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Genie in your handset

Forget laptops and handhelds, the mobile phone is the magic performer of portable technology and that may be good for teachers, discovers George Cole

It's strange to think that most of us carry in our pockets the sort of computing power that would have required a room full of computers in the 1960s. I am talking about a mobile phone, which eight out of 10 Britons now own.

It's easy to forget that a mobile is a highly sophisticated computer. All handsets contain a processor chip, memory and an operating system (some even use one developed by Microsoft). Many also use plug-in memory cards to expand their storage capacity and have web browsers.

Some mobile phones are portable multimedia computers, with a colour screen and able to handle audio, text, graphics, animation, pictures and even video. Using these mobiles you can play games, listen to music and take (and send) digital photos. Some handsets offer an always-on internet connection for accessing email or websites.

Smart phones blur the line between mobiles and computers even more. For example, Sony Ericsson's P800 can view email attachments and exchange data with a PC. Later this year, Samsung will launch the SGH-1700, a phone that includes Microsoft Pocket Office (with Word, Excel, Outlook, MSN Messenger and Internet Explorer). Nokia's 9210 Communicator even has a Qwerty keyboard and the Orange SPV smart phone uses Microsoft Smartphone software.

(Mind you, a friend's SPV tends to crash occasionally and has to be re-booted. Sorry, re-started.) Many mobiles are designed to connect to a PC and exchange data via a USB connector, infra-red link or Bluetooth wireless technology.

Now companies such as Motorola and NEC have launched handsets designed for the new "third generation" (3G) networks. These 3G phones offer faster data speeds than current phones so you can download larger files (such as video clips) in shorter times; I got hold of a 3G phone and was impressed by the video quality. And more and more phones now feature a built-in digital camera and allow picture messaging, enabling images to be sent to compatible handsets or a special website. The website allows those without a picture messaging phone to log on and view the images.

But enough about the technology. Far more exciting is how the mobile phone technology could be harnessed for education. Professor Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab learning research centre based at Anglia Polytechnic University, thinks teachers shouldn't confiscate mobile phones from their pupils but encourage their use for learning. He says mobiles offer a portability that can't be matched by conventional portable computing devices like laptops, tablet PCs and PDAs. Pupils also find them easy to use - ever watched a teenager enter text in a phone or personalise it with downloaded ring tones and graphics? This is a technology children are familiar and comfortable with and we should look at how it can be exploited in education. Several projects are tackling this.

Ultralab is involved in several educational projects that use mobile phones, including e-Viva, which delivers ICT assessments to ICT students at key stage 3 on a mobile phone. And the M-learning (mobile learning) project is a European-wide initiative aimed at people aged 16-24 who left school with few, if any, qualifications. It uses a variety of materials to help develop literacy and numeracy skills. There is also the DfES-funded Ingenium Project (formerly Classroom of the Future), which is designed to see how new and emerging technologies can be used in the classroom. Picture messaging is one area of interest - for example, pupils could go on a field trip and send back images to those in the classroom.

Heppell also notes that mobile phones are better at handling personal identity on the internet than a PC. If you log on to a website you have to type in your user name and password to identify yourself, but your mobile phone number can represent you.

Of course, there are many issues surrounding the use of this technology in education, not least cost. It currently costs around 50p to take and send a picture on a camera phone (although it costs nothing to take a photo and store it for display on the handset's screen).

Hopefully, the price of services like picture messaging and 3G will become more affordable. We also need to understand how the technology can be organised and managed and what tasks are ideal for mobile phones.

Even so, we should be seriously looking at the role mobiles could play in teaching and learning.

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