Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Collaboration/Mobile Learning: Just putting you through
Published: 07 September 2005

In Uganda the Uganda Connect truck, with a GSM connection for its "World Link" schools, is sponsored by CelTel who give many free hours of connection time to allow students to surf the web at 9.6 kbps; on the Isle of Mann the Manx Telecom sponsored Computerbus provides a lab of technology linking small rural schools through driver Alex Towsend's 3G phone and laptop; in Finland the LIVE (Learning In Virtual school Environment) project is built on the use of several simultaneous telecommunications systems including mobile phone technology; in China the BBC is using mobile phones to teach English language choosing from three strands to suit learners interests and needs: Language & Lifestyle, Work, or Sport; in the UK the QCA funded E-Viva project uses mobile phones at the heart of a radical look at assessment that including TXT notification and spoken viva by phone.

And all around the world there are many more explorations of the use of mobiles in learning. When the Nortel-sponsored Learning in the New Millennium project way back in the 1990s put mobile phones, for the first time, into the hands of school children, their intial response was that these new devices would be brilliant for learning and yet a combination of unpredictable costs, uncertainty about who else is "online" and a lack of really substantial national projects has still failed to deliver on a large scale what the children could so clearly see in the mid 1990s. But there is change in the air: today, a Google search for m-learning will throw up over half a million references.

Phones leading the charge
Figures are compelling: worldwide, new generation phones are leading the charge to connect to the internet. Globally, 200 million mobile phones were sold in the last quarter of 2004 alone, 23% up on the same quarter in the previous year. Earlier this year the Ipsos-Insight study "The Face Of The Web", based on interviews with 6,544 adults in 12 "key global markets", that included urban India, revealed that 44% of internet users had accessed the internet wirelessly; one in three mobile phone households had accessed the internet through their phones; and one in four had browsed the internet the same way. Latin America already has more wireless internet subscribers than land-based.

The Ipsos-Insight study concluded that: "The mobile phone is the most prevalent global device". They added that "we feel that wireless internet connection via a mobile phone may indeed become the predominant and, perhaps, only point of connection for many in the developing parts of the world".

It is abundantly clear that for many countries, way behind with connectivity infrastructure, with remote and distant rural and outlying communities and with limited computers, often lacking even mains electicity in the classroom, GSM and later 3G mobile phone networks offer plenty of spare capacity and a way to leapfrog 20 years of ICT school investment by the "developed" world.

Power in your hand
New 3G phones are already appearing with dedicated or heavy duty operating systems like Symbian or Linux, with "cross over" applications from the PC like Apple's iTunes or Adobe's Acrobat Reader and with some remarkable video playback and record capability. So, what might a school do today to dip a first toe into the rapidly developing m-learning scene?

One place to start is with feedback from the students. A "pay as you go" phone card in an old phone allows schools to publish a "send us your thoughts" TXT number at no cost (the school receives but doesn't send) and at a stroke gives everyone a voice. Synching sofwtare makes capturing the comments onto a page for staff discussion usually fairly straightforward too. More ambitiously free software like UltraSMS allow that same simple phone, linked to a Linux, MacOS or Unix server to put comments directly into a database like MySQL, allowing fun activities like throwing real time comments onto a large screen.

Phones for learning
The Victoria and Albert Museum's annual hosting of the SEEVEAZ (South East Essex Virtual education Action Zone) digital creativity celebration, with Ultralab, runs a huge "texting" screen and the comments from parents, students and grandparents flow in at about one every 15 seconds throughout the evening. It all helps to start creative teachers thinking about phones as tools for learning. Of course, mobile phones also have the potential to polarise ICT.

On the one hand, schools could simply sit back and worry about safety, m-bullying or "happy slappy" videoing, but on the other hand the same week this May that saw a bullying attack on a pupil, allegedly created for capture by mobile, also rather more encouragingly saw the presentation in a court of a transcript of racial harassment captured successfully by mobile phone.

Similarly, speaking in UNESCO to a conference on in May Nicholas Negroponte ventured that if the delegates thought mobile phones were the answer, then noone had understood the problem, but it was clear from the demeanour of the delegates from all around the world that they were very clear about the problem and saw mobile phones as already being at the heart of their solutions.

As ever, this new technology is what we make of it.

Prof Stephen Heppell is now director of Learn3K the radical new global learning technology research team in Dublin, Ireland

Learn3K is at the National College of Ireland at the heart of Dublin's IFSC

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