Ground control to escape pod

Pretending to be on a space station boosted the literacy skills of children working on a project with mobile phones. Pete Roythorne reports

The year is 30572. The space station Nerva has ceased transmitting. Three members of the crew are in an escape pod, one is missing. Alpha 9 has requested an investigation and that the mainframe computer, 0M2, be placed back online. Alpha 9 is sending mission data - the communication device has been issued. 0M2 is requesting data... "Our mission was to work our way through the levels of the space station to the top where OM2 is based, from there a back-up team would take over the running of the space station," explains chief-engineer Scarface Fang (aka 11-year-old Lewis), as he guides me through a PowerPoint presentation sent out at the beginning of the Nerva project.

"Alpha 9 advises you proceed with caution," he reads. "Weapons are not available on this mission as both the base and the computer must be returned to fully operational status with no collateral damage. The usual communications device is available."

The usual communications device in this case is a mobile phone.

"We were very excited when we heard we were getting the phones," explains Kankui (or nine-year-old Elfeen to you and me) as she reads from a PowerPoint presentation she has done on the project. And the others were just as excited, Doktor B (10-year-old Beattie) and Max (eight-year-old Taylor) are also with me, eagerly showing me their diaries with their poems, drawings, stories and character descriptions as well as their mobile phones with pictures of their meeting with Professor Laskay (an eight-foot tall half man, half robot).

In case you were thinking I'm reporting from a sci-fi convention, I'm not, I'm at a small primary school in the village of Matching Green, about five miles outside Harlow, Essex. In conjunction with the Essex local authority, the school is running a mobile phone-based project aimed at increasing literacy across key stage 2.

The project was devised by Anna Suggett and Jonathan Sly, from Essex County Council's ICT advisory team. "Our aim was three-fold," says Anna, team leader and curriculum development adviser (ICT), "to investigate the potential for using mobile phone technology in the KS2 classroom; to engage children in a multi-modal ICT project; and to raise standards.

"Communication is integral to both literacy and ICT so we saw them as the perfect partners for this project. We hoped that mobile technology would enhance many aspects of the two subjects and that the use of these devices would appeal to the majority of pupils with the opportunity to raise the interest of boys, particularly in creative literacy, an area where there is a cause for concern."

Anna and her team liaised with Essex's literacy team throughout the project's creation, indeed the initial concept for the space station came from them. The idea was that various members of the Nerva crew and the computer itself, OM2, would communicate with the children via text message, and Nerva would only recognise correctly spelt and punctuated text messages back again.

Members of the staff, Anna and Jonathan all adopted the various roles, and puzzles and challenges were sent via texts to be solved and texted back to Nerva before the children could gain access to the next level of the space station - there were seven levels in total including the entry at the docking bay. Challenges were differentiated according to pupils' abilities to ensure that the class progressed at the same rate and the children were encouraged to collaborate on answers.

Anna says: "Their first task was to create their own character. Time was spent developing those characters and then they had to condense their description into a 160-character text message, including their name, age, height, weight and job. To do this they would do exercises such as looking at the most important adjectives in a phrase."

Other literary tasks included creating a haiku describing a space disease they all had to be scanned for and coming up with a description of one of the alien characters "Charlie". The children also kept log books alongside their text messages so they were able to keep more detailed records of the project.

On top of these challenges they were set word problems, number problems and anagrams. But they were also sent questions relating to things that would arise during the course of their daily lessons.

The mobile phones were supplied by Essex in conjunction with network provider T-Mobile. A mobile was given to each of the pupils and one for each teacher and there was a PDA for sending texts. Anna and Jonathan also had a PDA at the LEA. "The PDAs enabled us to send blanket texts to the group with a series of standard replies, questions or instructions," says Anna.

Headteacher Hugh Godfrey says: "Initially, there was some concern from parents about the use of mobile phones, so the first phase of this project was run in a very confined group. However, they have now seen the power of the technology and are keen to see the project extended."

During the Nerva project the children were only able to correspond within a locked group: the ICT team; their teachers; and others in their class.

However, plans are now afoot to extend the children's access by introducing smart phones with email and multimedia message capabilities.

It's no wonder the parents are keen to see the project extended when you see the results. "We measured the children's creativity against the level descriptors for KS2 both before and after the project," says Hugh. "In almost every case, the children showed a two-thirds of a level improvement."

What's amazing about this is the fact that the project lasted just six weeks. Hugh says: "We'd normally expect to see that sort of improvement over the course of a full academic year. That demonstrated to us the power of engagement with this sort of technology. The system benefits everyone."

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At the beginning of the Nerva project, chargers and phones were distributed and the children discussed the socially acceptable use of mobile phones. Rules were formalised through PowerPoint presentations and pupils entered the emergency numbers that had been agreed with home and school; these were checked by a member of staff. Pupils were taught how to receive and send basic text messages, although 90 per cent of the class were already extremely familiar with this.

Finally, basic tasks were set. With all pupils familiar with the phone, the Nerva project was launched.

As the project progressed, the children were given time each day to check their text messages. Later on, they were allowed to take their phones home on two days. Individual billing meant they could see who had been texting who and when. The phones were set with a call limit of pound;10 a month.

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