Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

What I won at Handheld Learning Conference 2007

The Handheld Learning Conference attracts mostly UK educators interested and funded to pilot, develop and assess formal learning using mobile devices. The conference attracts the gadget freaks and sales staff from companies selling the ever newer, smaller, more functional and often cheaper tools and toys. Probably 50% of the attendees come from K12 school system, which was somewhat of a surprise, given the very scant attention to mobile devices by k12 teachers in Canada- well accept to insure that personally owned devices (cell phones and smart phones) are not used by students while “in class”.

I left the conference with a sense of how useful these devices can be for organizing and documenting one’s personal learning. For example hearing of case studies where PDA’ s were used to photograph physical educational activities, gather data from field trips, find data from Net resources and most importantly combine personal learning and interests with formal education. Examples of the heightened integration of home and school by ‘at risk’ students being able to share (with excitement) what is happening at school via these devices, was very impressive. These tools have a place in schools most notably to prepare learners for lifelong learning. It seems almost a no brainer to assume that all of us will continue to use ever more powerful mobile learning tools.

I was also impressed with the various services provided commercially or developed at universities to support mobile learning in schools. There were a number of companies who provided ‘full service support” including school based wi-fi installation and support, hardware devices, authoring platforms for teachers to develop mobile learning activities and canned modules of pre developed content. There were at least three mobile learning authoring tools demonstrated, that have ingenious approaches to creating content, and assessment exercises that operate on produce interactive content for many different screen sizes – from cell phones to laptops. I also noted a number of sort of hybrid PDA/Laptop tools that seem very rugged, have mid sized screens and seem to be a much more cost and support effective solutions for deployment in support and money challenged schools, than full sized notebook computers.

Speaking of gadgets, I had my first opportunity to play with a number of tools that were new to me. First was the OLPC ‘hundred dollar computer”. Of course in true OLPC spirit, we had no instructions or personal guide and so had to figure out ourselves how to operate the machine. It is amazing how much 3 PhDs can confuse themselves when all trying to learn about and run a single (simple???) machine but we had success and fun learning! It was also interesting to see the OLPC entry in the list of mobile connections that I could see on my laptop – demonstrating the mesh linking capability of every machine. I also had my first look at both the Apple IPhone and IPod Touch devices. Both are, of course, VERY cool. The way the Touch allows one to expand portions of a small screen using ones fingers alone demonstrates that there is a future for web browsing on very small and portable screens. Unfortunately, Apple has locked this device to applications not made by Apple- when will they learn?? But I read that the Touch has already been hacked (or broken out of its proprietary jail) to support external applications.

I end this post with a brief description of the personal legacy of the conference. Many of commercial presenters donated products that were raffled among those who completed the end of conference participant survey. And wonder of wonders, I won a Nokia N800 Internet tablet – thank you Nokia! The device competes with the IPod Touch, in that they both allow net browsing, net telephone (Skype on the N800), audio and video tune streaming and stored playback, camera and notebook tools. Unlike the Touch, the Nokia uses an open Unix operating system and allows third party applications. The result of this win, meant that I couldn’t get my nose out of the N800 for the past 4 days -even though I spent the weekend in one of my favorite cities in the world – Amsterdam.

The most pervasive problem with these tools is that they are designed for a world of network ubiquity. I found that there always seemed to be WiFi hotspots in most places in London, a few open and free for use, but a larger number from telcos that one can subscribe to on an hourly, daily or long term basis. In Holland the same mix of locked and unlocked providers were apparent, but there seems an absence of commercial suppliers. The N800 allows for cell phone modem connection that would have provided connectivity (at I assume significant cost) but I have yet to test that capacity. In talking to Dutch colleagues about this problem, one noted how WiFi was kind of old fashioned and that they used cell phone connectivity GPSR or network connectivity. Sigh, if only such services were not subject to the extortive profit mentality of Canadian cell phone network operators.

Beyond small screens, data entry is always a challenge with mobile devices. The N800 provides a stylus (and yes I’ve already lost two of them!!) to select keys from a screen that appears (and takes up 1/3 of the screen) whenever a data entry box is opened. The data input can also be done using hand printing (not cursive) input. One can teach this system how to recognize individual letters and it does support ‘smart’ extensions of words begun, but like all such systems, an investment of learning time is required. Judging from my failure as yet to master touch typing, I don’t think there is much hope for my learning to use such systems on a regular basis.

In any case, the N800 is a fun tool, easily accesses Skype, browsing and email (when in a wifi zone) and will likely be in my pocket for some time – once I figure out a few more tricks and see if they sell longer life batteries!

Nokia N800

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