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The future of education is in hand

Graham Brown-Martin believes the time is right for handheld computers to have a huge impact on teaching and learning

Timing is everything. Sometimes a great idea or even a great technology can flounder because the conditions aren't right. I've long felt that about handheld computers. Around 20 years ago, I developed a portable computer we dubbed "Satchel". The concept was that students could use Satchel to access vast amounts of information held on giant CD-Rom jukeboxes via a radio link. In those days, the smallest LCD screen I could get was nine inches, so Satchel was not that portable. And back then, there was no internet, no Google and no wireless networking.

Today, products like Satchel are a reality. A device that fits in your pocket can have a high-quality colour screen, take digital images, play music, store loads of text and is more powerful than a desktop computer of less than five years ago. The idea of a portable device for accessing and storing information isn't new - computer scientist Alan Kay talked about a "Dyna Book" long before I developed Satchel - but despite the availability of products now offering such functionality, handheld computers have a low profile in schools.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that handheld computers have often been seen as devices for business users, which is why I dislike the term PDA (personal digital assistant), because it conjures up images of people using handheld computers as electronic organisers, when it is now possible to deliver rich, interactive media experiences in the palm of your hand. But our company's mission is to transform these business machines into powerful tools for learning through the development of software and integration into existing ICT frameworks.

Another reason is that we are still stuck in old ways of thinking when it comes to computers and education. When computers first started going into schools, we thought there would be computer rooms, in the same way that there were language labs, where students would go to learn about computers.

But today, we know that ICT is a cross-curricular experience. However, we still haven't changed our perception of the desktop computer being at the centre of most, if not all, of our teaching and learning. But even the best-equipped schools will struggle to give all of its students unfettered access to ICT. If you talk to teachers and pupils, they will tell you that the issue isn't about numbers of computers; it's about access. Handheld computers can provide this high degree of access.

It's true that there have been steps to widen access by introducing portable forms of computing, like laptops and Tablet PCs, but how realistic is it to imagine that eight million students are going to have their own laptop? Laptops are heavy, their batteries run out after three hours and you still have to wait ages for them to boot-up.

For the past 20 years, we've been attached to the desktop metaphor and the graphical interface; now it's time to embrace the mobile interface. We're working with Nesta Futurelab to develop so-called Tangible User Interfaces (TUI), which give physical forms to data. Unlike ordinary computers, which use a keyboard and mouse (Graphical User Interface - GUI) to move data around, TUIs use more familiar everyday objects - such as children's toys or models - to do the same thing. The PC is becoming more like a hub, which stores and sorts vast amounts of resources and data. We are increasingly using portable devices like digital cameras and digital music players, which take things from our PCs for use elsewhere or which gather resources that are put on to our computer.

With a handheld computer, a student can gather notes, take photographs, record their own voice, upload and download information, access the internet and more. That's a powerful learning tool. A handheld computer also provides us with a greater opportunity to close the digital divide, because of its lower cost. Today, you can get a decent handheld computer for around pound;150, but imagine how much lower it would be if millions of pupils were using them. I would be the first to admit there are issues surrounding the use of handheld computers - who pays for them, how it affects classroom pedagogy when every child can access numerous experts around the world from their own personal device, and how we need to improve the appearance of text and websites on tiny screens. But many of the issues are technological and could be solved.

The good news is that there is some interesting work going on in the use of handheld computers in education, for instance in Dudley (see page 28). My company has been working with the Technology Education Research Unit (TERU) at Goldsmiths College and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) on the use of handheld computers in assessing Design and Technology. DT students have created digital portfolios using handheld computers to take digital photographs, record voice annotations and make notes. We are only scratching the surface of the enormous potential of devices that can literally put the world in the palm of your hand.

Graham Brown-Martin, founder and managing director of Handheld Learning, was talking to George Cole. He will be at the Handheld Learning Symposium in October at Goldsmiths College. See news story opposite for more information

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