SALSA- Live in Milton Keynes!

SALSA is now running live in Milton Keynes! We have 27 beacons across the town, triggering 12 different learning scenarios. Currently, we have a group of English language learners trying out our system and keeping a diary to record their impressions.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll find out how our participants get on with our system, and how it helps their learning. We’ll be finding out how robust the technology is, how the app performs, and what our participants’ impressions of the learning activities are. As you can see, we have a good distribution of beacons around the town centre.


We’ve also got some beacons spread across the broader area, and we have to thank Arriva buses for letting us try out our system on their cutting edge electric buses on the No.7 route (the orange line). Future learning on future transport.


We trialled the technology by setting up an art trail around the Open University campus, but there were still some nerves when setting up in the town centre. So it was with great relief that the technical team found all the beacons up and running, and broadcasting clearly on a walk round the town after a summer shower.


Spot the SALSA beacon! (the little grey box on the bus shelter, top right of the picture)

Our learners have had the option of using a loaned phone (a Motorola Moto G) or their own phone, so we’ll hear how the app performed on a range of devices. We’ll keep you posted as the learners report back.

Our thanks to the various organisations who have kindly agreed to host beacons: Milton Keynes Council, Arriva Buses, XpressoNet Cafe, Christ Cornerstone Cafe, Bletchley Leisure Centre, Shenley Church End Leisure Centre, Milton Keynes Libraries, Rivers Adult Continuing Education Centre, MK Art Gallery.

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Field trials: starting soon!

The SALSA project is ready to field trial our system around Milton Keynes. During July, we’ll be asking a group of language learners to take a smartphone with them while they are out and about in their daily activities around the town. We have a dozen different language learning scenarios that we’re going to ask them to experience. The participants will be keeping a diary, and reporting back their impressions and how this has affected their experiences of learning.

The majority of the learners will be coming from our original group at the Adult Education Centre in Bletchley, who have been wonderful supporters of the project. We’ve also had interest from a number of other learning organisations and so a smaller number of learners will also be present from these groups. We’d always be interested to hear from other educators as well if you’d like to find out more: while we may be limited in our capacity to extend this small pilot, there are always opportunities for further trials.

We’ve got agreement to place the beacons around a variety of places, and each one has had its own challenges, and got us thinking about what we mean by “location-triggered” learning: do we mean when you are near a building or locality? or inside the building in a particular place? this has caused us to think both in conceptual terms but also practical terms, as our beacons have radio characteristics: they’ll be blocked by thick walls for example. We’re excited to see what feedback we get from our learners!

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What is suitable content for location-triggered learning?

With the kind support of the Open University we’ve been able to commission some learning activities specifically for the SALSA project. We’ve worked from our experience with the previous MASELTOV project and been working on what we think would be an appropriate learning activity that somebody might engage with when out and about.

SALSA content - dialogue at the council offices

If you were to be ‘nudged’ by your phone to try out a language activity while you were out walking around a town, how long could you give it? We think at most people would want to spend 10-15 minutes (e.g. at the library, or waiting at the council offices), possibly less. But this depends on the type of material: some prompts for phrases that are immediately useful may need to be much shorter in length, while if you had time on your hands – such as on a bus ride – you might be prepared to engage with more detailed material. So we’ve designed our learning activities to enable people to dip in and out, and move across the content as they wish. We also recognise that while people may appreciate a prompt at a location, they might not be able to act on the prompt there and then,  but return to it at a time more appropriate to them, such as in the evening when they are relaxing. So we’ve included some extended texts. We’ve also taken the opportunity to include audio files, as our language learning experts tell us pronunciation is a big challenge for learners – and we are in Milton Keynes, the town of Loughton, Woughton, and Broughton (all pronounced with a different “-ough” sound).

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Ready to go!

We’ve had a busy Spring at SALSA. Richard’s been working on the app and we now have a fully tested system ready to go. We’ve been checking everything at the Open University and we’re now ready for deployment.  Peter’s also been working on the look-and-feel, to give us something that works well when you’re out and about.


We have a classic 1-2-3 mode of operation.

  1. When you pass a SALSA beacon in town, your phone will flash up a message on screen and also vibrate to alert you that your near a SALSA learning activity.
  2. Checking your phone, you’ll see a list of beacons nearby.
  3. Tapping on one of the selections will take you to the content on your phone.

We’re focussing on providing all the content on the phone, so it doesn’t need a phone or data connection to work (which also means no network charges to use it); but we could link out to content on the web when you’re near a WiFi connection, so we’re thinking about how people might use it. We’ve also been thinking about the different ways people might interact with the app: watch this space for future developments.

Richard’s set up the system to support multiple languages- so a content developer could give us information in several languages and it will display the user’s preferred choice. Handy if you’d like to use SALSA in a place where you might want to provide information for an audience who might speak a range of languages.

Next step is deployment around the city: we’ve been talking with a number of interested parties and also getting some great feedback from language learners who are helping us.

Get in contact if you’d like to try SALSA yourself, or you’d like to talk to us about setting up the SALSA system where you live.


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Beacons, beacons, beacons!

Happy 2015!

This month we’ve been working hard on developing our app, and getting it talking to beacons. It’s thrown up a lot of interesting questions about how people might interact with beacons and what they might want to see. Richard, our developer, has built a really great app and we’re currently working on its final design.  Here’s a quick preview of the early demonstrator:


You can see we have a progression from the user being notified that a beacon has been detected (similar to an SMS notification) , through to a list of beacons nearby, and then finally when a beacon is clicked on, linked through to the content. We’ve had to think about what sort of content we should offer, and how the user views the beacons. One of the key ideas behind SALSA is that a language learner is prompted with very location specific language learning activities as they move around the city. Our language learning experts tell us that learning about a context, when in a context, is very powerful. But what happens if the language learner is prompted when they are talking with a friend, or in a hurry? We’re now thinking about how the learner might review their journey later in the day, and review location-specific activities at a later date.

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Why mobile phones for learning?

SALSA is exploring how and where people use their mobile phones for language learning, and more specifically, smartphones. But why are we thinking about smartphones?

In the MASELTOV project, the Open University has been part of a consortium exploring how smartphones can be used to help recent, low income immigrants to the EU with language learning and social inclusion.  Our colleagues in the Open University of Catalonia  have carried out research to find out about smartphone usage by this audience. In a study of 234 respondents, 80% owned smartphones. Of these, 94% had downloaded one or more apps. As you might imagine, the people responding to the survey used their phones for a wide variety of reasons, but “translating words you don’t understand” was very popular: 69%, with a further 19% saying that they don’t but would like to. Other key uses included social networking (83%), taking photos (82%) and searching for addresses (72%).  Our colleagues carried out a second, in-depth set of interviews with Latin American Spanish speakers in London, and found further evidence to suggest smartphones are widely used by recent immigrants, and central to making sense of their new home town. Keeping in contact with friends, finding their way round, and learning the host language were all identified as important uses of their phones.

Using a smartphone to help translate words on a job advert

Given this research, we were keen to explore further how people use their smartphones for language learning. It’s clear that smartphones are an integral part of daily living for many people, and that they are powerful enough to support a range of learning tools. Most of the major online language learning companies provide a mobile phone version of their software, but as a colleague, Lucy Norris, working on the Mobile Pedagogy for English Language Teaching project has pointed out, people use a whole range of apps for language learning, not just language learning apps. Facebook, for example, is a great place for people to practice chatting to their friends in an informal text environment. So the SALSA team is keen to explore what people use in more detail.   In particular, we’re interested to understand where people use their phones, and whether resources triggered in particular places might be useful. Language learning educators see context-specific learning as powerful: learning vocabulary about travelling while you are at the bus station for example. Smartphones would appear to be a highly suitable platform for testing the value of this kind of learning, and we’ll be exploring their use by adult language learners over the coming months.

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A little background reading…

The SALSA project has grown from a number of different research strands in the Open University. A direct connection comes from our participation in the EU funded MASELTOV project, exploring how smartphones can be used to support social inclusion and language learning for recent immigrants. The Open University team, providing educational input into MASELTOV, have explored incidental learning: encouraging our target learners to consider their daily lives and activities as a rich resource for triggering learning.  However, using smartphones for learning brings with it challenges, not least the assumption by some software developers that their applications will always have an internet connection. We wrote a paper about the benefits of incidental learning on smartphones and some of the challenges it faced in 2012, and suggested that a smart city might be the place to maximise the benefits of this innovative approach to teaching and learning. Here’s a link to that paper: “A citizen-centred approach to education in the smart city: incidental language learning for supporting the inclusion of recent migrants”.

As you might imagine, we were delighted when we saw the Open Challenge project call asking for  research proposals which build on the capability being developed in MK:Smart.

Gaved, MarkJones, AnnKukulska-Hulme, Agnes and Scanlon, Eileen (2012). A citizen-centred approach to education in the smart city: incidental language learning for supporting the inclusion of recent migrants. International Journal of Digital Literacy and Digital Competence, 3(4) pp. 50–64.

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We’ve started! get in touch!

MarkGavedSALSA has officially started! Mark (Gaved), the lead researcher, has now started his new post as a lecturer in the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology and so we’re starting to develop our initial proposal and think in detail about what we’ll be aiming at this year. To start conversations, Mark presented the project at the MK:Smart project’s meeting in the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University on the 8th October, outlining the project and getting feedback from partners. We got some great ideas and contacts.  We’ll put up the slides shortly, and welcome any thoughts you might have. Who should we talk to in Milton Keynes? are there particular types of language learners we should approach (students, international business people, people on low income, particular nationalities)?

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Investigating how people use mobile phones for learning English in Milton Keynes

Welcome to the SALSA (Sensors and Apps for Languages in Smart Areas) project blog. The project starts in October 2014. We’ll be keeping you posted about our progress here.

For now, you can read the press release on the MK: Smart website.

We’ll be finding out about how people use apps to support their English language learning in Milton Keynes. We’re interested to find out what people use, how, and where. We’ll also be testing out some beacons (small sensors that can trigger learning materials) to find out if they are helpful for location based learning: a powerful approach to supporting language learning while out and about.

Why Milton Keynes? there’s an exciting large scale project here, MK:Smart,  exploring how it can become a ‘smart city’ using technology to benefit its citizens. Future education is a key element. So it’s a great place to test possible technology supported approaches to learning.

We’re keen to get in contact with people using mobile phones to help learning English in Milton Keynes, or their teachers or advisors. If you’d like to find out more, contact me, Dr. Mark Gaved, at the Open University:

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