English Language Teaching Apps: Positioning Parents and Young Learners

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This article was downloaded by: [Dalhousie University]On: 04 October 2014, At: 06:59Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UKChanging English: Studies in Cultureand EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccen20English Language Teaching Apps:Positioning Parents and Young LearnersAlice Chikaa Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon,Hong KongPublished online: 04 Aug 2014.To cite this article: Alice Chik (2014) English Language Teaching Apps: Positioning Parentsand Young Learners, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 21:3, 252-260, DOI:10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLETaylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (theContent) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as tothe accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinionsand views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Contentshould not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sourcesof information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever orhowsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arisingout of the use of the Content.This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ccen20http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionsEnglish Language Teaching Apps: Positioning Parents and YoungLearnersAlice Chik*Department of English, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong KongSince the introduction of iPads in 2010, the sales of tablet computers and mobileapplications (apps) have grown exponentially. iPads and other tablets are mar-keted as learning tools, and many apps target learners as young as six monthsold. This article reports on a research project examining the unique features ofEnglish learning apps based on an analysis of 90 app descriptions. Findings sug-gest that most English learning apps are not designed for English as a ForeignLanguage learners, and do not encourage user interaction around the texts. Posi-tioning theory is adopted to show how app developers position themselves, par-ents and learners in the global discourse on technology and English teaching.The use of such apps as extensions or alternatives to classroom-based learningmay have a strong impact for the future of English teaching, and caveats areoffered.Keywords: 36 technology; iPad; ESL young learners; parental engagement;ELT pedagogyThe introduction of the iPad in 2010 reconceptualised the adoption and use ofmobile handheld devices. For many families, iPads and tablet computers are nowessential home entertainment devices. The emerging popularity of touchscreen tabletcomputers has started a revolution in informal mobile-assisted language learning,especially for English Language Teaching (ELT) (Hockly 2013). Among the differ-ent types of tablets, iPad has been the market leader of tablet computers since itsintroduction. iPad has been marketed as a learning device, but an iPad cannot be alearning tool in itself without the support of application software (apps for short).In about three years, more than 900,000 iOS apps have been developed, and a goodportion are labelled educational. As advertised on the Apple App Store, educationapps for Language Development help English as a Second Language (ESL) learn-ers with reading, writing, speaking and vocabulary building (Apple 2013). Apps arethus marketed as easily available and accessible resources for techno-minded teach-ers and parents around the world, and many of these apps target learners as youngas six months old. Given the dramatic rise in the number of English language learn-ers around the world, this could mean that there are more English as a Foreign Lan-guage (EFL) learners using these apps in formal or informal learning contexts thannative speakers (Crystal 2008; Bolton and Graddol 2012). In particular, we focus onapps that target young EFL learners, a growing but under-researched sector in ELT(Banister 2010; Burnett 2010; Nunan 2013). This paper discusses the unique*Email: alice.chik@cityu.edu.hk 2014 The editors of Changing EnglishChanging English, 2014Vol. 21, No. 3, 252260, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285Downloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 mailto:alice.chik@cityu.edu.hkhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2014.929285features of these ELT apps and, in extension, the changing discourses of Englishteaching as commercial products in the digital age.ELT materials should be evaluated thoroughly before being used with learners,especially materials designed for young learners, and ELT apps should be no excep-tions. Apps are still a relatively new phenomenon in ELT classrooms, and there isno published research on the holistic evaluation of ELT apps as learning materials.For traditional print material evaluation, the first step is the examination of theauthors claims (Pinter 2006). For apps, the developers description, which is arequired piece of information on the Apple App Store, represents the authorsclaims. Littlejohn (2011) suggested three areas for material evaluation: the processof learning (how), the participation (with whom) and content (about what). By thesame token, this article examines the claims about learning, learners and content inELT apps to show how parents and young learners are positioned in learning apps,and in turn, suggests ways parents and teachers can counter and better understandapps as potential learning tools and commercial products.Though there are several theories of child development, it is generally acceptedthat language learning, including second language (L2) learning, takes place in con-texts and through interactions with others (for a detailed discussion, see Pinter2011). Research on young ESL learners shows that vocabulary acquisition and dis-course ability acquired from social interaction are the starting points for L2 languagedevelopment (Cameron 2001). The acquisition of vocabulary is important because ithelps young learners to label abstract concepts to connect inner and physical worlds.The development of discourse ability, arising from social interaction with adults andpeers, is the basis for grammar learning. The earlier start in EFL learning stems fromparents beliefs that earlier is better, and the intuitive belief that children have a nat-ural flair for learning a foreign language (Cameron 2003; Pinter 2011). As moreEFL learners start learning English at a younger age, in addition to concerns aboutformal early childhood education, family practices should not be overlooked. Athome, everyday technology use is now spearheading the latest trends in learning(Plowman et al. 2012).Published research on roles of technology within first language literacy hasdeveloped along the following three strands (Burnett 2010, 254): Technology as deliverer of literacy. Technology as site for interaction around texts. Technology as medium for meaning making.The three strands are good starting points for teachers and parents to evaluate theways ELT apps are designed. While there is a call for language teacher education tointegrate technology into ELT, there is no equivalent programme for parents (OHara2011; Dudeney and Hockly 2012; Goodwyn 2013). It has also been found thatyounger learners have more freedom to experiment and be creative with technologyat home than at school (OMara and Laidlaw 2011). When choosing apps, parentsare frequently left to their own devices to get advice from family, friends and themedia, or simply by trial and error. With an over-abundance of choices, looking forthe appropriate learning apps for their children can be overwhelming for parents. Asa result, parents may rely only on the product descriptions supplied by the appdevelopers, which as public information, give all parents access to evaluation.When an app makes a claim in the description, it projects a certain conception ofChanging English 253Downloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 technology and ELT, thus joining in the public discourse on the topic. FollowingLittlejohns (2011) suggestion on ELT material analysis, it is important to examinenot only the content, but also how learning and learners are represented in thedescription to understand the evolving public discourse. This evaluative frameworkalso aligns with empirical findings on technology and first language literacy (Burnett2010).One way we can learn more about this public discourse is by using PositioningTheory. Positioning Theory explicates that in conversation, people position them-selves or are positioned to take up different roles to develop, unfold or maintain astoryline (Davies and Harr 1990). App developers make various claims to positionthemselves and their apps as learning partners in their app descriptions. Developersmay also other-position the parents and learners into certain roles prescribed in theapp descriptions (Davies and Harr 1990). Parents enter a conversation with theapp developers through the documentation of the apps when they read the appdescription (van Langenhove and Bertolink 1999). However, before the parentsdownload and use the apps, the conversation is one-way, with only the app develop-ers having the voice to convey their conceptions of technology and ELT. If the par-ents like what they read, they download and use the apps. By downloading andusing the apps, parents may also accept the prescribed roles positioned by develop-ers. In addition, underneath the label of education, an app is still a commercialproduct, and it should also be examined as such.The studyThe data for this study were a sample of descriptions of 90 apps downloaded fromthe Apple App Store, the exclusive online store for downloading Apple iPad-com-patible apps. Apple iPad-compatible apps are chosen because iPad has been the tab-let computer market leader and for the easy global access of apps through the AppleApp Store. Many of the apps analysed for this study are also available for Android-operated tablets. On the information page of an app on the App Store, app develop-ers are required to provide the following information: Category (e.g. Education,Business, Entertainment), Rating (age-related, e.g. 4+ for no objectionable material),Description, Whats New in this Version, Keywords, Support URL, and Screenshotsof the app in action. The Description section is a description of the app you areadding, detailing features and functionality, and the length is limited to 4000 char-acters (Apple 2013). A keyword search (English, learning and children) on AppStore was conducted to narrow down relevant app choices. Access to content andapps is country or region specific, so the search results represented the availablechoices from the Hong Kong App Store on 25 May 2013. Using the consumersprinciple of try before you buy, the apps examined in this study were all freelyavailable for download. Following Camerons (2001) notion that vocabulary and dis-course ability are the two building blocks to young learners language development,the criteria for app selection was vocabulary learning apps, which included wordrecognition, flashcard and spelling. A total of 90 free apps for vocabulary learninglabelled free, educational and Rated 4+ were selected. The length of Descrip-tion varied widely, from a 10-word sentence to a full-page detailed explanation. Theapp descriptions were downloaded and saved to create a small corpus of 23,359words for analysis. A basic concordancing program and manual coding ofselected features were used to analyse the data. The author started with an automated254 A. ChikDownloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 searching for lexical items related to learning (e.g. educate, education, educational,educating) or pronouns (e.g. you, your). Manual coding was conducted to exploreclaims related to the process of learning, the learning partners and the content.FindingsThis application gives you a great opportunity for you and your child to enjoy thelearning process through the latest technologies Just turn your iPad into the learningtool and enjoy the process! (#72)Statements like this promise exciting potential for both parents and young learners.Most of the apps were designed to help young learners to acquire the vocabulary ofnumbers, colours, animals, household items and other objects. Although there areprobably more EFL young learners than native English speakers (NES) learningEnglish (Crystal 2008), only 12 apps specifically mentioned EFL learning, usuallyby stating the app is also suitable for EFL learning, which indicated that the appswere originally designed for NES. The ways in which apps established expertise,represented learning and interaction, and promotion as commercial products will bepresented to illustrate how app developers position themselves, and in turn, how par-ents and learners are positioned.Apps as commercial productsFree apps are not necessarily free. Many free apps are marketed on a freemiummodel: a user can access the basic content for free, but premium content oradvanced functionality must be paid for through In-App Purchase (IAP). With freeor freemium apps, there are two issues of concerns: advertisements and IAP. Lessthan half of the apps (39/90) mentioned the presence of advertisements and/or IAP.In dealing with advertisement, only four apps stated specifically that their apps weread-supported, meaning young learners will view third-party advertisements oradvertisements prompting learners to make IAP for premium contents. One app doesnot mention the presence of advertisement in the description, but included iAd(#37), promoted by Apple as a way to increase revenue by bringing engaging adsto the right users (Apple 2013), only in the Whats New section. Another app(#34) suggested Free, If you like this App please consider click on ads. This wayyou are contributing to develop more free Apps for you and your children. Thankyou! This is certainly a new feature that is traditionally not associated with ad-freeclassroom-based ELT software.As free users only have limited access to content and/or have to put up withthird-party advertisements, many users may prefer an ad-free premium version. Theease of IAP will depend on developers, but only three apps provide child-safe locksto prevent young children from accidentally downloading the paid content. Mean-while, more apps suggest the ease of purchasing the full version. Four apps explic-itly state they contain no advertisements. As producers of commercial products, appdevelopers could also make demands, Wed also like you to please keep in mindthat this is a completely free App with no advertising, before giving it a bad review.We do not want your kids to klick on Ads, no one can control. Enjoy the freeride (#88).Changing English 255Downloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 Content: We are the expertsWith traditional print materials, parents and teachers may place their trust in estab-lished publishers and authors for expertise, but most free apps are released by smalland unknown developers. Without the backing of familiar brands, app developersstill need to position themselves as experts to establish credibility among users.Findings indicate that about one-third of the app developers (31/90) primarily usethe description to establish their expertise in language-learning material develop-ment. One tactic is associating the apps with the familiar traditional sources ofauthority: educators, ministries of education and international language tests. Anony-mous teams of in-house experts or educators provide support or design the con-tent (7/90), and anonymous ministries of education endorse the apps (2/90). Exceptfor one app citing the use of their app in British primary schools, no other educa-tional ministry or department was specified. Two apps (2/90) attached themselves toestablished international language tests by using vocabulary lists taken from theCambridge Young Learners English Tests series, thus directly encouraging parentswhose children are taking the examination series to download their apps.Yet, the most popular method (9/90) for app developers to establish expertisewas to include excerpts of user or media reviews. For instance, a parent stating, Myson play this app everyday so, he has know all ABC letters already. (He is just 2years old) As a parent, I am so happy that he loves it and he is learning (#6). Someexcerpts are taken from online review sources like TechCrunch.com, theiPhone-Mom.com and iHeartThisApp.com. App developers (6/90) also use the number ofdownloads, Over 1 million download, this cant be wrong (#4), or the ranking onthe App Store chart, Top 200 educational iPad app in over 60 countries (#32) asproof of credibility.Finally, five app developers use identity categories to establish expertise (5/90),for instance, a parent who developed the app for my toddler and she ABSO-LUTELY LOVES IT!! (#56), or a developer who also ran an in-home daycare(#42). The concept that parenthood is naturally a credential leads to other claims likethe app is tested by kids and toddlers (#88) and [w]e designed this app with ourown children who gave us essential (and sometimes quite critical!) feedback. Theylove the final app though and we hope your kids will love it too :) (#58). Being amember of MomsWithApps, a collaborative group of family-friendly developersseeking to promote quality apps for kids and families (#3) also appeared to suggestexpertise.Process: Learning is a fun gamePlay should be an important component in a curriculum for young EFL learners,and games are used frequently in the classroom (Pinter 2011). Two-thirds of theapps (62/90) stress the educational (68 times) nature of their apps, but at the sametime learning is created by game and reward. In the corpus, the three lexicalitems with the highest frequency were: game (278 times), fun (173 times) and deriv-atives of play (play, playful and playing, 152 times). Similar to a case of edu-cational software development reported by Nunan (2013), developers emphasisedthe fun elements over pedagogical purposes to please the young learners. Stressingthe game design and gaming principles, many of the apps (26/90) included elementslike levels of difficulty, timed play, reward for correct answers, game feedback for256 A. ChikDownloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 incorrect answers, clearing of levels, scoreboards and collection of artefacts (e.g.stickers, trophies). Hand in hand with the reward system is the emphasis on gettingthe correct answers (59/90), the Croc dances on every answer and makes funnyfaces on every incorrect answer (#40).Mangen (2010) argues that one feature of the digital learning experience is thatit is multisensory. From the screenshots, all apps are in colour, not black and white,but 25 apps do not mention any visual or audio components. Only eight mentionedthe use of background music or songs, and only 11 mentioned sound effects. Thisdoes not necessarily mean the absence of the visual or audio components, but itappears to suggest that app developers do not view these components as contributingto the learning experience. Linked to the audio component is the issue surroundingpronunciation and accents. Only 10 apps mentioned accents in which users couldchoose between British (correct English [British] pronunciation, #47) and Ameri-can accents (Pure American English, #8). Australian English was only included intwo apps, and other varieties of Englishes were not mentioned at all.Interaction: A lone learnerAll apps in this study are Rated 4+ with no objectionable content, and the ratingsystem implies these apps might be suitable for users aged four and up. About one-third (37/90) do not disclose the age range of targeted users and only four targetedprimary school-aged users (age six and above). The youngest suggested users aresix months old (7/90), toddlers (12/90) and pre-schoolers (10/90). It can be saidthat these are extremely young age groups for EFL learning (Pinter 2011). As sug-gested in the literature, meaningful social interaction is the key for language devel-opment (Cameron 2001; Pinter 2011). This is applicable to parents or adults readingtogether with children, or children working in groups in the classrooms. However,only one-third (30/90) of the apps explicitly mention social interaction as part of thelearning process. Perhaps statements like Easy for kids to use by themselves (#89)and it is fun alone or with Mom and Dad (#89) best represent the concept of usingapps in everyday life: the presence of adults or parents is optional. In descriptions inwhich parents or adults are mentioned, they are positioned into certain roles. State-ments such as The first mission is FREE for you to try this game with your child(#5) and this is not only a jigsaw puzzle game but a parentchild interaction (#66)indicate an expectation of parentchild co-activities. In other instances, parents areexpected to provide guidance and mentorship, once a parent teaches the child howto play, the child can spend hours with this app learning and enjoying at the sametime (#29), and parents can turn the voiceover off while sitting with a child or turnthe voiceover on to give a child the opportunity to self learn (#72). Other thanparents, only one app (#83) mentioned family, and none of the apps suggestedco-learning or co-playing with siblings or other children.At the same time, apps encourage, or expect, young learners to learn on theirown, because accompanied by a friendly voice guidance, children are encouragedto play and learn at their own pace (#3) and navigation is easy and intuitive, sokids can get the hang of it all by themselves (#47). The idea of using the iPad andapps as babysitters is not uncommon (7/90), when your child held this app, youcan rest and relax (#22), and no help required, kids will go through the activitieswith ease, whether in the back seat of the car or sitting in the shopping trolley!Changing English 257Downloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 (#35). Now more than ever, children as young as six months old are almost expectedto be independent learners.ConclusionsIn light of the growing popularity of tablets and apps as learning tools, this studyexamined the product descriptions of 90 language learning apps to tease out uniquefeatures of these apps. All of these 90 apps are free to download and play, at leastwith the basic contents, and are labelled as educational and contain no objectionablecontent. In todays economy, these free apps are disposable and deletableresources, and are attractive alternatives to expensive ELT software. In particular,when tablets are common household items nowadays, more techno-minded parentsare downloading and using apps for learning at homes. The study has identifiedsome key features from the app descriptions: app developers position themselves as experts in materials either by associat-ing themselves with educators and education authorities, or by using userreviews and number of downloads; language learning is packaged as a fun game with levels of difficulty, rewardsfor correct answers and multisensory components; learners as young as six months old are encouraged to play on their own andinteract only with the app content and tablet interface; and app developers do not necessarily mention the presence of in-app advertise-ments and purchases.Because these apps are frequently used at home, and we have yet to learn moreabout L2 techno-literacy practices at home, the positioning of parents and younglearners in the app descriptions provides glimpses of the possible scenarios. First, asgame is the most frequently used word in app descriptions, parents are other-posi-tioned to accept the storyline that L2 learning is like a game if they were to down-load and use the apps. Second, young learners are other-positioned as independentlearners regardless of their age and proficiency in L2, and learning is conceivedmainly as happening between users and app interaction. Third, parents are other-positioned as busy parents who can use the app as a baby-sitter and replace par-entchild interaction with a tablet and an app. Finally, over half of the apps (51/90)did not mention the presences of in-app advertisements and purchases as a way toplay down the fact that apps are commercial products. In other words, the identitycategory of consumer was not visible, until advertisements and IAP popped up dur-ing app use. Aligning with the findings on technology and literacy (Burnett 2010),the present study found that apps packaged themselves as deliverer of literacywithout promoting interaction around texts or meaning making.The study points to some long-term implications for English teaching in formalschooling. The first question that arises naturally is: will ELT apps replace school?The answer is probably No. Yes, it is true that the discrepancy between home andschool technology use has already been noted (OMara and Laidlaw 2011; Plowmanet al. 2012), and this discrepancy may be even wider with young learners growingup with mobile technologies as everyday learning tools at home. Parents may haveexpected the technology to deliver literacy simply because the claims of expertiseis almost a customer guarantee of satisfaction. The young learners may be258 A. ChikDownloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 accustomed to the concept of learning has to be fun and gamified mode of ELT,but apps also position parents to take the same line. For ELT teachers and materialdevelopers, gamified learning may be an inevitable future direction.Second, most apps conceived learning as an independent, if not solitary, actbetween one young learner and the app content. When only limited apps includedsocial interaction, either with adults or peers, as their main feature, it is only vocabu-lary learning that an app user might learn through using these apps. Recalling Cam-erons (2001) notion that vocabulary and discourse are the two foundations for EFLdevelopment, there is an even more urgent need to prioritise meaningful interactionin EFL classes, and this is exactly what apps have yet to provide.Finally, the present study shows that app developers position themselves asexperts in material development, and when parents read app descriptions to choosean app, they and their young learners are positioned both by the stated and unstatedinformation printed in the descriptions. These discursive acts of positioning are partof the public discourse on technology and English teaching, and at present, we havelimited understanding. So while it is important to discuss issues of technology andEnglish teaching in classroom contexts, perhaps it is even more urgent to furtherexamine technology and English teaching in out-of-class contexts. The changes intechnology use at home may direct development of class-based English teaching.Notes on contributorAlice Chiks main research areas include narrative research, new media and popular culturein second-language education. She is currently working as an Assistant Professor at theDepartment of English, City University of Hong Kong.ReferencesApple. 2013. iTunes Connect Developer Guide. Accessed January 15. https://developer.apple.com/library/ios/documentation/LanguagesUtilities/Conceptual/iTunesConnect_Guide/Chapters/About.htmlBanister, S. 2010. Integrating the iPod Touch in K12 Education: Visions and Vices.Computers in the Schools 27 (2): 121131. doi:10.1080/07380561003801590.Bolton, K., and D. Graddol. 2012. English in China Today. English Today 28: 39.doi:10.1017/S0266078412000223.Burnett, C. 2010. Technology and Literacy in Early Childhood Educational Settings: AReview of Research. 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Positioning and Assessment of Technology.In Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action, edited by R. Harr and L.van Langenhove, 116126. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.Littlejohn, A. 2011. The Analysis of Language Teaching Materials: Inside the TrojanHorse. In Materials Development in Language Teaching. 2nd ed, edited by B.Tomlinson, 190216. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Mangen, A. 2010. Point and Click: Theoretical and Phenomenological Reflections on theDigitalization of Early Childhood Education. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood11 (4): 415431. doi:10.2304/ciec.2010.11.4.415.Nunan, D. 2013. Innovation in the Young Learner Classroom. In Innovation and Changein English Language Education, edited by K. Hyland and L. L. C. Wong, 233247.London: Routledge.OHara, M. 2011. Young Childrens ICT Experiences in the Home: Some Parental Perspec-tives. Journal of Early Childhood Research 9 (3): 220231. doi:10.1177/1476718X10389145.OMara, J., and L. Laidlaw. 2011. Living in the iworld: Two Literacy Researchers Reflecton the Changing Texts and Literacy Practices of Childhood. English Teaching: Practiceand Critique 10 (4): 149159.Pinter, A. 2006. Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Pinter, A. 2011. Children Learning Second Language. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Plowman, L., O. Stevenson, C. Stephen, and J. McPake. 2012. Preschool Childrens Learn-ing with Technology at Home. Computers & Education 59 (1): 3037. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.11.014.260 A. ChikDownloaded by [Dalhousie University] at 06:59 04 October 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2010.11.4.415http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1476718X10389145http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1476718X10389145http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2011.11.014http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2011.11.014Abstract The study Findings Apps as commercial products Content: `We are the experts` Process: `Learning is a fun game` Interaction: `A lone learner` ConclusionsNotes on contributorReferences


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