.