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MALL in the wild: Learners’ designs for scaffolding vocabulary learning trajectories

This study informs design of mobile Apps for vocabulary learning. Learning vocabulary involves developing, connecting and sustaining various kinds of knowledge and skill (Nation, 2001). Learners construct this knowledge across linked experiences. Yet, little is known about designs that help learners connect experiences across episodes in effective vocabulary learning trajectories. To address this, we derive design principles from a learner-centred contextual design process (Luckin, 2010).

In principle Mobile-Assisted Language Learning (MALL) (see Burston, 2013 for annotated bibliography) can exploit various technological affordances for vocabulary learning, anytime, anywhere:
• Content and tasks can be adapted to learners’ interests, competences, physical settings, and current activities.
• Noticing and processing of target language can be enhanced through highlighting, glossing, etc.
• Spaced review, look-up, retrieval, generative use and other learner activity can be prompted through SMS, system notifications, etc.
• Games, flashcards, social media, can be used to evaluate knowledge, provide motivation, and structure learner activity.
• Rich associations can be made through receptive and productive multimedia;
• Learners can look up, capture, share, and ask for help with vocabulary, on demand and in situ.

However, vocabulary apps rarely combine these affordances and interaction designs often fail to exploit connections between life, ‘what learners happen to come across’, and learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2013). Recent studies identify pedagogic designs for seamless vocabulary learning (Wong, 2013). But learners often don’t exploit opportunities as designers envisaged (Stockwell & Hubbard, 2013). We address this issue through in the wild design research (Rogers, 2013). We developed and deployed an App as a technology probe in order to provide participants with a vocabulary of experience with which to contribute to a design dialogue (Balaam, 2013).

Six participants and one researcher used the app as they pleased for authentically motivated and situated self-directed vocabulary learning for between six weeks and six months. Use varied from around two new words a week for six weeks to ten or more a day for 6 months. Log and interview data reveal when, where, how and why participants used the App. In a post-study workshop participants worked together to develop new designs.

Our analysis identifies a crosscutting requirement for adaptive (system adapts to learner context and behaviour), adaptable (learner adapts system behaviour to learner’s objectives and circumstances), nudging and fading of help for learners to enact and connect activity across three areas:
- Capture (exposure, noticing, recording of vocabulary in context).
- Management (reminding, organisation, prioritisation, retrieval).
- Learning (inquiry, production, formative assessment, generative use, memory).

Our presentation outlines participants’ MALL designs for facilitating and motivating activity in and across these three areas.

Balaam, M (2013) Using Technology Probes to Understand the Educational Design Space. Handbook of Design in Educational Technology, Routledge.
Burston, J. (2013). MALL: A selected annotated bibliography of implementation studies 1994–2012. LLT, 17(3), 157–225.
Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2013). Re-skilling Language Learners for a Mobile World.
Luckin, R. (2010). Re-designing Learning Contexts. Routledge.
Nation, I.S.P. (2001), Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. CUP
Stockwell, G., & Hubbard, P. (2013). Some Emerging Principles for Mobile-assisted Language Learning.
Rogers, Y. (2011). Interaction design gone wild. Interactions, 785(4), 58.
Wong, L. (2013). Analysis of students’ after-school mobile-assisted artifact creation processes in a seamless language learning environment. Educational Technology & Society, 16(2), 198–211.


Joshua Underwood    
London Knowledge Lab
Institute of Education, University of London
United Kingdom

Josh is a visiting researcher at the LKL (Institute of Education, London) and a teacher at the British Council, Bilbao. Over the last 15 years he has worked as a designer on a wide variety of innovative applied educational technology research projects. He is an expert in learner-centred design methods and co-editor of Routledge’s Design in Educational Technology Handbook. He has a particular interest in learner-centred approaches.

Rosemary Luckin    
London Knowledge Lab
Institute of Education
United Kingdom

Rosemary Luckin is Professor of Learner Centred Design at the Institute of Education, London. Her research applies participatory methods to the development and evaluation of Technology for learning and encompasses education, psychology, artificial intelligence and HCI.

Niall Winters    
London Knowledge Lab
Institute of Education
United Kingdom

Dr. Niall Winters is a Reader in Learning Technologies at the London Knowledge Lab (LKL), Institute of Education, University of London and Deputy Head of the Department of Culture, Communication and Media. His main research interest is in the participatory design of mobile interventions for medical and healthcare training.


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