Tag Archives: app

Building Blocks 2.0

pile of cell phones

If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above.  But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.

Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :

Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter.  By rearranging the blocks, words are formed.  The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word.   Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface.  Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now.  For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.

When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk.  It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:

Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set.  Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display.  But it is available now and the price is reasonable.  Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed.  But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.

Is this the future of language games?  That would be a pretty bold prediction.  But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology.  Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games.  They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.

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Google Translate

stop sign in chinese

If I wanted to sensationalize this blog post, I would come up with a statement along the lines of “Computerized Translators Are Replacing ESL Teachers!” but we’re not quite there.  Yet.

I recently read a blog post called Google Translate: The End of the Road for Interpreters? and was surprised at some of the advances that have been made, though perhaps I shouldn’t be.

It’s not uncommon for friends to post messages on Facebook in their native language and then read them using Google Translate.  A message thread from a diverse group of people could yield a handful of different messages all on the same topic.  By cutting and pasting text into the Google Translate box, the language is recognized and translated.  It’s not perfect, but in a couple of seconds, it does a pretty good job considering the price (free!).

Now, in addition to translating, Google also offers phonetic translations and, in some cases, a “listen” option, which “reads” the passage aloud.  Again, not perfect, but impressive.  Watch the video below to see extra spicy Indian food ordered in Hindi.

Also impressive are mobile apps which recognize writing and translate it on the fly.  One example is Word Lens, below.  A colleague recently showed me this app on his iPhone and it works as depicted.  Again, not perfect, but the overall effect is almost magical.

So, will these new tools make ESL teachers and other language teachers obsolete?  Not exactly.  But as they get better (and they are getting better — what do you think Google is doing with all of that data it’s sitting on?) it may cause some of our future students to ask themselves, Why should I learn a language when there’s an app for that?  Is holding up a smartphone to a sign or person speaking a foreign language the same as interacting directly in that language?  Does it compare to the cognitive benefits of being truly multilingual?  Of course not.  But as it becomes easier, cheaper, faster, more convenient, and more socially acceptable to communicate with these tools, it’s going to be harder and harder to find reasons to spend the time, effort, and money to learn another language.

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Click Don’t Scan

camera with large flash bulb

Have you ever taken a picture of the board at the front of your ESL classroom?  It’s actually a pretty good way to capture lots of notes in a hurry, but you won’t be able to edit those notes once the picture is snapped.

Some document scanners have built in text recognition, but it can take a while for the scanner bar to drag across the document.  Sure, it’s only a matter of seconds, but if you have a big stack of documents to put through the scanner one page at a time, it can be a real inconvenience.  In fact, this scanner bar technology (a one-dimensional sensor being dragged across a two-dimensional surface) seems just a bit out of date, doesn’t it?

Enter a new line of scanners described in Popular Science that incorporate digital camera sensors to capture an entire document at one time — no more waiting for the sensor to drag.

But wouldn’t it be nice to snap a picture instead of scanning a document?  Well, it turns out there is an app for that.  Scanner Pro (reviewed by cnet) turns your iPhone into a .pdf-producing document scanner.  Forget trying to find a fax machine when you need to sign a document and send it to someone.  Sign a document, then scan it and email it, all from your phone.  There are other apps available for iPhones and iPods beginning at $0.99 and likely similar options for other flavors of smartphone as well.  The future is here today!

Thanks to the OSU Yammer community for ideas and links used in this post.

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mLearning in ESL

ipod

Smartphones and iPods are ubiquitous among college students, but can students use them to help practice English? In this post, I will share how I adapted an existing application (“app”) for vocabulary practice as well as other apps that students may find interesting and helpful.  This post also serves as the handout for my poster session at Ohio TESOL 2010.

Music Quiz

Music Quiz is a fee app that I’ve written about before.  The app asks the user to guess a song’s title after listening to a 12-second clip of the song.  By recording audio files of definitions of vocabulary items as “songs,” Music Quiz can be used as a vocabulary quiz.

How to make a vocabulary quiz using music quiz:

1. Record the definitions of the vocabulary items.  Try to repeat the definition 2-3 times and keep files to 12 seconds – the limit of Music Quiz.  Save each recording as an .mp3 file with the vocabulary word or term as the song title, the category (Heart Idioms, Vocabulary book chapter 3, etc.) as the album title, and yourself or your school as the artist so that the files are easy to add.  A free audio recording application such as Audacity makes this easy.  Feel free to take a look at and use my 20 heart idioms as examples.

2. Upload the .mp3 files to an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad with Music Quiz installed.

3. Open the Music Quiz app and use the Menu to configure the quiz with the following settings.

  • Choose From: Song Titles (title = vocabulary item)
  • Play At Beginning: ON (play from the beginning of the definition)
  • Custom Quiz: ON (allows user to select the “songs” to be quizzed on)

4. You can now use Music Quiz to quiz yourself on these vocabulary items.

Other Vocabulary Apps

There are many vocabulary apps available.  Just do a quick search using the word vocabulary.  Some are better than others, but most have a lite version that is a free demonstration with limited features or word lists.  The full version, which you can usually purchase for $0.99 to $9.99, will often include thousands of words.

Vocab Lab Lite – SAT-level flashcards and quiz

Wordlist Lite – 10 vocabulary lists with definitions; words categorizable by difficulty

My Prep Pal: SAT Reading – video lessons, flash cards and quiz

Make Your Own Apps

Web-based – The easiest way to get content on mobile devices.  Post content on a website, then view it using your mobile device.

Platform Specific –  Apple and Google (makers of Droid smartphones) and other companies make it easy to make your own apps.  Of course, easy is a relative term.

Tool based – Platforms exist to assist with the creation of apps and games.  ARIS is one platform for creating mobile games that I’ve written about before.  ARIS was used to create the game Mentira, which is described below.

The Cutting Edge

Apps are being developed that require the use of a mobile device to play.  Mentira is an example of a location-aware mystery that students solve on location in the target language.  In this case, students in a Spanish class take on new identities and to solve a crime that occured in a New Mexico neighborhood in the 1920s.  Students must move through the neighborhood to unlock clues while playing the entire game in the target language.

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Mobile / Gaming Resources

rubic's cube

Where to begin?

As you can probably tell from my recent flurry of posts, I’ve gotten a lot out of coming to CALICO.  This is a great conference with great people.  Everyone is extremely approachable even though their expertise usually seems intimidatingly beyond mine.  I wanted to share some of the gaming resources I’ve come across during this conference, some of which have begun to answer the questions I have been asking over the last couple of days.

10 Key Principles for Designing Video Games for Foreign Language Learning by Ravi Purushotma, Steven L. Thorne, and Julian Wheatley.  I’ve heard Steve speak a couple of times and have gotten a change to get to know him.  He’s a real Renaissance man in that he pulls together research from pretty diverse fields in ways that can inform each (and then is as engaging a speaker as a “monkey on crack” — his description, which I only use in the most positive and appreciative sense.)  There is some great guidance in this paper, which is grounded in SLA theory.

What might mobile media afford education? by David Gagnon.  A nice look at some possible uses for mobile learning including everything from repackaging existing content to mobile data collection and augmented reality.  At first glance it seems very futuristic and cutting edge (which it is) but much of it is already being developed.  The future is now.

Spoil-sports Save the Day on Wise Gaming.org.  Spoil-sports are defined as those that intentionally disrupt the game by ignoring the rules of the game.  There is some really thought-provoking information on the importance of rules, but also on the necessity of breaking them, both in games and in life.

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