Monday, 16 February 2004

Back and Forth

I think this was probably my first Guardian Column for Richard Doughty's Guardian supplement - the columns went on for half a decade, written as I travelled back and forth around the ICT learning world.

Sometimes the most profound of thoughts strike you in the least likely of places. Speaking to a group of headteachers and ICT leaders in Tasmania's "Axeman's Hall of Fame" (chopping logs is a national sport in Australia, indeed everything is..), I'd shared some wonderfully creative school work from Europe with them and enjoyed hearing in exchange of the freedom that their remarkable Essential Learnings curriculum offered to teachers. At the close, after world champ axeman Dave Foster had hacked his awesome way through a whopping demonstration log, one of the ICT leaders said simply that it would be nice if more creative classroom ideas were swapped around the world, before those who would harness ICT to "deliver" productivity got the upper hand and all our hopes and dreams for learning were lost.

She was right of course; there are some remarkably imaginative teachers and creative children in many schools worldwide; simply exchanging the innovative ways in which they harness ICT should not be beyond the capability of a technology that, for example, exchanged 200 million text messages in the UK on Christmas day alone. Travelling on to New Zealand's Learn @ School conference in steamy Rotorua these peer to peer exchanges of practice dominated the timetabled conference sessions and the bars late into the night; there were even people there from Norway! Seeing one bleary eyed delegate arriving I commented ungallantly that she'd clearly had a pretty hectic previous evening. "We didn't stop talking until 3 am", she ventured, "but I learned so much I'm hoping to do it again tonight".

Arriving back in London for the DfES sponsored BAFTA celebration of students' digital creativity I saw yet another example of this polination of ideas. The confidence with which primary children and undergraduates alike explained their creative processes to the press, to BAFTA members and to officials from both the DfES and DCMS was information and humbling. The way that the youngest were soaking up ideas from the undergraduates who in turn were decently impressed by the school students' work was also genuininely exciting to watch if, like me, you believe in mixed age learning. Their work was challenging in many ways: what should progression look like for youngsters already this far ahead with their use of technology? How can current timetables or assessments encompass this quality of work? Can universities widen their access to embrace many more of these creative students and not just set them essays when they arrive? Tough questions, but at least all round the world some teachers and children are actively debating, long into the night, face to face, the future of learning. I just hope someone is listening...

Since the mid 1990s my lab has been toiling away with projects that use mobile phones in learning, indeed in m-learning. From swapping health advice by cellphone between third world villages for the World Health Organisation back in 1997 to our current rather high profile QCA funded eVIVA blue sky look at assessment, with its phone based viva, it is clear that the cellphone is set to make a substantial contribution to the way that we learn. Already in processing power phones are several magnitudes more powerful than the early computers with which we did so much. Yet back in the late 1970s, we had no sooner got our hands on the new "micro" computers than substantial projects had sprung up all over the world to explore ways to harness their use in learning. But with mobile phones these kinds of projects are still few and far between. One reason may be the real difficulty in actually authoring anything at all to function on a phone. The micros in school revolution was largely built on the backs of a few hero innovators who produced remarkable software with simple tools. Those simple tools do not exist for cellphones, yet it seems blindingly obvious that the first mobile phone operator to provide them for teachers and children will start a revolution of learning technology that will reap rich rewards in their future market share.

Which one will be the first to wake up? Orange are showing the first signs of stirring, but the race has barely begun.

© Stephen Heppell 2004