The personal touch

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Jack Kenny discovers how Wolverhampton and Espresso are pioneering palmtop video in classrooms

"I see the same look in these kids' eyes as when my mum took me to the public library for the first time. It is the fact that this is a personal device; it is cool; it has tapped right in to the children's culture, like a Game Boy." David Whyley the headteacher ICT consultant for Wolverhampton LEA is in no doubt about the impact of the Toshiba e800 Personal Digital Assistant on pupils.

Judging by the sudden growth of handheld computer projects, portable learning is being taken seriously. There are two main attractions: the access it gives and the low cost. Giving children the kind of access that many working adults have is attractive and necessary, but if conventional IT is used it becomes financially difficult, if not impossible.

"Wolverhampton Learning To Go" is a two-year project looking at personalised learning. It has involved 130 primary pupils, who have been given wireless, web-enabled PDAs. There are plans to extend this to two secondary schools. Later this year the city will have a wireless mesh acoss the whole town, making access easy for accredited PDA users.

The project is exploring a number of things, including: the effect on students' attainment; how the technology can be integrated into all aspects of the curriculum as well as learning beyond the school day; and the financial savings LEAs could make using PDAs rather than more expensive equipment such as PCs and laptops.

The chosen device for the project was the Toshiba e800. This was the only PDA to have a large VGA resolution screen and 128Mb of built-in memory. It also has the Microsoft Pocket PC 2003 operating system.

Espresso Education is a key partner in this project and CEO Lewis Bronze is exploring how Espresso's concept of differentiated learning paths with video-rich activities can be made to run on PDAs. "There are practical issues to work around," says Bronze. "Like most people, we are finding our feet and we are trying to take materials across to the PDA that make the best use of the device. The sheer quality of the video makes it compelling for any child."

The view from the school comes from Gavin Hawkins, ICT co-ordinator at Stow Heath junior school, one of the pilot schools, "We had investigated purchasing laptops for the children and parents to take home, but decided against this, because of the possible dangers associated with children having to carry them to and from school. The PDAs are proving to be the perfect answers."

According to Wolverhampton LEA's David Whyley, the devices are really catching the eye of parents. "They come into school to ask where they can get one for themselves," he explains. "In addition, children report that parents are showing more interest in their work."

He adds: "Essentially, we want to give children the same access to IT that we would expect as adults. The learners need to become absorbed in the technology in the same way that they would with gaming."

Classroom uses have been many and varied. Whyley is eager to point out that the Toshiba PDA works in very much the same way as a PC. He is keen on Microsoft's ebooks. "One teacher found that children were using words that she hadn't seen them use before. She discovered that one of the children had found that if you click on a word in the eBook reader a dictionary was opened and the word was explained. Children can use the sound recorder to practise their reading. In the next stage we will move towards children creating ebooks themselves."

Whyley believes that children see the device as "cool", and describes how it is not unusual to see children in a network room preferring to use their handhelds rather than desktops. "When you ask them why, they will say, 'I have all my favourites in here and I can cut and paste from the browser into Word.'"

The main snag, according to Whyley, is that the hardware seems to change every 18 months and that is not good for schools.

Finally, one boy even bought a wireless router so that he could get on to the internet with his e800 at home. Another boy found that if he pressed the e800 against his bedroom window (he lived just opposite the school) he could get on to the internet that way.


* The potential of learners having total access to ICT over an 18-month period

* Learners not teachers deciding when to access ICT for learning

* The effect of embedding ICT into the curriculum

* Calculating the financial savings to be made by an LEA switching to PDAs

* The effects on students' attainment by access to truly personalised learning

* Bringing the culture of the child's world to school

* How to incorporate the latest gaming and simulation technologies into the learning environment

* Using video-clip learning technology in a portable device ADVANTAGES OF PDAs

* Affordable

* Personalised

* Real connection between home and school

* Explores the culture of the children

* Constant access to school resources, content and games THE HARDWARE

Toshiba e800 PDA, specification: advanced TFT colour display; 128Mb built-in memory; USB client via cradle connection; InfraRed; SD Card slot; headphone (stereo); Touch-screen for stylus; Windows Pocket PC 2003; Pocket Word; Pocket Excel; Pocket Outlook; calculator; Solitaire; MSN Messenger; Wireless projector utility for Pocket PC ; Pocket Internet Explorer; Microsoft Windows Media Player 9.0 for Pocket PC; Microsoft Active Sync 3.7; Microsoft Outlook 2002; Toshiba voice recorder; world clock; Voice Command; Text to Speech for Pocket PC

* October 14-15

Handheld Learning 2005

Goldsmiths University, London

An international group of speakers will present research and findings from pilot projects to demonstrate the potential of handheld learning devices

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