A smart way to hold a class in the palm of your hand

20th May 2011 at 01:00
A workshop by the Science Learning Institute in Dundee connected teachers to the possibility of turning a classroom nuisance into a valuable learning tool. Douglas Blane reports

Surely schools can't hold back the tide of technology for much longer? Those little devices pupils aren't allowed to use in class are no longer mobile phones - they are handheld computers, a fantastic learning resource.

But how can a teacher keep learners on task, when they have the whole world in their hands? The solution is to work with technology rather than ban it, Sharon Tonner tells a group of teachers at a twilight CPD session on handheld learning at Dundee Science Centre.

"One problem is that pupils own a wide range of handhelds," says the University of Dundee education lecturer. "So, for now, you need to provide some for pupils whose phones don't have the capability you want."

A combination of iTouch and wireless bubbles works well, comes fairly cheaply and is compatible with any iPhones pupils already have, she says.

So what can you do with all this? By combining handhelds with a technology called Quick Response (QR) codes, she looks at an idea that can be adapted to a range of learning situations.

QR codes are like barcodes, but can encode information such as messages, instructions, images or links to a webpage. These are first translated into a pattern of black and white squares, which are posted wherever the teacher wants them - to be decoded later by learners with smartphones.

"The technology came from Japan and was used first for commercial purposes," says Ms Tonner. "So you might see a poster for a concert, scan the QR code at the bottom with your mobile, and get taken to a website to buy tickets."

When she first saw this technology, she thought immediately of an outdoor learning site she had visited. They had wax dummies standing around, and by each of them you read something and moved on.

"Normally after 20 minutes you'd be bored, but it took us three hours to get round, because they were using technology to keep us engaged," she says.

Participants received instructions on their mobile phones to find their way, using GPS, to locations around the site, she explains. Then they would perform an action and send back a photo of what happened.

Putting that in the context of the Dundee Science Centre, she says: "There are wonderful activities here. But if kids have seen it before, they'll often take a quick look and move on. It's like all that hyper-clicking they do on the internet. So we're going to see how to use handhelds and QR codes to get deeper engagement and learning.

"We're working in a science centre, but you can do it with outdoor learning and even in the classroom. Take just one example - kids point their smartphones at a QR code on the board, and it takes them all, instantly, to a webpage you want them to work on."

For the next hour the teachers, issued with handhelds and working in pairs, follow an interactive path around the science centre devised by Ms Tonner. It's an action-packed hour, with participants wholly engrossed as they visit half a dozen exhibits that test reaction times, tell them about robots or use their brainwaves to move a ball.

Instructions encoded in QR images beside each exhibit tell participants what to do there, how to record results - in smartphone text files, audio or photograph - and which exhibit to seek out next.

"That was really good," says student teacher Pauline Holmes at the end. "And practical too. It will be great in a classroom, once schools start using handhelds and the technology spreads."

The secret is to find the right activities and technology for your class, says Ms Tonner. "I have one student who has taken iPhones into a class in a tough area. Her children are now saying `thank you' to her. They feel she's trusting them. So they are giving her that back.

"She is using the technology as a carrot - and as a great learning tool."

Providing a catalyst

The handheld learning workshop is one of a series run by the Science Learning Institute, a partnership between Dundee Science Centre, the University of Dundee and Dundee College.

As HMIE pointed out in its 2007 report, science centres are well-placed to connect schools and tertiary education.

"We are doing two things," says Hannah Crookes, director of science learning and public engagement at Dundee Science Centre. "Supporting Curriculum for Excellence through teacher CPD, and encouraging public engagement with science through communications training for scientists."

Sessions for teachers include nanoscience resources; science, art and writing; and facilitating science discussions - crucial to getting science to a wider school audience.

"Many sessions are delivered by our learning team," says Ms Crookes. "But we also bring in expertise from Dundee University."

"I've come to a few of these sessions and they've been fabulous," says Marie Rennie, who teaches at Anstruther Primary. "The physics of sound last time was very hands-on, too. You get things to investigate, try and talk about. It's at just the right level."


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