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Mobile Devices and Encouraging Autonomy in the Language Learning Classroom

The following quote by Rousseau accurately reflects my developing view of autonomy as it relates to ESL and EFL contexts:

Whatever [your pupil] knows, he should know not because you have told him, but because he has grasped it himself. Do not teach him science; let him discover it. If ever you substitute authority for reason in his mind, he will stop reasoning and become a victim of other people’s opinions (Benson, 2001, p. 24).

I believe that autonomy in a classroom setting implies that the learner will take the initiative to gain insight into the process of acquiring knowledge or a skill. Benson (2001) defines autonomy as “the capacity to take control over one’s learning” (p. 110).  To my mind, taking initiative is a prerequisite for controlling one’s learning. When learners decide that they want to actively direct their own learning, they are, in effect, on the path to becoming more autonomous. Thus, the decision to become autonomous largely rests with our students and their views of language learning, learning in general, and how a classroom should be managed.

I believe technology in the classroom gives students an impetus to develop greater autonomy and take control over their learning. Mobile devices, in particular, give students access to access to language learning communities, blogs, wikis, online dictionaries, tutorials and even speech recognition functions where learners can practice their pronunciation or ask the mobile device for directions! Such functionality could potentially serve as a basis for autonomous learning.

According to Benson, control in language learning manifests itself in the learner’s “learning behavior, learning situation, and cognitive processes” when dealing with classroom tasks (p. 50). As a result, autonomy is a process that directly manifests itself at several levels of the human experience, ranging from the conscious and unconscious to the real as well as what is perceived to be real. Learners must take control of their mental (e.g. higher cognitive processes), emotional (e.g. preparedness to overcome setbacks and fatigue), and physical aspects (e.g. posture when studying) to gain a foothold over their learning. In a sense, when we, as EFL teachers, ask our students to be autonomous, we are indeed asking them to take a very similar approach in their efforts to master a second language.  Dam and Little (1998) summarize the aforementioned very clearly when they say that autonomy is simply a matter of “conscious intention,” active involvement in the learning process, and the capacity to transcend “the limitations of personal heritage” to master a subject (p. 1).

In language classrooms, to my mind, autonomy can most effectively be realized through using technology in the classroom where students can use the mobile platform to engage in asking questions in the virtual space as well as classroom when he or she doesn’t understand, cross referencing responses and feedback from multiple sources, reviewing thoroughly at home using key apps, and utilizing various resources to improve his or her language ability. Ultimately, autonomy manifests itself when the learner takes steps to approach the target (which refers to whatever is being taught) through a variety of means such as being able to incorporate knowledge and advice from a variety of sources in a meaningful way. In order to achieve the latter, students must believe that they have the abilities or skills to solve whatever problems they are faced with. Furthermore, these problems or challenges must be perceived as worthwhile for students to continue to pursue them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 83; Deci et al., 1996, p. 60). It is for the reasons above that teachers should be mindful when developing lesson plans that require the use of mobile devices in the classroom. The aforementioned realizations also support the use of mobile devices in the classroom.

Autonomous students also tend to actively reflect on processes, which are conducive to autonomous learning. This naturally leads such students to contemplate and incorporate methods that enhance and expedite their progress. These students are also aware of their weaknesses and strengths in an effort to increase their performance in a second language (Thanasoulas, 2002, p. 3). In addition to the aforementioned, autonomous students are typically resourceful and regularly maintain a repertoire of the latest websites, software, and articles to aid them in their studies.

When it comes to using mobile devices to encourage autonomous language learning, I believe the following questions should serve as guidelines should be implemented to encourage their effective use:

  1. Does the mobile device allow students use multiple modalities to communicate or develop language skills (e.g. listen and read, reading comprehension and writing etc.)?
  2. Does the mobile application allow for interaction with others (either synchronous or asynchronous)?
  3. Are students able to receive feedback and provide visible evidence that he or she has acted upon that feedback?
  4. Is there a motivational aspect to the mobile device thus allowing for gamification thus giving learners an incentive to increase in ability or knowledge?
  5. Does the mobile application encourage exploration and independent learning?

Some examples of using technology to develop autonomy in the language learning classroom that I’ve used have been:

  1. Letting students record and transcribe their voice and then checking the accuracy of their pronunciation. Students can get immediate feedback from the mobile device as opposed to waiting for the teacher to give feedback. Furthermore, students can get feedback from the app 24 hours a day and not only during classroom time.
  2. Using an app voice command built into the mobile device to request information about shops in a city. This allows students to use multiple modalities (e.g. speaking and listening) to solve a problem on their own.
  3. Read a text and highlight the new words to find their definitions. The advantage of using a mobile device to read a book are when you come across a word that you do not know, you can look it up and get instantaneous feedback about the definition, part of speech and pronunciation.


Benson, P. (2001). Autonomy in language learner. Pearson: Essex

Bynom, A. (2003). Empowering the learner and all that rubbish. Karen’s Lingusitic Issues, April

  1. Retrieved December 27, 2006, from http’//www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/rubbish html. [Paper originally presented at the TESOL Arabia Conference 2003]

Csikszentmihayi, M. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching: A flow analysis. In J.      Bess (Ed.), Teaching well and liking it: Motivating faculty to teach effectively (pp. 72-89).          Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Dam, L., & Little, D. (1998). Learner autonomy: what and why? TLT Online. Retrieved April 6th, 2008, from http://langue.hyper.chubu.ac.jp/jalt/pub/tlt/98/nov/littledam.html.

Deci, E., Kasser, T., & Richard, M. R. (1996). Self-determined teaching: Opportunities and         obstacles. In J Bess, (Ed.), Teaching well and liking it: Motivating faculty to reach effectively (pp. 57-71).

Krishnamurti, J. (2000). Educating the educator. Parabola. 25, (3), 85-89.

Thanasoulas, D. (2002). What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered? Karen’s     Linguistic Issues, December 2002. Retrieved April 6th, 2008, from       http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/learnerautonomy.html.

Senge, P. et al (2000). Schools that learn. NY: Doubleday. [Chap. 1,2,3 (pp. 5-22), I (pp. 59-        100), XII-I, 6 (pp. 411-417, 446-452), XVI, 5(pp. 552-553).]

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