Graham Brown-Martin calls for ICT to get personal

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Like many ICT evangelists, in the 1980s I believed that the personal computer would have a profound impact on the learning opportunities for future generations. It was this almost messianic vision that had me dragging computers from one end of the country to the other, converting those who would listen to the new gospel.

It's true that PCs have profoundly changed our daily lives but after 25 years what impact have they really had on learning in schools? With only a few exceptional cases, even the most die-hard digital disciple would have to say, none.

So, where can we point the finger of blame for the non-delivery of a learning revolution, and was such a revolution ever possible?

We could (and some, but certainly not I, do) blame teachers and their fanciful ideas, but the real problems lie in accessibility and the fact that many schools have, at best, a 9:1 child-to-computer ratio. That's if the computers are working, and even then a student might only get access to one for less than 10 per cent of the week. Statistics show that nearly all schools have access to the internet, but what use is that if you only get a 15-minute ration each week?

After spending billions of pounds on educational technology the results, frankly, are inadequate. Furthermore, as operating systems have become bloated, and the threats from viruses have multiplied, our networking has sought to centralise the management of our PCs and the IT department has returned with a vengeance - losing all notion of personal.

As the organiser of an online forum on handheld computing, you might expect me to say that the future is handheld and mobile technology. Well, you'd be right, but I am having second thoughts.

It's fair to say that nearly every 14 to 16-year-old goes to school with a device in their pocket almost as powerful as an original iMac - yes, mobile phones. Many mobiles have powerful cameras, instant messaging, sound recording and the ability to run downloadable software as well as annoying ringtones. And then there are Gameboys and Sony's PSPs (PlayStation Portables). The success of these devices is based on the true notion of "personal". They are personal to the students who own and cherish them. They don't want their parents, or worse, schools, nosing around inside them.

So, if we embrace the technology that students already have, 1:1 ICT access becomes a possibility. But can we embrace this technology without having to control it? Can we allow students to use their devices without deploying big brother-style device management that depersonalises their mobile phones in the same way we depersonalised networked PCs?

That's just one of the themes we will be exploring, with a panel of leading education speakers, at the Handheld Learning 2005 Conference on October 14-15 at Goldsmiths College, London. Graham Brown-Martin is founder and managing director of Handheld Learning.

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