Educational Apps for Learning English

by Kevin R Burns

Educational Apps for Learning English

We talk with Bob Coffee a well known app designer on app design and educational philosophy.

Can you say something about your philosophy about education?  How has that affected your development of educational apps for learning English?

I think of myself as a mix of a sports coach and a content expert. What I mean by that is that a sports coach mostly aids the athlete in developing skills and abilities in certain highly specialized activities, like swimming or skiing or soccer, or whatever. The coach imparts their strategies and their knowledge of the game but mostly they improve the skill of the athlete through physical practice, repetition and drills. Continuing with this analogy the player usually gets a lot of feedback on their performance and has very quantifiable goals. They might get lap times or see the results of their performance when they kick a ball. Language is more difficult to quantify.

Let me back up a bit. I teach at places of higher learning where quite often students listen to lectures or take notes passively. Maybe they ask questions or sometimes work in groups or do projects, but learning a language should be more like a soccer pitch with students constantly engaging with language and here is the kicker, no pun intended, getting constant performance feedback on their choice of words, grammar, listening comprehension, etc. So even in a very student centered classroom where the teacher uses task base learning and has the students work in pairs or small groups, quite often it is difficult to give constant high quality feedback to every student all the time. But that is exactly what we can achieve with well-built apps. The individual can receive immediate feedback on every action, every interaction, every choice and every mistake. There doesn’t have to be a delay unless you want one.

This feedback delay is easy to see in say a writing class with 30 students. The students may produce pieces of writing and may not get feedback on their performance for one to two weeks. Image if you kicked a soccer ball towards the opposing team’s goal and then had to wait two weeks to see if it was blocked or if you scored. But that is the state of some language classes.

Can you say more about feedback?

Put another way, digital learning materials have a much higher density and frequency of performance feedback for every player/learner, the complete opposite of many traditional language classes. As teachers we need to pass on knowledge in many forms. Sometimes it comes in the form of a teacher fronted grammar lesson followed by drill and practice. Sometimes it involves dictation or shadowing practice. Sometimes pair work. But in all cases the learner can’t improve without feedback on their performance. Often the student is left to figure out whether their utterance was understood or not from their partner’s response but that partner is probably just another student who doesn’t know either. This is terrible to say but it is much like the blind leading the blind when it comes to low-level pair work. The complete opposite is true with a well designed app.

When I sit down to design an app, I always try to design it in such a way to take advantage of the form factor of the device and use it to its fullest. This means that a multi-touch tablet that can keep track of millions of bits of data per second is better suited to give high quality performance feedback and engage the player in ways that is not possible in real space. We believe that the Chunky English App Series achieves that.

What are your future plans Bob in terms of app development?  What kinds of apps or what kinds of content do you portend for the future?

We will be coming out with several more versions of the Chunky English Series. Currently we have a Chunky English for Vocab and one called Fluency. We will be coming out with Grammar and a Chunky Kids app as well in the next few months. Then after summer we plan to create a new series for practicing English Conversation in a variety of contexts. Look for all that in the coming months. Thank you.

About Bob Coffee

Coffee is an educator in Japan and has taught all over the archipelago. He currently teaches at a famous university in Kanagawa, Japan. He owns Shortsnap Learning where you can find his excellent apps for English Learners.

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