Dial 'M' for learning

18th February 2005 at 00:00
That mobile glued to a youngster's ear can train him as easily as it entertains him. Janet Murray reports.

Fifteen years ago, mobile technology was the preserve of yuppies and businessmen. Parading around with brick-like gadgets attached to their ears and filofaxes in their pockets, they obviously thought they'd made it.

Walk down any high street today and the picture is very different. Every other person seems to have a phone pressed to their ear, and if they are not talking on it, they are texting or "gaming".

The mobile phone transcends boundaries of education, class and status. The vast majority of young people are up to speed with the ever-developing - and increasingly complex - technologies involved.

Recognition of this prompted the development of the M-learning project, a pound;3.1 million, three-year, pan-European research and development programme, which aimed to use mobile phones to teach youngsters not interested in traditional training.

The programme, supported by the European Commission's information society technologies (IST) programme, ran between October 2001 and September 2004 and was co-ordinated by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA).

Universities and commercial companies in Britain, Italy and Sweden joined in.

"We want to help young adults who lack basic skills or who are not keen on education," says Jill Attewell, manager of the technology-enhanced learning research centre at the LSDA. "Most young people are walking around with what is essentially a small computer in their pocket, so we thought 'why not capitalise on that?'"

Research in the early days focused on the educational posibilities of present and future mobile devices, including mobile phones and pocket PCs.

It also looked at the preferences and behaviour of young adults using mobile phones and handheld electronic games and explored the possible health hazards associated with using mobile phones.

A survey in 2002 was encouraging: more than half of the 746 young adults questioned expressed interest in using a learning game on their mobile phone to improve reading, spelling or maths.

"It was a double-edged approach," explains Geoff Stead, software director at Cambridge Training and Development, one of the commercial partners in the project. "We were exploring exciting technologies, but at the same time addressing low skills. The question was whether these trendy, mod-ern technologies could be used to engage students who were dropping out of learning."

Materials had to be short, sharp and bright to grab the learners'

attention. They also needed to be relevant to their lifestyle, so topics include driving, travelling, health and fitness, lifestyle and number and word skills. Delivery was by mobile phones and personal digital assistants.

Most popular with learners were the quiz-style questions on the driving theory test, short maths quizzes and a language package whereby foreign language learners call a phone number that sim-ulates various dialogues and gives feedback on understanding and pronunciation.

The learning materials were tested on around 300 learners. In the UK, 14 organisations were involved, all of whom had relationships with young adults at risk of social exclusion, including the homeless unemployed and under-employed.

Jo Dixon-Trifonov teaches English for speakers of other languages at City college Southampton and is also part-time learning resource developer at Cambridge Training and Development. She says: "Many of my students are asylum seekers or refugees and are in temporary accommodation and rely heavily on mobile phones, but often in quite a limited way."

One of her most successful activities was producing a live photo diary - a mob-log - of the college open day, with students working as re-porters.

"This followed several weeks of learning to use camera phones and learning about the style and structure of photo captions by looking at ex-amples on news websites," she recalls.

With the help of Cambridge Training and Development's mediaBoard website, she has been able to develop this further. Pictures sent from phones and personal digital assistants can be sent to the website and organised on different marked locations on a map or image, meaning pictures of learners can be placed on different parts of a world map along with text about the countries they come from.

Although data is still being collected and analysed, it looks as if the scheme is an effective tool. "One of the most striking results was seeing how learners responded to being trusted with what seemed an expensive, trendy gadget," says Mr Stead. "Many mentors and tutors said this was a noticeable boost to learners' confidence. Some went away and taught what they learned to their fam-ilies, which was another self-esteem raiser.

"Others came back to ask about IT courses, which is a great example of how the project fuelled interest in learning.

"When we first started out, M-learning was viewed as this wacky, off-the-wall idea. Nowadays, it's attracting a lot of interest and the potential for growth is amazing."

M-learning project www.m-learning.org

Cambridge Training and Development www.ctad.co.uk

Learning Skills and Development Agency www.lsda.org.uk

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