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Can the much maligned mobile phone be turned into a teaching tool? Martin Whittaker reports

IS THE mobile phone a modern curse to be banned from the classroom? Or can it ring the changes in the way young people learn?

While some teachers may deride it as a troublesome fad, at Thomas Danby College in Leeds they are exploring whether text-messaging can be turned into a serious learning tool.

The initiative began with some lecturers texting students who failed to turn up for classes. Lilian Kennedy, the college's information and learning technology co-ordinator, decided to try to take this a step further.

"I wanted to look at how it could be used for informal learning - also at how we might be able to use it in formative assessment," she said.

In a six-week trial, she tested this on groups of 17-year-olds studying NVQ level 2 in social care. A learning game was devised and sent to their mobile phones, including multiple choice questions to which they could text-message back the answer. There was the added incentive of vouchers to spend in the high street for those gaining most points.

There were teething troubles. Some students failed to get the messages while others did not have enough credit on their phones to reply. But the project succeeded in engaging the students, said Lilian Kennedy.

"Everybody's into this bite-size idea - something like this helps maintain students' interest all the way through. And for disaffected learners it opens up a communication medium.

"Students like the fact that their tutors are engaging at their level. It's a sign of some acceptance of having a mobile phone - until now most people have been fighting to get it banned from the classroom."

Thomas Danby College is part of a "mobile learning" movement, which is exploring whether the fast-growing technology of mobile phones and palmtop computers could revolutionise learning.

A nationwide survey last year found that in the UK, 90 per cent of people aged 15-19 owned a mobile phone. Among 20 to 24-year-olds the figure is 81 per cent. Recently delegates from 13 countries gathered for a conference on mobile learning in London, organised by the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

New ideas showcased from the UK included schemes to encourage disaffected young people to use learning games on mobile phones, using text-messaging to motivate students and make revision fun, and even learning a foreign language through mobiles.

The conference also raised some uncomfortable questions, such as whether increasing use of mobile phones turns people into poor spellers.

The Learning and Skills Development Agency is currently running a three-year project backed by the European Commission to investigate the feasibility of mobile learning. It has been piloting learning materials for mobile phones and palmtop computers with small groups of young people. This autumn it takes part in a bigger study among learners in the UK, Sweden and Italy.

"It's a lot to do with reaching out to people where they are," says Jill Attewell, the programme's co-ordinator. "We are very keen on reaching out to disaffected young adults, and those with literacy and numeracy problems."

But isn't this simply catching on to the coat tails of a passing craze? Jill Attewell said the project's research indicates otherwise.

Almost half of 746 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed last year expressed an interest in using a learning game on their mobile phone to improve reading, spelling or maths. The greatest interest in using mobile phones for improving skills was from girls aged 16 to 19 and young adults educated to levels 2 and 3.

But those surveyed stressed that learning games had to be appealing, relevant and fun. At Dewsbury College in West Yorkshire, ILT development manager David Sugden found text-messaging has come into its own while teaching catering to students with learning difficulties. The college is now exploring the possibility of learning via mobiles and hand-held computers. "What it did for me and what continues to enthuse me is the response we get from the students," he says. "Some of these kids have great difficulty communicating.

"Texting is something they can do. It helps them realise that they can still communicate with an adult in a way with which they are familiar."

In another project, 40 disaffected young people borrowed hand-held computers to try out learning games specially designed for using on the move. All the computers came back intact, and the youngsters taking part liked the fact that they were entrusted with them.

"We found huge enthusiasm," said one of the project's partners, Geoff Stead, of Cambridge Training and Development Ltd, which produces literacy and numeracy materials.

"But it's hard to tell whether that's just because of the gadgets. We learned that they are only interested in short dipping in and out of materials, so we have to write different kinds of educational materials - it has to be a short, sharp dose.

"And being young people, they don't want some wishy-washy, good-for-you learning-type scenario. They want something that slays a beast, or a game where you die if you get the sums wrong."

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