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Try handhelds for equal access

I was struck by a recent article in a weekend supplement about socialism in Scandinavia. Apparently, if you pick a child at random in a classroom in Norway, you can't tell the social or economic status of the child's family from the state of the child's teeth. All children have equal access to a good diet and dental care, and so have equally good teeth. I doubt that this is the case in the UK. Here, family socio-economic status remains an all too powerful predictor of life chances including educational success.

As access to technology becomes an ever more important component of access to knowledge and skills, those with restricted incomes are ever more disadvantaged.

We know that most school-age children can get their hands on a computer in and out of school, but the nature and quality of that access is very varied. In particular, those children with help in the home to make effective use of ICT in support of their own learning tend to get more value from the experience. Supporting low-cost access to hardware and services is an important first step, but how do you tackle the trickier problem of supporting families who want to help their children, but don't have the skills or knowledge to do so?

Unless you have been living on Mars for the past year, you must have noticed a rash of projects around the country exploring the potential of handheld devices in education. Many and varied though these projects are in their scope and intent, one objective that they often share is linked to the mobility offered by these devices. Because learners can take them home, they offer a mechanism for taking learning into the family context.

Physical access may be the first step, but something more is needed to have real impact. Some schools have seen real success through activities designed specifically to involve a family member in working with the learner at home. However, without these, the effects of simply having the device are a bit hit and miss.

Another common issue that projects face is security for children carrying devices to and from school, especially in areas where street crime is a problem. A small device that can be carried in a pocket or normal bag is a much better bet than an all-too-obvious laptop, but safety is still an issue. In Wolverhampton, the local authority has been working closely with the local police to provide advice for children and parents in the form of a short video. The beauty of this is that it can be distributed without cost to all families on the handheld device itself. Furthermore, having now seen the potential, there is interest in providing other safety information to families in this format.

Clearly, this is a medium that needs to be used with thought and care.

Inundating the family with video clips on health and safety will be self-defeating. However, video and animation from a range of sources, including those made by the learners themselves, offer a powerful way to communicate between home and school. It is a long way from ensuring all children have healthy teeth, but personal devices offer another powerful tool that can open up that all-important two-way communication between home and school.

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

* Handheld Learning 2006 conference will be held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London on October 12-13

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