Cell Phones + Self-Access: A Summer Campaign

Kirsten Mashinter, Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University, Japan

Mashinter, K. (2011). Cell phones + self-access: A summer campaign. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(3), 219-227.

Paginated PDF version

In the fall of 2009, I came to a women’s university in Hiroshima, Japan from a university in Kosovo as an instructor in the English Communication Center (ECC). Into this new and decidedly different context, I brought my personal interest in photography and my history of using this interest in EFL environments (see Mashinter, 2007 and Mashinter, 2009). My experiences using student-generated photography in the classroom up to this point had led me to wholly agree with Gallo (2001) that photography can help emerging language learners communicate in a more articulate manner and that by taking and sharing photographs, students have control over their narratives and can engage with their stories.

After being introduced to the ECC’s Self Access Center (SAC), I started considering ways in which I might apply my past successes with EFL photography projects to my new surroundings. I quickly discovered that the SAC was constantly looking for ways to encourage more students to utilize its resources.  In addition, the SAC could provide an appropriate platform for playing with the idea that teachers are artists and this creativity can be realized not just in classroom contexts but within the construct of a self-access center as well (Candlin, personal communication, October 5, 2009).  Because the SAC maintained an open-door policy of accepting ideas from instructors and will often pursue these suggestions, I wanted to create a SAC activity for students that blended my interest in photography with the SAC’s main objective of providing an environment in which students can extend their language experiences beyond the classroom.

At the time of my arrival, I was also considering ways in which I could bring microblogging activities into the classroom as a way to explore the educational shift from CALL to SMALL (social media assisted language learning) (Stevens, Cozens, & Buckingham, 2010). Educause (2009) defines microblogging as “the practice of posting small pieces of digital content-which could be text, pictures, links, short videos, or other media-on the Internet” (p. 1) and I wanted to use it with my students to increase communicative and cultural competencies (see Boreau, Ullrich, Feng, & Shen, 2009).

The idea for developing a summer project with the SAC came about after a series of discussions I had with the SAC Director. It had been noted that SAC usage dramatically dropped during the summer months, due mostly to the fact that most students left campus at this time.  A strong link between the SAC and the English curriculum had already been purposefully established (Thompson & Atkinson, 2010), and students were using the SAC during the semester to supplement classroom activities. My interest was not in motivating students to access the SAC to obtain further help with their studies. Rather, I wanted to encourage creative linkages between the SAC and students’ personal time, exploring Perifanou’s (2009) suggestion of creating a project in which students could use their English skills while in a relaxing situation.

In an attempt to bring all these strands together, I developed a summer vacation contest for the SAC in which students could participate regardless of their physical distance from the facility.  This contest would center on cell phones, photography, and writing and it would be platformed online.

The Project

The Keitai[1] Photo Contest launched at the beginning of the university’s summer vacation period on August 1, 2010.  In its simplest form, participating students took a summer-related photo with their cell phone and emailed it along with a title and short descriptive text to the contest address. These entries were then posted online to a blog (see Appendix A). At the end of the contest, which terminated on September 30, winners were chosen and selected photographs and text pairings were put on display in the SAC during the school festival in October.



In order to conduct the contest, it was essential to have the following: a computer with an Internet connection; an email account; and a blogging platform. For this project, a Gmail account was created specifically for the contest and a free WordPress account was used to host the blog.

Prior to the opening of the contest, students who wanted to participate were required to pre-register. By the end of the two-week registration period, 89 students had signed up. Contest protocols were developed, translated into Japanese, and emailed to participants (see Appendix B). As students emailed in submissions, the entries were posted to the contest blog after being reviewed to ensure there was no inappropriate content.

Cost for the contest was minimal.  The web hosting and email account were free. The SAC already had the paper, printer, and ink needed to print out the photographs for the end-of-contest display.  The primary cost was 9000 yen spent on gift cards, which were given out as prizes to winners of the contest.


At a minimum, participants needed a camera-enabled cell phone and cell phone service.  These two items allowed students to take photographs, prepare the submission, and email their postings to be uploaded to the blog.  For students who wanted to view the entries, they either needed access to a computer with an Internet connection or a cell phone and data plan that allowed Internet pages to be viewed.  Students also needed to know how to use their cell phones to take photos, to send emails, and how to access the Roman alphabet keypad.  No training was given to students on how to do any of these actions with their phones. It was assumed that participants understood how to use their phone to participate in this project because this technology is so ubiquitous in Japan.


Photo quality

All photos submitted were of suitable resolution for viewing online.  However, some photos were of too low resolution to print out on A4 paper for the end-of-contest display.  These photos could not be included in the exhibition because the printouts were too pixilated or blurry. To minimize this occurrence, the protocols should have requested students to take photos using the highest resolution setting on their phone cameras. 


One student submitted a photograph that she had plagiarized from another source. It was not until she requested the photograph be rescinded that it became apparent that she had not taken it. No mechanism was in place to detect submissions plagiarized from online sources, but an eventual Google Images search did find the source photograph. Because the student retracted the photograph, no action was taken against her.


The institution where the contest took place is a women’s university and student privacy was a priority throughout this process. Insofar as was feasible, concerns such as being able to identify participants as being students at our institution were balanced with ease of blog access (i.e., not requiring a log in process to view the blog). This included not using the university name on the blog and selecting WordPress settings so that search engines would not find the blog. To control site visibility, under the privacy settings, the “I would like to block search engines, but allow normal visitors” option was checked. With this setting, if someone conducted an online search for one of the students who submitted a photograph, that search would not pull up the photo contest site.

Reminder emails

When the project began, no schedule of reminder emails had been set. However, as the contest progressed, it became apparent that in order to keep receiving entries, it was necessary to send reminder emails to the students encouraging submissions. Over the course of the contest, three reminder emails were sent. After each email, there was a spike in the number of entries.

Text production

No rules were given to students regarding length or quality of descriptive text that should accompany each photo submission. Not only did shorter text entries better fit within the spirit of microblogging, but this was a purposeful decision to allow all students to participate in the contest regardless of ability to write in English. The intent was to ensure that the text portion of the submission was not burdensome in terms of English competence or capacity to type out a longer text on a cell phone keypad. In hindsight, with an average production of only two or three sentences, the contest could have better balanced language with photography and required longer accompanying texts.

Webhosting platform

WordPress was chosen to host the blog in part because it offers a mobile feature which works with both smart phones (such as the iPhone) and with the Japan-specific mobile web that is accessible by most Japanese cell phones. This meant that across a variety of cell phones and cell phone plans, students could both submit entries and view the blog on their cell phones.

Winner Selection Process

Of the 84 entries received, 25 finalists were selected based on quality of text, quality of photograph, and how well the submission suited the contest.  ECC faculty and SAC staff were shown these entries and asked to individually select their favorite three.  The results were compiled and, in total, five entries were singled out as winners: selections were made for first, second, and third place prizes.  Two entries were selected as honorable mentions.  There was some confusion over the meaning of ‘honorable mention,’ and the students whose photos were selected for this category initially thought they had won a prize.  There is no direct translation into Japanese for this idea of ‘honorable mention’ and I would not recommend using this as a category in a Japanese context.


This contest took place during a two-month summer vacation period, a time when the number of users at the Self Access Center drops dramatically. The Keitai Photo Contest encouraged student participants to present personal moments of importance and relevance with photographs and English text. With the ubiquity of cell phone and Internet technology in Japan, it was relatively easy to create a platform for this SAC summer contest that allowed students an opportunity to use English during their summer holiday in a relaxing manner.  Few resources were required and this project is adaptable to teaching and learning contexts across Japan and beyond.

Notes on the contributor

Kirsten Mashinter was most recently an instructor at Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University in Japan. She has worked in Japan, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and the United States as an EFL instructor, materials developer, and teacher trainer. She is currently pursuing coursework in graphics communications at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada.


Gallo, M. L. (2001). Immigrant workers’ journey through a new culture: Exploring the transformative learning possibilities of photography. Studies in the Education of Adults, 33(2). 109-117.

Borau, K., Ullrich, C., Feng, J., & Shen, R. (2009). Microbloggging for language learning: Using Twitter to train communicative and cultural competence. In M. Spaniol, Q. Li, R. Klamma, & R. W. Lau (Eds.), Lecture Notes in Computer Science. ICWL ‘009 Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Advances in Web Based Learning (pp. 78-87). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag. doi: 10.1008/978-3-642-03426-8_10

Educause Learning Initiative. (2009, July). 7 things you should know about…Microblogging. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/eli

Mashinter, K. (2007, October 13). “One day in photographs: Bringing mobile phones into the curriculum.” [Presentation]. TESOL Macedonia Thrace 15th Annual Convention. Thessoloniki, Greece.

Mashinter, K. (2009, March 28). “The lens of Kosovar youth: A multi-modal EFL project.” [Presentation]. 43rd Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit. Denver, Colorado.

Perifanou, M. A. (2009). Language micro-gaming: Fun and informal microblogging activities for language learning. In M. D. Lytras, P. O. de Pablos, E. Damiani, D. Avison, A. Naeve, & D. G. Horner (Eds.), Best Practices for the knowledge Society: Knowledge, Learning, Development and Technology for All. Proceedings of the Second World Summit on the Knowledge Society (pp. 1-14). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-04757-2

Stevens, V., Cozens, P., & Buckingham, J. (2010, April 10). “Thinking SMALL: Realizing ongoing professional development through grassroots social networking in the UAE.” [Presentation]. Abu Dhabi ELT Conference. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Thompson, G. & Atkinson, L. (2010). Integrating self-access into the curriculum: Our experience. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1(1), 47-58.

[1] “Keitai” is the Japanese word for cell phone.

Appendices are provided in the PDF version