Teaching English with social media tools and mobile technology: A look at China

As mentioned in a previous posting, a recurring theme in the 2011’s MOOC has been that the current education model no longer meets the needs of learners in the 21st century world where knowledge is changing fast. In “2005-2012: The OpenCourse Wars”, David Wiley (2008) imagines himself looking back to the present time in the future; that future, as Wiley speculates, would consist of not only open source materials being widely available, but also a lot of the materials being generated by learners. In fact, lecture notes posted on a university websites would be obsolete.

Addressing the same theme from another angle, Dave Cormier (2011) points out that the formal education system at present fails to promote continuous learning through the development of learning communities or networks. Without such learning networks, many employees lack the skills to adapt to the changing world; thus, organizations have to rely on expensive consultants or costly employee training in order to keep up to date.

From yet another angle, Clark Quinn (2011) contends that the current system takes learning out of our daily activities and packages a large amount of information to be delivered in a classroom. Accordingly, this fails to match how we learn, as our brains are wired to absorb smaller chunks of information in meaningful contexts. Quinn illustrates that a more ideal learning condition would be like “having a personal mentor traveling with (him), looking at (him) tasks, providing both support in the moment, and developing (him) slowly over time.” And here, Quinn points to mobile technology, which is portable, better integrated to the daily lives of many people, and more capable of delivering information in smaller increments.

While the above MOOC facilitators’ critiques mainly focus on Western education, similar arguments can be made about the education in the east. In particular, the Chinese education system is frequently criticized for its focus on rote learning, or having students memorize a great deal of information in order to pass a final exam. Take language learning for example: Cui and Wang (2008) point out many learners in China, despite having many years of English language training, still have great difficulty communicating. The reasons behind this phenomenon include the focus on passing exams as their purpose of study, poor-quality materials, and a general lack of an English environment. Cui and Wang (2008) subsequently suggest that the mobile technology holds instructional potentials for improving language teaching in China.

In the following, I’ll first discuss how mobile technology can improve language learning in China. The current use of mobile technology tends to focus on delivering content, promoting situated-based learning, and enhancing student-content interactivity. However, what is missing is the social use of the technology or meaningful learner-learner interaction. I’ll argue that the utilization of social media tools, in particular, Twitter, along with mobile technology can encourage socialization and continuous learning. Finally, I’ll consider some barriers to the adoption of social mobile learning will also be examined.

The affordances of mobile learning

Mobile technology, as pointed out by Cui and Wang (2008), has the instructional potentials to solve some of the problems in language learning, such as the focus on passing final exams, poor-quality materials, and the lack of language environment.

First, one of the frequently mentioned affordances of mobile learning is situated learning. For instance, mobile devices have been employed for audio tours in museums. In a study, Naismith and Smith (2009) explore the use of a mobile device and tagging system to deliver multimedia museum tours, in which the visitors move through the museum and click on a tag by pointing the mobile device to it. However, instead of simply presenting the information to the visitors, the research adopts “free-choice learning”, giving the users the choice to explore the museum in a non-linear fashion. For instance, the device users can browse random objects and find explanations, explore the artifacts through a thematic structure, search for a particular set of collections or do research on a particular object. The findings show that the visitors enjoy their learning experience.

Mobile learning has the potential of providing users more personalized learning experience and a greater degree of choice, which in turn can enhance intrinsic motivation (Ragan & Smith, 2006), as opposed to the extrinsic motivation of passing an exam. The use of a tagging system and mobile technology in this study illustrates not only the possibility of using mobile devices to deliver high-quality, multimedia materials but also how moving learning out of a classroom may help to foster more meaningful learning and turn the focus of learning away from passing exams alone. In fact, similar uses of the technology have been adopted to enhance language teaching as well.

A study (Liu & Chu, 2010) into gaming and mobile learning compares the language learning in a virtual gaming environment to learning with papers and CDs. In the study, the participants in the experimental condition used a mobile device to navigate through different virtual learning zones. They learned listening and speaking by playing treasure hunt games, watching videos, and speaking with an animated speaking agent on their mobile devices. In the control group, the learners used papers and CDs to practice listening and speaking. This research finds that the multimedia and game-based environment can enhance learning outcomes and motivation.

Furthermore, mobile devices can be utilized to deliver formative assessments, which can better support learners as opposed to summative assessments. Mobile technology can also be adapted well to support inquiry-based learning. In a study, Hwang and Chang (2010) explore a formative assessment-based mobile learning approach. The participants, junior high school students in southern Taiwan, visited a temple to learn about the local culture.  They were divided into two groups. The experimental group used the formative assessment based learning approach, where the participants were asked a question and prompted to find the answer. If they did not find the answers, they would be given a hint. They continued their search until they found the answer. The control group, on the other hand, used a conventional mobile learning approach, which presented the information to the learners and quizzed them. While the students using the formative approach were prompted to look for the answers, the participants in this group spent more time reading the answers from the device. The results indicated that the formative assessment-based approach improved learning attitudes and achievement.

In addition in academic research studies, currently in China, many for-profit education institutes and media companies have developed mobile language lessons in order to tap into the market of over 900 million mobile phone users (Chinese government’s official web portal, 2011). For instance, in 2007, the Pearson publishing company and Nokia formed a joint venture, Mobiledu, to deliver English lessons on their mobile phones (Wauters, 2010). At the time, Mobiledu claimed to have 20 million subscribers in China and 1.5 million active users.

In 2008, China Daily, an English language daily newspaper, launched the English-Chinese mobile newspapers, delivering news to subscribers’ mobile phones twice a day. In 2003, BBC World Service worked with Sina, an online media giant, to deliver English lessons (British Broadcasting Company, 2003). The subscribers receive a daily text message, which contains an English phrase and the Chinese translation; the learners can also log onto Sina and read a longer dialogue using the phrase. One result of these business initiatives that quality, multimedia materials become more widely available, creating a ubiquitous language environment for learners.

The above examples show how mobile technology lends itself to the generation of multimedia content; supports interactivity, personalized and situational learning; and is conducive to inquiry-based and formative assessment learning. It can support learning in terms of cultivating a meaningful learning environment and moving away from paper-based materials and a structured exam-focused environment.

However, both the research efforts and business initiatives so far tend to focus on using the technology to deliver content to learners, rather than using mobile technology to foster interactions among learners, or engaging learners in generating content. This means that so far, the technology has focused on receptive skills of the learning, such as reading and listening, rather than the production skills, that is writing and speaking. Though there are also tutoring services that offer speaking lessons with English speakers, what is still missing is authentic learner-interactions.

Thus, in the following we will discuss how social media tools can be incorporated into mobile technology to promote authentic language learning. First, we will explore Jon Dron’s (2011) definition of soft and hard technologies to understand how social media tools can be employed; we will look at how social media tools have been employed to facilitate language learning; and finally, we will take a brief look at the social media landscape and smartphone penetration in China; thus, concluding that the use of mobile learning should include the social aspect.

Social mobile learning

Social media or Web 2.0 tools often include the following: blogs, wikis, podcasts, video-sharing, and microblogs. However, it is important to understand, as Jon Dron (2011) points out in his presentation at MOOC 2011, that the tools alone are not technology. Technology can be defined as “the orchestration of phenomena to our use” (as cited in Dron, 2011). Jon Dron differentiates between soft and hard technologies. Soft technologies are more “needy” and require active manipulation by humans; hard technologies, on the other hand, do not require much human intervention, given that the act of controlling the technology is already built into the technology itself.

With these definitions, we can see that whether the tools are social or not depends on how we use them. For instance, when instructors use blogs or wikis to present course information, the blogs and wikis become hard technologies. Likewise, assigning iTunes lectures for learners to listen to or YouTube videos for students to watch are also hard technologies. On the other hand, having students to blog, to create podcasts, to make videos turns the same tools to soft technologies. Thus, we now turn to how mobile devices and social media tools can be used as soft technologies to engage learners and promote authentic learning.

Social media tools have been used to effectively enhance language learning. In a study, Hsu, Wang, & Comac (2008) have students record themselves with their cell phones, which provides the content for the audio blog. The researchers concluded that audioblogs can be an effective way to evaluate students’ oral performance and allows for tutors to provide individualized oral feedback. The participants also reported that audioblogs enhance their learning experience. In another study (Shih, 2011), Facebook has been used in college-level English writing classes. The findings suggested that Facebook can be used to foster cooperative learning and facilitate peer assessment; which helps to enhance learners’ motivation.

Twitter, the microblogging tool, has also been employed in language learning to promote learner interaction not only with other students but also with Twitter users in the target language culture. Enza Antenos-Conforti (n.d.), a professor of Italian Department of Spanish & Italian, has used Twitter in her Italian classes as a forum for students to practice writing and reading. Antenos-Conforti began with finding a number of Italian Twitterers whose tweets are appropriate for the language levels of her students; she contacted the Twitterers, who subsequently agreed to have her Italian learners follow them.

Throughout the course, the students checked and responded to a certain number of tweets. Antenos-Conforti also made grammar corrections using the reply function on Twitter, thereby, providing timely and formative feedback for students. More importantly, Twitter provided a meaningful context for the language learners to socialize with other Twitter users. Antenos-Conforti finds that Twitter, both a synchronous and an asynchronous tool, allowed learners to produce output with more frequency. Moreover, in her research, some students continued to use Twitter after the course finished.

In fact, Twitter and mobile devices, despite being different tools, can be utilized to orchestrate similar phenomenon. Just as Twitter has been used to promote informal and continuous learning in Antenos-Conforti’s research, mobile devices are conducive to informal learning. Laurillard (2009) and Pachler (2009) (as cited in Ally, 2011) point out that mobile devices can help to take learning out of a structured environment, such as that of a classroom, and placing it in the everyday context.

Another similarity is the frequency of use. As Antenos-Conforti (n.d.) mentions Twitter encourages more frequent output. Margaret Atwood, a well-known Canadian writer and a twitteress with 286,523 followers as of Dec, 2011, has likened tweets to smoke signals, which she believes can help young people enrich their vocabulary as well invite them to express their thoughts in textual form (CBC, 2011). Perhaps, for many, tweeting is a task less daunting than actual writing, emailing, or blogging, which often require more time, patience, and energy. For second language learners, writing often involves some degree of trepidation. Thus, removing these barriers, twittering opens the door to frequent participation and engagement of twitters. Likewise, as cited by Quinn, the small size and portable nature of the mobile devices has shaped how the users interact with them. The difference between laptop and mobile device users is that the mobile users check their devices with greater frequency.

Given the affordances of the mobile devices and social media tools, like Twitter, launching social media platforms on mobile devices holds great potential for the facilitation of language learning. The next session will look at the possibility as well as the current barriers of social mobile learning in China.

China’s smartphone penetration

Currently, China cell phone users have surpassed 900 million, with a 67% cell phone penetration rate. Meanwhile, the smartphone penetration is only 10%, though according to estimates, the Chinese smartphone market has already surpassed the US market in the second quarter of 2011 (Bonnington, 2011). In fact, “Chinese between 21 and 30 years old take up 68.4% of the smartphone market, according to a report from Analysis International, a leading provider of information products in China.” (Liu, Xu, and Wang, 2011).

China’s social media landscape

In terms of social media tools, the Chinese government has banned many foreign-owned social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, given that information on these platforms is harder to control (Shirky, 2009). Besides, given the winner-takes-all characteristic of many of the social platforms, banning  ‘foreign’ social media platforms allows local platforms to flourish. As shown in Table 1, China has its own social media counterparts. The Chinese counterpart of YouTube is Youku; Renren is a Chinese social networking site; Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are the Twitter equivalents; Sina Tensent and Netease are the counterpart of Google’s Blogspot or WordPress.

Table 1. Social Platforms in China

Social Platforms in the West Social Platforms in China
YouTube Youku
Facebook Renren.com
Twitter Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo
Wikpedia Baiduzhidao
Blogspot, WordPress Sina Tencent, Netease






In terms of the social media penetration, in 2011, China has over 235 million social network users, 181 million bloggers, 284 million online video users (Zhang, 2011), and close to 300 million microbloggers (Incitez, 2011).

Take the example of the Twitter’s Chinese counterpart, Sina Weibo, which currently has over 100 million users, owning close to 70% of the microblog market share (Incitez, 2011): In terms of language learners, Sina has a number of features that may be useful for language learning. While tweets have a character limit of 140, Sina allows 280 character limit (Zhang, 2011). Also, when retweeting or sharing someone else’s tweet with others, Sina allows users to add 140 characters on top of the original tweet (Zhang, 2011). Moreover, Sina allows for more types of media content (Zhang, 2011). Users can directly embed videos or audios along with the textual message, doing away the extra step of having users to click on a link in order to view the media. Furthermore, whereas Twitter relies on hashtags (#) to archive the tweets, Sina users not only can use hashtags but can also create micro-groups, similar to Facebook groups. Members of the group can view other members’ tweets within the group. Taken together, allowing a greater word limit, more types of media, and creation of micro-groups can potentially be useful for language learners.

On the other hand, there are also major disadvantages for Chinese learners hoping to learn English with the social media tools in China. One is that many of these tools are in Chinese as well as its lack of users in the target language culture. Nonetheless, Sina Weibo has recently launched an English version. According to Sina, it currently has 450,000 users in the US. Another disadvantage has to do with the amount of distraction the platform contains. Compared to the ad-free environment of Twitter, the Sina page contains more ads, which are possible sources of distraction. Comparing the content of Twitter and Sina, Twitter users tend to share more global events and news stories, whereas Sina contains more quotes and jokes. Taken together, while microblogging holds potential for language learning, instructors who hope to incorporate this tool at the moment may find it difficult connecting their learners with users in English-speaking countries. As well, it may be difficult to create an English language environment because of the disruptive effects of the advertising.


This paper has illustrated the potential of social mobile technology. First, it has shown how mobile technology can be used to redefine the learning goals, enhance learner motivation, and provide quality materials and a pervasive English learning environment. Second, it shows that incorporating social media tools to mobile technology has instructional potentials for language learning. It can help to provide a meaningful context for interactions and socialization as well as supporting continuous learning.

Meanwhile, the barriers to using social mobile technology in language learning include the relatively low penetration rate of smart phones, on which the social media applications are launched. Though it has been reported that the Chinese market for smartphones has surpassed that in the US, and that China even has the highest number of mobile users who actually own two or more cell phones (Bonnington, 2011), it is important to remember the income inequality between urban and rural area remains high (Dexter, 2011). When adopting social mobile technology academic institutes or teachers will need to look carefully into whether the technology is, indeed, assessable to the students; and whether developing these lessons will further reinforce the digital divide between the haves and have-nots.

Finally, given that many of the social media platforms are banned in China, educators and instruction designers will also need to consider the various limitations of the platforms in China. That said, given that many of the social media tools, Twitter or Sina alike, are soft technologies that are open to changes according to how people use them, they holds immense potential for language learning in China.


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3 thoughts on “Teaching English with social media tools and mobile technology: A look at China

  1. I blog quite often and I really appreciate your information.
    Your article has really peaked my interest. I will take a note
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  2. I, thanks for including me in this post. The presentation you have above was done in September 2009, based on research I started conducting in 2008. 🙂

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