Tuesday, 20 November 2012

How do learning technologists use their smartphones for work?

I’m fascinated by mobile phones, I worked for a short-time at a well known mobile review site, even ran a blog on their application in ESL. My current phone is the monstrous Galaxy Note 2 (with it’s 5.5 inch screen and stylus, it’s probably closer to a table than a phone) and as these devices become increasingly powerful and versatile, I love the way that they can assist me in my daily working life here at the University of Sheffield.

I also wanted to find out how tutors and learning technologists actually use their mobile phones in their working lives, so I sent out a short survey and got an encouraging number of responses. So I’d like to tell you first how I use my mobile phone to help me in my work as a teacher at the English Language Teaching Centre and also suggest some apps that people might find useful. Then I’ll summarise the results of the survey and hopefully from this you may get some ideas about how you can use your device to enrich your working life.

Here are a few typical ways I’ve been using my mobile phone this term. The apps are on the Android platform, but I’m sure many of them would be available on iphones or other devices (Blackberry, Windows 8) as well.  

Taking Attendance: for a few of my classes, I use a cool little app called Safety Attendance to take the register in class, it doesn’t take long to set it up and it has a really user-friendly interface that makes it easy to just go down the names and register them as either present/absent or late. You can also export your data as a spreadsheet later.  


Recording Students: In one of my classes students have to conduct a small group discussion/debate and their English level is assessed. This is difficult to do on the fly so I make sure it’s recorded so I can listen back later and assess them properly. The quality of voice recording on mobile phones is really high now and I was comfortable just putting it on the table while the students were talking and it picked up everything. One issue with mobile phones is that they often record in slightly odd audio formats (.3ga and .amr for example) which can make playing them back later on the computer a bit of a problem. I use an app called Hi-Q MP3 Recorder so that it can be exported as an MP3.

Running a VLE: with one of my classes, I use an online service called Edmodo as our VLE. Visually it’s very similar to Facebook and other social networks but it has specific features for education such as quizzes, polls, assignments and a document library. It also has a fantastic mobile app for both ios and Android. It’s very easy for me to respond to students posts directly from my phone as well as upload documents and photos for students to access. 


Running Quizzes: a fun way to check students progress on a topic (often at the ELTC it might be grammar or vocabulary) is to set quizzes for them which they can answer on their mobile. Socrative is a wonderful - and free - app on which you can create multiple choice or short answer quizzes for the students to do under timed conditions or at their own pace. You can then export the results as a spreadsheet and see how well each of them has done. There is a teacher app for creating and administering the quizzes and also a student app on which they can actually do the quiz. Very easy to set up and the students love it. You can also use the web interface to view their progress through the quiz. 


Shared vocabulary notebooks: a key aspect of learning English is building vocabulary and one great way to do this is by creating a shared class dictionary of all new words they come across. For this we use an app called Springpad. This can be accessed via the web or on a smartphone or tablet. For my class we’ve created a shared notebook and anyone can contribute new words as they come across them and this is automatically synced across the web and devices. Springpad is similar to Evernote, a very popular note-taking service, but the advantage of Springpad is that everything is free whereas on Evernote shared, editable folders are only available on the paid premium version. 

Document and folder management: I use Google Drive extensively with my classes, firstly for creating shared folders of material but also as a way for students to write essays and homework and share them easily with each other and with me. The Drive app for Android is excellent and I can easily share documents, video and audio files and folders with my students and they can do likewise. One particularly effective use I’ve found for the mobile app is to use it to record mistakes students make with English I hear as I’m walking around the room. These can then be displayed immediately on the projector screen during lessons. Students are particularly impressed when I have the document open on the screen and as I add their comments/mistakes on the phone, the words magically appear.

Presentation control: I’ve only done this once at a conference I attended and spoke at recently but I was very impressed and will definitely use it again. Using an app called Gmote, I was able to advance through my slides at a distance by touching the screen on my phone, freeing me up from being stuck behind the podium during the presentation.

How are other technologists using their smartphones in their daily work?

I asked the technologists at the university of Sheffield the following questions and I've recorded the responses below each question.There were 11 responses in total but I haven't recorded the names as I wasn't sure if they wanted them published here.

What smartphone/operating system do you have?

I don't have one, HTC One X (Android), Samsung Galaxy S2 (Android), Samsung Galaxy Note and S2 (Android), iphone x 5 (three didn't specify version, one iphone 4 and one iphone 5), HTC Wildfire (Android), Samsung Galaxy (Android)

In what ways do you use your smartphone to help you in your work?

  • Not as much as I should! The only direct reason I do so for students is to demonstrate recording and uploading on sites such as Audioboo and Soundcloud. I also use it for calendars, checking work email on the move etc.
  • email, calendar, Dropbox for files, rss feed reader to stay abreast of interesting topics, Twitter for following topics and people, conferences and to Tweet professionally, socialcam and Twitvideo to record videos for students and conference abstracts, Mendeley to save and store references, Zite to stay abreast of interesting topics, Pinterest to save interesting infographics
  • email, brief web queries, task management
  • Like a multi-tool really - impromptu/lo-fi photography and recording, calendar/email, usb drive (when necessary), my-pocket-internet. Fairly general stuff.
  • Note taking, email, web access, taking and sharing images, calendar, maps etc
  • I use it to access Google Drive and read any Google Docs whilst in meeting etc if I haven't got my iPad or laptop with me; I have non-sensitive files stored on Dropbox and so I have this app on my phone too so I can access other documents; I use the phone to make notes using the Apple Notes or Pages app so that this syncs with my other devices; I constantly use it to pick up emails and check my calendar whilst on the move. I have also started using the new Reminders app to remind myself of tasks that need doing so I can get alerts on these; The Safari application comes in handy when needing to check something online; I use the Twitter app to login to the Department Twitter account and tweet; there have been a few occasions when I've been off work, and travelling around where I have logged into MOLE etc and dealt with a query directly from the phone - for example enrolling students onto a module. I also have a VPN set up so I can access restricted content too.
  • Two main categories:
    - research/CPD type things (podcasts, RSS) including social media (twitter, G+),
    - 'office' stuff - email, gdocs, chat, I record meetings in Evernote.
    Apart from that, most of what I do goes on f2f or in a VLE (MOLE or moodle), neither of which are particularly mobile friendly right now.
  • Because it's a private phone, I only have my calendar on it.
  • to manage my diary, to manage my emails, to keep track of my "to-do" list, to tether my tablet so I can get internet access when away from wifi (e.g. on the train), occasionally to take photographs, occasionally to access the VLE (e.g. to release content that's been hidden)
  • general VLE admin (but not uploading material). Checking students have access / checking work has been submitted, checking selective release of material. Increasingly use it with google form for student surveys

Are there any apps you find particularly useful to help you in your work?

  • Audioboo, Soundcloud, Calendar
  • I'm finding Socialcam potentially very useful, whilst email and calendar are essential and very obvious. I would like to employ Audioboo much more as I only use it on a personal level just now.
  • Chrome Browser, GoTasks (google tasks for iphone)
  • None come to mind - I've never come across a work issue where I thought 'bet there's an app for that'.
  • Evernote, Audioboo, Dropbox, iCloud, Zite, Twitter etc
  • Google Drive, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, Notes / Pages / Mail / Calendar / Reminders / Safari
    (bundled with iOS 6.0.1)
  • Evernote. Wonderfully searchable, taggable, syncs on all devices, easy saving of photos, audio and video (maybe?). Can email notes to colleagues.
  • It's not specifically a work-related app, but I use K9 mail to manage my email. It's vastly superior to the Google Mail app, and it lets me manage all my mail accounts in one place.
  • That old favorite dropbox. But over the last 12 month increasing use of Google plus / Google hangouts / Google Drive on the android. Google Drive has becoming increasingly useful, mainly realtime collaboration on Google docs

I'd like to thank my colleagues for their responses to the survey. Clearly some of them use their smartphones extensively to help them in their work, others really only use them for the basics (email, calendar) or not at all. It was interesting to read the range of apps they use as well, there were the obvious ones like Dropbox, Google Drive, Facebook and Twitter but also there seems to be an increasing use of note-taking apps (such as Evernote) and audio/video apps such as Audioboo, Soundcloud and SocialCam. The last one is new for me and I'm definitely going to look into how that could be used in class.

I would love to hear from any teachers, learning technologists or technicians working in education who could share their own experiences using smartphones in their working lives and get some more recommendations for apps that could be used.


  1. Really interesting post, thanks!

    One thing I find about Smartphone use is "bloat" of apps. I tend to do just go for a free phone on upgrade, and have a HTC Wildfire, which I've had for almost two years. It's now completely incapable of running newer apps (they don't even show up in the Play store as they're incompatible with the older version of Android).

    I'm due for an upgrade on my contract next month, so will probably have a sudden surge of app-usage... but then in two years time will it be the same story all over again?!

    1. Probably, but that's the curse of technology I suppose, tbough some of these devices are so powerful now that it's difficult to believe they will struggle in a few years time

  2. and you have all this private data about your students on your mobile device?

    1. No not really, virtually all of it is stored in the cloud (Google Drive, Edmodo)



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