Tag Archives: apps

Going Underground

26 Aug

Amazon have announced the launch of Underground – a (potentially) disruptive new model for mobile app distribution, designed to make premium app content free and therefore bring an end to paid-for apps and in-app purchasing. How does it work, why have they done this, and what might the implications be for educational apps and ELT? Well, it breaks down like this:

Access to free, premium apps

Owners of Android devices can download the ‘Amazon Underground‘ shopping app directly from Amazon (it’s not on Google Play) and gain immediate access to free apps. Amazon have launched this in the US, the UK, France and Germany, but presumably access for more countries will be coming soon. Of course, this is early days so don’t expect to choose from the million-plus apps that you’re presented with on Google Play. This new model is dependent on content providers – app developers – buying into Amazon’s vision and it will therefore take time to build up content. However, Amazon have managed to launch with an impressive range of apps, so if you’re an Android user and a fan of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds (or if Office Suite Professional 8 is more your thing), it’s well worth taking a look.

Importantly, this is not Amazon Prime or a similar subscription service. It is completely free. You do have to register with Amazon, and therefore become a part of their eco-system (if you’re not already), but you didn’t seriously expect this offer to be completely catch-free, did you?

 If premium apps are free, how do developers make money?

Unlike Google Play and the Apple App Store, where developers make their money from download payments, in-app purchases and/or in-app advertising, with this new Amazon model the end user pays nothing, it is instead Amazon who pay the developers.

With a ‘usage per minute’ model, developers receive royalty payments from Amazon based on the number of minutes users have accessed their app(s) for. In theory, this will help to maintain quality, as developers will only be successful if their apps are good enough to continually engage users.

 So isn’t this just another way for developers to monetize their ‘free’ apps?

No. Amazon have imposed some strict (and some slightly vaguer) rules about the kinds of apps that can be distributed through this model, and one of those rules is that the app must be available for sale elsewhere (essentially, Google Play or the Apple App Store), so this rules out the multitude of low quality, free apps currently bulking out the app stores.

It’s also worth noting that any apps with in-app purchasing have to be re-built to strip out this functionality, and whilst in-app advertising is permissible, in-app advertising that rewards users with in-app purchase items is not.

What’s in it for Amazon?

More customers registered with Amazon. And data. Lots and lots of data.

Are Google and Apple quaking in their boots?

Unlikely. At least, not yet. If this new model takes off, and users start to drift way from Google Play, or switch from iPhones to the likes of Samsung and Sony, then Google and Apple will have to react, but there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and many of the question marks will be around content. There’s little point in having a thousand free apps if the one app that every teenager wants is only available for iOS or on Google Play. Presumably though, there are mums and dads funding their teenagers’ app purchases who will be wishing Amazon every success with this new venture. The importance of getting the right content mustn’t be underestimated, and it’s an area where Amazon, and others, have struggled with digital products such as eReaders, when ‘paucity of content’ in some markets dramatically inhibits sales.

Any benefits for education and English language teaching?

Amazon’s focus appears to be on games though clearly, free educational apps would appeal to many schools (and parents), but if you don’t pay for your content, you are at the mercy of developers who can, at any point, opt out and withdraw their app(s). Not great if you’ve integrated something into your curriculum and it disappears part way through the academic year. For primary and secondary schools there’s the added complication (possibly an impassable barrier?) of Amazon registration. The model appears to be geared much more towards individuals, and simply not designed for the distribution and volume purchase needs of educational institutions. That said, if a sizeable opportunity arose, no doubt Amazon would find a way…

For ELT then, perhaps of more interest is the potential for adults studying by themselves or attending language classes and needing some supplementary support. There is of course no shortage of this kind of material freely available online and on the app stores, but why trawl through hours of dubious grammar explanations on YouTube if you can download – and access offline – quality content from reputable digital publishers? Naturally, this is dependent on said publishers seeing value in distributing their apps through this new Amazon model when they might be doing perfectly well with the more traditional sales channels. But is any developer really happy with losing a third of all their revenue to Google and Apple? And wouldn’t it be nice for your lovingly created app to be sitting with a relatively small selection of ‘premium’ content rather than frantically waving for attention as it drowns in a sea of cheap, poorly executed rubbish churned out from someone’s bedroom in South East Asia? (Rubbish apps from other parts of the world also available.)

OK, sounds interesting. And finally my Fire Phone purchase makes sense!

Umm, no. The Fire Phone is not supported, and neither are Generation 2 or earlier Fire tablets. Bad luck.

Check out the Twitter chatter on the Amazon-led hashtag: #actuallyfree


TESOL to IATEFL: from building bridges to twistin’ my melons (man)

11 Apr


As I travel up to IATEFL Manchester on a train with surprisingly good free wifi (well done Virgin Trains!) here are some thoughts on my trip a couple of weeks ago to the other side of the Atlantic, for TESOL 2015.

The theme of this year’s TESOL conference was Crossing Borders, Building Bridges. I guess a nod to the fact that it was held in Toronto. However, as I have a serious allergy to tired metaphors I made a conscious effort to avoid talks that had shoehorned bridges into their titles and abstracts. This random strategy seemed to be effective, as on the whole, I found the talks I attended engaging and enlightening. Here’s a couple of highlights:

D J Kaiser – Pronunciation

Firstly, great name. But also a really engaging speaker. D J Kaiser talked about research he’s doing into pronunciation apps. He’s downloaded 100+ iOS apps and is working his way through each of them, blogging as he goes. The presentation gave a whistlestop tour of the first 20 apps he’s assessed and reviewed, and by the end of it, I couldn’t help but think, no-one’s really nailed pronunciation apps, have they? Issues include:

  • Apps that focus on accent reduction, rather than improving intelligibility
  • Voice recognition software that isn’t up to scratch, or is poorly calibrated
  • Lack of meaningful feedback

The apps D J Kaiser has downloaded vary from free (some with in-app purchasing), to around $50 USD, with an average of $2.89 and a median of $0. My feeling is that if you’re going to produce a pronunciation app with any real educational value, it needs to be designed with a specific learner in mind, both in terms of age and first language. And given the amount of investment that would be required in terms of voice recognition software, figuring out how to give useful feedback, applying expertise in pronunciation skills and language learning methodology, and creating something that works beautifully on a tablet or smartphone, I can’t really see it being viable as a standalone product. Perhaps part of a wider skills-based course, delivered online or through an app?

Anyway, D J Kaiser has over 80 apps to work through yet, so I’ll be keeping an eye on his blog and Twitter account to see if he turns up any pronunciation gems:

djkaiserphd.wordpress.com / @djkaiser_phd

Andrew Nye – Professional Development

Andrew is a colleague of mine from a few years back, when I was working for what was then Cambridge ESOL, now rebranded as Cambridge English Language Assessment (I guess clarity being favoured over brevity there). I couldn’t travel all the way to Canada and not show an ex-colleague some support so I dutifully took my seat, but within five minutes was pleased I had. I knew Andrew would be a competent speaker, what I hadn’t realised was how far the Cambridge English Teaching Framework had come, and how good it looked online.

There is some overlap with the Cambridge English Teaching Framework and the work I do on ELT professional development titles, but until attending Andrew’s talk, I must admit I hadn’t really engaged with the details and with the background to the project. In short, it’s an incredibly well-research framework that helps language teachers to establish their own areas of competency and then build a plan for continuing professional development. It’s based very much on the idea that the difference between a good teacher and an excellent teacher is awareness of areas for improvement. And as illustrated by a great Alice in Wonderland quote, you can’t really be expected to work out which way you need to go, until you have an idea of where you need to go:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where…” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

The beta version of the tracker, which places you on the framework, can be accessed here:


I attended a few commercial talks as well (interesting to see Rosetta Stone branching into blended learning and classroom materials, and employing a curriculum consultant), and of course caught up with friends and colleagues from both sides of the Atlantic. Now, as I fast approach Leeds, time to get myself ready for IATEFL Manchester. Whilst I’m adverse to trite metaphors, I was hoping for a few more Manchester-based music references in this year’s list of IATEFL talks, but sadly there’s little evidence of this at a first read through the programme. However, hats off to the speaker who’s squeezed ‘Twistin’ my melons’ into his title, I’ll definitely try and make it to that one. Step on!

Are digital classrooms the new paperless offices?

16 Oct


The office of the 90s

My first job in marketing was back in the late 90s, when I was working for what was then the University of North London (now London Metropolitan). Whilst the 1990s really aren’t that long ago, the office enironment back then was a world away from the kind of offices you’ll find in the UK in 2013. It was a time when people could get away with having a cheeky cigarette at the start or end of the working day if they made a half-hearted attempt to lean out of the window, and where a pint in the pub at lunchtime was standard practice for many of us. It was also a time when email and the internet were starting to change the way we lived our lives and operated in the workplace. Computers had of course established themselves in the workplace long before the 90s, but now electronic communications and networked systems were enabling us to function in different ways, everything seemed faster and more immediate, and there was a very quick and very obvious decline in the number of phone calls being made, as well as the number of memos being written (and I mean handwritten, with  real carbon copies – imagine that kids!). We could all sense that the world was changing at a rapid pace, and whilst we couldn’t accurately predict how this would affect the world of marketing, what  was perfectly obvious to all of us was that within a few years, the paperless office – an idea that had been touted since the 1970s – would become a reality.

Digital classrooms

15 years on and paperless offices – in my experience at least – remain a complete myth. And it’s perhaps because I have this at the back of my mind that I am hugely skeptical whenever anyone mentions digital classrooms, and print being replaced by apps or ebooks. Earlier this year, on the Oxford University Press ELT blog, If there were no books prompted an expansion on this topic from ‘English Raven’ Jason Renshaw with his post Are ELT publishers going to make it App’n?. Before going into this, it’s probably worth noting that when I refer to my skepticism around ‘digital classrooms’ I mean ‘traditional’ classrooms with teachers and students in the same physical space, using only digital devices for learning. This is of course very different from ‘virtual classrooms’ where the teaching is conducted 100% online, and which I have some healthy skepticism around too, but let’s save that for another day.

Apps in ELT

The original Oxford University Press post draws on an experimental approach in a couple of Carlifornian schools, asking whether their method of teaching algebra with ‘interactive full curriculum apps’ on iPads could be just as successful in English language classrooms (‘success’ being definied here as achieving high grades in end of year exams – questionable in itself). Some obvious points are made about the importance of making the technology work for the aims and objectives of the class, not simply transforming printed books into digital format, but providing teachers with the kinds of tools they need – images, videos, contextualised language – to engage their students and meet their objectives. The potential opportunities for personalised learning are also touched upon.

Jason picked up on this post, and responded with his own, making a number of very bold statements:

  • As mobile devices become more affordable and ubiquitous, we won’t be needing textbooks or even e-books; the future will be in apps.
  • Building learning materials in app form creates all of the functionality, flexibility, interactivity and currency that teachers and students are now starting to expect.
  • I am rather vehemently against the idea of simply converting existing textbooks into e-books … or chopping them into little parts to become dried up PDF or e-PUB potpourri.
  • A clever approach to ELT course apps should allow them to be customised while still providing a core and a map.
  • Forget the idea of trying to own/control the platform (and, by extension, all of the distribution). The publisher that tries that on will not only inevitably fail, they won’t be doing their reputation as The (greedy shareholder-appeasing) Empire any good either.
  • Apps can still work with complete freedom of choice. They will thrive or fail based on the quality and relevance of their content and interactivity, which is exactly how it should be.

Are ELT Publishers going to make it App’n? Jason Renshaw (March 2013)

A mix there of absolute faith in the power and potential of apps, and some strongs words of warning to ELT publishers. Perhaps not surprising then that it prompted a fair number of comments. The first of these was around the practicalities of having ‘heavy’ apps on mobile devices, questioning whether anyone would be willing to put a full course book (with associated media content) on to their mobile device, given the amount of storage required. Whilst this might be an issue for older devices, I doubt it’s likely to stay an issue for long.  I recently attended a talk about new technology and future trends where it was suggested that in a matter of a few years, personal data storage would go so far beyond what we can currently imagine that you could wear a pair of glasses that would record your entire life, enabling you to look back on your childhood at any time, or simply to flick back five minutes to see where you left your car keys (though presumably not where you left your glasses). I thought this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then on a different subject I read this a couple of months ago:

Internet traffic today per person is measured in gigabytes, with six gigabytes of information exchanged per human per year. In 2017, that number will have risen to 16. By then, global data will be counted in zettabytes – roughly one trillion gigabytes.

Nasdaq crash triggers fear of data meltdown, The Guardian (24 August 2013)

Obviously, global data on the internet is different from data on personal devices, but when I see numbers so big my small head can’t really make sense of them, it makes me think that getting a course book app (or several course books apps for that matter) on to a mobile device isn’t likely to be a problem for long. At least not in terms of storage.

So, schools get these wonderful new apps on to mobile devices, but are teachers and students ready to use them? Not in Italy it seems, where Martin Lisboa commented that a couple of years ago, with students aged 18-26, he struggled to get them using digital content on a CD-ROM. This didn’t surprise me at all, and it’s something I’ve been hearing a lot from focus groups recently, from teenagers and young adults  around the world – they still like to learn from printed books. Yes, there’s a small number who have embraced their iPads and would happily go 100% digital, but the vast majority still have a preference for learning from books and consider apps to be for fun, for entertainment, not for ‘serious’ learning.  Perhaps this will change with future generations, perhaps it will take a while for learning on a tablet to feel ‘normal’ and perhaps ELT publishers have yet to produce apps that work effectively as learning tools. Then again, perhaps we’ve spent hundreds of years learning from printed books for a very good reason – because it’s a great way to learn.

This leads neatly on to one of several insightful comments made by Brendan Wightman, starting with the obvious but often forgotten fact that, in some ways, we’ve seen this all before.

Brendan refers to the “enduring legacy of failure where education and technology meet in formal classrooms” and goes on to make some very salient points about teachers being resistent to new technology being introduced from the top down, the potential conflict between informal, flexible learning and the formal, assessment driven syllabus, and the re-working of social arrangements that technology often brings about.

Reading that summary you may be forgiven for thinking that the responses posted by Brendan reflect someone very resistent to the introduction of technology to the ELT classroom, but that’s clearly not the case. They are simply words of caution from someone who can see the need for books to be “re-imagined” and yet understands that this is likely to be a long, continually changing process, with many failures along the way.

Are apps our future?

So, does anyone really believe that apps are the future for ELT classrooms? Jason Renshaw clearly does, but returning to the conclusion of Oxford’s If there were no books post, it seems this publishing house at least is somewhat hedging its bets:

What a good teacher of the future will need, and can then provide to their learners, is enough coherent learning objects to suit the needs of their learners, to keep the class engaged, to help them learn and practise new language all within a well-tested and graded framework provided by an expert in the provision of learning materials. These objects will be for use both in and out of classroom, allowing us finally to arrive at the ultimate course, designed to fit each individual learner with the perfect combination of print and digital publishing.

If there were no books Robert McLarty (March 2013)

Learners first

The key point here is that the ultimate course – whatever that may be – is one that’s designed to fit the individual. Digital content presents use with many opportunities on this front, but forcing digital materials on to individuals will never end successfully. Both teachers and learners need to be comfortable with their learning materials, and the introduction of digital elements needs to happen gradually and organically. Insisting on fast change and the abandoning of printed books in favour tablets – as is happening in some educational institutions – is inevitably going to result in backlash from those on the receiving end. Similarly, I would suggest that any international publisher with a broad range of customers who leaps feet first into apps at the expense of investment in print is highly likely to regret it. The digital classroom is no more a reality for most teachers than the paperless office, and whilst the world is changing at a rapid pace, changes in the way we educate should be gradual and carefully thought through, and certainly not based on point scoring by government officials, the determination of tech companies to get their hardware into schools, the desire of publishers to keep one step ahead of the competition, or a disasterous combination of all three.

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