Sunday, 2 September 2007

Power to the people's pockets

As we approached the 2007 London Games Festival the Guardian had a bit of a handheld theme running - which led me down a bit of a nostalgia pathway...

I was rummaging through the attic this summer, and under the piles of ageing technology (a BBC B, a Binatone Pong, a HyperCard manual, some lineflow paper) I found my first mobile phone. I put a picture on my phone blog but also took a moment to measure it. It stands 23cm tall, without the aerial, and weighs in at over 5kg. It was whopping. My current phone, with its gigabyte of storage, useful browser and decent camera is 8cms long and only 7mm thick. It weighs 70gms and does quite a lot more than that first big one! There is something powerfully seductive about tiny hand-held technology which is "yours" in a way that a desktop computer rarely is. But if technology has progressed in leaps and bounds it is not entirely clear that policy has.

Of course, back in the last century, schools teachers and students would have to wait for some central policy directive to guide them: a 'strategy' document, a White Paper, a ministerial speech, an inspection framework. Past guidance included the "correct" number of keys on a computer keyboard! With mobile phones, they waited for a decade or so for policy to notice handheld technology, whilst a whole generation of children missed out. But the wait is over; schools have decided that anyway, in the 21st century, they should simply get on with it and leave strategy, policy and speeches struggling (and failing) to keep up. As a result schools all over the place are embracing hand-held and pocketable technology and doing some very cool and creditable things with it.

Recently I was up in Scotland again enjoying a wide range of visits, with Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) colleagues, to their front running institutions, and they have many. In Dundee I came across Derek Robertson at LTS' regional offices with his Consolarium which is, in essence, a little research lab dedicated to the use of portable and games technology in learning. Every school should have one! The children who pass through it are the co-researchers, of course. Like others Derek talks about using Dr. Kawashima Brain Training with some of his research projects and he takes care to properly research the outcomes with learners. He has absolutely no doubt about the magnitude of what he describes as incredible gains in terms of pupil engagement and motivation. I've commented before on how exciting it is to see a generation hooked on the mind-stretching challenges of Nintendo's Big Brain Academy, but Derek thought he would trial a daily first-thing-in-the-morning workout for the children's brains using just that. It is no surprise to readers of this column that performances got better in some key areas of the curriculum, but also that new orders of merit emerged as unexpected performances showed new and unrecognised potential. Being Brainy became cool too and it has been quite a while since schools students regarded anything related to school technology as cool. It a curious thing in education that when we have absolute certainty about what is demonstrably effective, policy still fails to embrace that proven practice for years and sometimes never does. I swapped a couple of emails with Estelle Morris about this and we are both bemused by the sheer inertia of the system. But schools don't care any more. They are swapping ideas, practice, research, results and more.

And of course the technology continues to move on a pace. Apple's recent wireless iPod Touch with its tactile browser is indicative of just where pocketable, cool technology might be going.

And tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, it just gets better and better. Wouldn't you love to be at school again but this time with the world, quite literally, in your pocket?

© Professor Stephen Heppell 2007