Handheld devices have the power to turn our whole world into a learning environment, says Keri Facer
The bug munched quietly and unsuspectingly on the leaf, bright green shell glinting in the fresh sunlight, oblivious to the damage he was doing to the struggling sunflower trying to claim its place in the world. Watching him, my six-year-old nephew wondered aloud what sort of bug it was and whether we should protect it, before spying another victim in our early morning slug hunt and running towards it with a large pair of scissors.
These are just two of the everyday questions prompted by the world around us and the problems we face: to kill the bug or protect it? What sort of bug is it anyway? Learning is always "anytime, anyplace", incidental and integral to our daily lives. The development of handheld technologies offers the potential to enhance this learning. It means, for example, that we could instantly find out more about the bugs, collect data about them, call on the advice of experts, understand the effectiveness of our different pest reduction strategies, and pool this information with other bug hunters around the country. All of which might be overkill for the issue of just the one bug, but you get the picture.
In theory, handheld devices can break down the walls of the classroom, put powerful technologies into children's hands, and overcome the divide between learning about something and actually doing it. They offer huge potential for changing our approaches to learning that are, as yet, untapped except in experimental projects. To date, many of the applications of these devices in education in the UK have been relatively conventional - they've been introduced as administrative tools for teachers, they've been seen as a way of extending formal schooling practices into the home by widening access to literacy and numeracy software, and overcoming the problem of the digital divide.
Studies of these initiatives over the past few years have emphasised that their success is dependent upon: teacher training; very robust equipment; the availability of software as well as hardware; technical support; and a theory of teaching and learning to support the introduction of the technology. So far, so predictable. All of these issues, with careful planning and purchasing decisions, can be overcome and enable us to use handheld technologies for existing educational goals.
More interesting at the moment, however, are a number of experimental projects using handheld technologies to develop new approaches to teaching and learning which see learning as essentially situated in the real world.
In these projects, handhelds are being used to seamlessly integrate real experience with reflection and learning.
Schoolchildren at the Warren School, for example, can now wander round the Dulwich Picture Gallery with their handheld computers and access information and interactive resources to interrogate the images in more detail. A pilot project with the Creekside Education Centre in Deptford allows children to explore the local environment with their handheld devices, accessing information about the buildings and creek, while also recording their own impressions and stories through sound, video, text and image. They can also leave these stories "digitally" in specific locations so that other children are able to explore them when they move through that space.
Handheld devices are also being appropriated as tools for learning through gaming. The "Environmental Detectives" game, for example, encourages students to work in a real world outdoor environment detecting virtual chemical hazards through their handhelds. The Savannah game overlays a virtual Savannah on to a school playing field in which children, "sensing" the virtual Savannah through images and sounds on their handhelds, have to survive "as lions". The Mobile Bristol toolkit allows users to create, using handhelds, their own digital soundscapes (historical, musical, geographical) for the world around them.
Just as we no longer think of communication as dependent upon being in a fixed place with a telephone line, so too will we soon see information (sound, text, video) as something we can create and conjure up wherever we might be. The implications for education of this digital landscape are profound - we'll no longer need to separate learning from doing, but instead create a seamless learning environment that flows through and beyond our schools to create classrooms of our cities, workplaces, streets and gardens. And when we do, we'll need to be ready to take on the practical challenges that will still exist - training, robust hardware, software and a need for an underpinning theory of teaching and learning.
Keri Facer is director of learning research at NESTA Futurelab
* Warren School and Dulwich Picture Gallery InterActive Tour
* Learning In Hand
US website with a range of ideas for practical classroom uses of handhelds and software suggestions.
* Mudlarking in Deptford
* Ambient Wood
An experimental project in which pairs of children equipped with a PDA explore a woodland.
A complete context aware software system for visitors to outdoor tourist sites and educational centres.
* Mobile Bristol
Tool for creating digital tours.
* NESTA Futurelab's review of the principles and practice of using a wide range of mobile technologies for learning.
* BECTA's review of handheld pilot projects in UK schools.
* Report on Learning and Teaching Scotland's pilot projects on PDA use in schools.
www.ltscotland.org.uk ictineducationictsmadpdas index.asp
* Environmental Detectives
* A series of effective projects using handhelds in Chilean education.
* The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan
Addresses major needs of schools today.