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Not just childsplay

Through their wireless games, kids are breaking down global barriers. Schools should take note, says Stephen Heppell

Funny how times and vocabulary change. Our grandparents referred to their radio as "the wireless". A couple of generations on, "wireless" sounds quaint to people who proudly proclaim themselves to be "wired". Now we've come full circle and if it isn't wireless then it is a very long way from cool.

Those same grandparents worried about leaving electrical equipment on for long periods and unplugged it at night. But these days lots of equipment is "always on" and, together with an increasingly pervasive wireless environment, is transforming learning in a host of unexpected ways. It wasn't that long ago that the data-line costs of connecting a school to even a neighbouring education establishment was substantial. But although today wireless, free, internet access zones are everywhere, it isn't just the network and the computers that are always on, as you'll see from these four case studies.

In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, solar power provides a school with a wireless computer network and light at night, where there is no mains or wired connection; on the Isle of Man, a 3G wireless computer bus gives rural schools access just by parking outside; in Redbridge, the never-sleeping video cameras use a schools' redundant bandwidth at night to boost security, and so on. With so much in our lives that is always on, so many of the last millennium's restraints seem to crumble. As is often the case with ICT, yesterday's "how can I do it?", becomes today's "what would I like to do?".

Wireless and always on is also increasingly about games and fun. Our school children are moving their game-playing into an exciting new wireless world that offers some interesting potential for learning, too.

We've known for a long time that when children play computer (or mobile) games, their brains run at a terrific pace and with a great level of focus.

What in the 1980s people referred to as "rapid hand-eye co-ordination" turned out, of course, to be built on rapid problem solving too. Hands moved fast because brains did. But, of course, this computer game-playing was treated as harmful and damaging to children. The games consoles were always on. The children were "addicted" and "obsessed", rather than concentrating and focused. Because it was "harmful" it was ignored and the useful strategy of "observe, question, hypothesise, test" that characterised problem-solving in children's game-playing was completely ignored by most of the education system, to the nation's loss and the children's frustration.

Nowadays, children have new technologies in their hands, hearts and rucksacks, and it is not just always on, it's always connected too. This time it is the new technologies of mobile phones, of the PSP (PlayStation Portable) and of the (Nintendo) DS; the power on offer is remarkable. Armed with these increasingly affordable devices, young learners are knocking down national and global barriers in some remarkable ways as they play games around the world. But this creates a sense of expectation that school learning might also be wirelessly pocketable, networked and engaging.

Worldwide, the numbers for games devices in circulation are quite remarkable. More than 180 million Game Boys, 20 million X-Boxes, 90 million PS2s (PlayStation 2s) have been sold and there are even greater sales forecast for new devices. Significantly, the new pocketable consoles like the PSP offer broadband wireless capability far in excess of anything education had even five years ago - and all this with a 10-hour battery life. Suddenly the home is looking a lot cooler than the school. This makes the need for wireless devices in schools urgent. Tablet PCs, small laptops and handhelds all have a part to play in meeting the expectations of learners in a wireless world. But hopefully, this time around, schools won't ignore a revolution in access led by children's ownership rather than by managed service providers.

Of course issues will be raised about inclusion and access, just as they were with encyclopaedias or calculators before, but it will be hard for schools to ignore this much "free", always-on, wireless computing power, won't it?

Professor Stephen Heppell is director of Learn3K, the new global learning technology research team at NCI in Dublin, Ireland

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