Three things we know about learning with computers: they can be used effectively to support collaborative learning, but this collaboration is not necessarily spontaneous; learning depends on effective management and intervention by the teacher; it can be hard to intervene to good effect when learners are using computers if you do not know exactly what they are doing and you cannot easily review what they have done - as you might if they were working through a set of tasks on paper, for example.
The Universidad Cat"lica de Chile has brought together all these elements into an innovative project across a range of subjects in secondary schools and higher education. At the start of a lesson, each learner gets a handheld. On switch-on, everyone is allocated randomly to a group of three.
This takes just minutes to get going, and the pupils are soon working through a set of challenges chosen by the teacher from an existing database, or composed or edited by the teacher to suit the particular class. The key is that the system will only accept an answer to each problem if all three pupils agree on their choice. Trials have shown that three is the best group size for collaboration. They have to reach a consensus that involves some discussion of the possible alternatives. At this point it was interesting that many pupils reached for their text books and notes to inform their argument.
The teacher can view each group's screen, or an overview of the whole class to see the tasks completed and how many attempts were made to get the right answer. Simple colour coding means it's easy to see which groups would benefit from a visit to talk through how they are getting on. Moreover, the dynamics of a small group working around a table with handhelds makes it easy for the teacher to join in. There is also a comprehensive record of who has done what and how they got on for the teacher to use when planning the next lesson.
Learners and teachers have been delighted with the outcomes - highly motivated engagement with the material under study has led to early indications of improved test scores. The system contrasts with the networked computer room. All learners have their own devices and everyone has to make an input. Group work around one desktop computer means that the roles are not equal as one person ultimately has the mouse at any one point. Also the teacher has no idea who is doing what in the group without standing over them. The system is highly portable so that the technology comes to the classroom, not the other way around. It is easy to incorporate the technology into a lesson and keep track of what happens as a result.
The devices being used are off-the-shelf Windows CE handhelds, and the networking makes use of their wi-fi capability. There are no delays as they boot up, and the reliability is very high. Some of the project machines have been in use for 30 months with no failures.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this project is that it began with some of the principles of effective learning with computers and built on them. The result is a practical, reliable and, most of all, effective system that truly supports meaningful learning in a range of contexts. It is one of the most impressive applications of digital technology in the classroom I have seen for a very long time.
* See Zurita and Nussbaum (2004), Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20.
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol