Tell us a little about yourself and your role at The British Council
I manage the LearnEnglish apps portfolio. I started out with the British Council as a teacher and ICT coordinator before moving into online teacher training. As mobile started to take off and the British Council started experimenting with apps I was lucky enough to get involved with creating a vocabulary app. That role grew into a full time job with a team of people managing the British Council’s mobile learning products.
Why did the British Council decide to start developing apps?
Pre-iPhone, we had already done some mobile learning projects: working with early tablets in classrooms, creating word games for java phones in China and doing SMS vocabulary services; mobile apps grew from this work. The British Council is very interested in looking at how digital technologies can help people learn English so apps were an obvious extension to the work we do online. There are particular affordances of mobile too that are interesting. For example vocabulary learning is wellsuited for mobile learning where short, frequent interactions are effective.
What sets the LearnEnglish apps apart from other similar apps in the App Store do you think?
We have a wide range of apps to help develop all the systems of English with specific apps for grammar practice, vocabulary practice as well more skills-based practice apps like our range of audio and video apps. We also have apps which are more fun – but designed to help improve English knowledge for example Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge. We have spent a lot of time considering the pedagogy and the affordances of mobile and spend a lot of time researching how our users use the apps. We also develop apps for both kids and adults which is quite unique. Because we have teaching centres all over the world we have lots of contact with students learning English who provides us with valuable insights which feed into the app development.
Are the apps primarily aimed at students learning English as a second language?Yes – although we get a lot of users in English speaking countries. We were surprised at how many US-based English speakers started using LearnEnglish Grammar. The app was even featured on a Fox network daytime TV programme in a feature on educational apps, the audience of this programme would not have been an ESL audience.
You have quite a large selection of apps on offer. Is there one that you feel makes a good starting point for educators teaching EAL?
MyWordBook allows learners to really personalise their vocabulary learning by creating flashcards and we have had lots of feedback from educators who are using this apps with their students in class. Students and teachers can share the flashcards they create with other learners so it works well in a collaborative setting and we’ve had very positive feedback from teachers using this with their students. Many of the apps are specifically designed for self-access learning – but it’s educators who tell students about the apps and opportunities with mobile and push the idea that using these tools can help between classes.
The range you have developed includes teaching tools and games. Did you feel it was important to incorporate both types of apps?
Yes – definitely. It’s important to have fun when learning a language and games like Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge are designed to meet that need – and because we make sure the learner gets feedback on the language, hopefully they are learning something while having fun. Learners do want something more serious though as well so it’s important too to have tools that meet this need.
Is there one app which you are particularly proud of?
Hard question. MyWordBook maybe because that grew out of my original work as part of my MA dissertation at University of Manchester and then got bigger once Cambridge University Press got involved.
Also LearnEnglish Grammar because it has been a really big success – it has been the number one educational app in 18 countries and reached the top 5 in 40 – it was also the biggest selling grammar app in China last year.
Then there’s LearnEnglish Kids Phonics Stories which was chosen by Apple in East Asia to be one of the few flagship apps to launch their new Kids category in the App Store. I know that’s three but it’s hard to pinpoint one app!
How do the podcast apps fit into the overall learning scheme?
The audio apps we have, whether LearnEnglish Elementary Podcasts, Big City Small World or LearnEnglish Audio and Video, are all very popular and get really good engagement. Consuming audio and video content is one of the most popular activities on mobile and many learners recognise the benefit of listening to English audio. The apps allow the learners to read along with the scripts too which really helps with listening skills. One thing we found surprising when researching our users was how many of them use the apps on the sofa which goes against the ‘anywhere-anytime’ paradigm and it’s often the audio apps that are used in this way.
What's next for you? What new apps have you got in the pipeline?
We’re working on an update to the LearnEnglish Audio and Video app which will be out soon. We also want to do more for younger learners – we have a huge audience on LearnEnglish Kids website and many of them are accessing via mobile devices so we are looking at how to make this a better experience.
Thanks for speaking with us Neil, it's been a valuable experience and we know that educators will find your apps beneficial.
You can find out more about the LearnEnglish apps here.