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17th May 2013 at 01:00

Mobile learning

Using phones as tools, not distractions

Outside increasingly prevalent app-building lessons, the mobile phone is rarely a tool of any educational value for teachers. It is more often a source of student distraction and a focal point for bad behaviour. But Darts Engineering is hoping to change that.

"Mobile phones and other mobile technologies, such as the tablet computer, will be essential tools for education in the future through the use of augmented reality and near field communication," Andrea Caridi, business development manager at the Italian software technology company, explains.

Augmented reality is a technology that makes inanimate objects appear to come to life when viewed through an app connected to the camera on your mobile device. Early examples included a Kit Kat chocolate bar wrapper that unfurled to become a stage featuring a performance from UK pop band Scouting for Girls (bit.lyKitKatVideo) and a breakfast cereal cardboard box that became a playable computer game. In both, a small visual code on the object was "seen" by the app, causing the virtual content to launch. As you moved the device around that object, the content viewpoint moved, too.

Darts Engineering is working on educational applications for augmented reality technology. Caridi gives an example of a 2D map of Florence that is enhanced by interactive 3D elements (bit.ly3DFlorenceMap). You could create similar applications where a science textbook would "show" the experiment being described, or an event in a history textbook would come to life through a game or interactive timeline.

With near-field communication, rather than pointing the mobile device at an object to view the content, you have to tap the device on a small microchip embedded in the object (the chip is so small that you could embed it within the page of a book). This chip launches content in your mobile device's browser or in an app. Unlike with augmented reality, you are not tied to the object to continue viewing the content.

Near-field communication was put into action earlier this year with a project headed by Darts Engineering at the Wolfsoniana art museum in Genoa, Italy. The company created an interactive tour of the museum, in which each exhibit had a chip that linked to additional information about the artist and their work. At the end of the tour, a further chip launched a quiz testing how much the visitor had learned.

So, augmented reality and near-field communication already have real-world applications. However, neither is likely to be available to teachers in the near future. Although the technology is ready, creating the content to go with it is expensive so there is not much out there. But as demand grows this should change, allowing teachers to turn a classroom irritant into an essential learning tool.

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