Is it time to get personal? The technology about to transform classroom learning

They look like BlackBerrys – and they're about to transform classroom learning forever. Amy McLellan reports
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The Independent Online

Technology never stands still. No sooner have schools got to grips with the interactive whiteboard than the latest gizmo is advancing on classrooms, this time in the form of handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs). There are a number of these small portable devices demonstrating varying degrees of sophistication: the latest versions come with inbuilt digital camera, video recorder, Wi-Fi access and satellite navigation.

Yet, according to Phillip Collie of online educational resource Schoolzone.co.uk, schools have been slow to appreciate the potential of the new technology. "In terms of uptake, it's very early days yet," says Collie, who believes it will be another five years before PDAs are adopted wholesale by schools. "It's a question of technology restrictions, pedagogical issues and cost."

Many primary schools don't have the technical knowledge, wireless capability or financial resources to introduce PDAs into the classroom. And, from the teacher's standpoint, it's yet another set of skills and lesson plans that need to be squeezed into a busy day – just as they've finally got their heads around interactive whiteboards.

"Interactive whiteboards are all about whole-class teaching, whereas PDAs are more about getting children to work on their own," says Collie. "It's a very different approach."

Until recently, the technology was less than persuasive. The Wren's Nest Primary School in Dudley was among the early adopters of PDAs, but ditched them two years ago.

"We found the machines were not robust enough and didn't have the software we needed," says head teacher Ruth Wylie. This hasn't dented the school's enthusiasm for personalised ICT, however, with pupils now being equipped with the RM Asus miniBook, a small laptop that weighs less than many textbooks and, at around £160 for the basic model, is much cheaper than many of the PDAs, which can cost around £400 each.

Yet a laptop doesn't have the same functionality and flexibility of a handheld device. PDAs can be discreetly slipped into the pocket or school bag while travelling to and from school, can be used to take pictures and video recordings and beam work from one device to another. The newer models are served by an increasingly sophisticated range of software.

"With some of the early devices, it was about taking business tools and trying to shoe-horn them into an education setting," says Adrian Hall, director of Steljes, a mobile learning and technology company. "Now that things have moved on and there are more tools and applications available, people are starting to identify the strengths of these small devices."

And nowhere have those strengths been identified and exploited more successfully than in Wolverhampton, home of the Learning2Go initiative (www.learn ing2go.org), which has won international acclaim for its pioneering use of PDAs in the classroom.

"We're giving the children access to the same sort of technology that is now commonplace in business, be it the office worker with their Blackberry or the worker in Tesco using a handheld device to check stock," says Dave Whyley of Wolverhampton's e-services department, a former head teacher who has been at the forefront of Learning2Go since its inception in 2001.

The project started small, with the devices initially handed out to senior staff members for management purposes. But Whyley and his colleagues quickly saw that the pupils would be better placed to make use of the technology. "And sure enough," he says, "they soon dreamed up lots of ways to use it that we had not even thought of. The children are definitely co-partners in this initiative."

The success of this pilot led to Phase 1 of what was to become Learning2Go, with 100 PDAs distributed to two primary schools and one secondary in 2004. The results led to an extension of the programme in 2005, this time involving 1,000 devices in 18 schools. There are now about 2,500 PDAs in schools across Wolverhampton, of which 1,000 are in the hands of primary children.

It hasn't been easy to reach this point. The Learning2Go team has had to push through the development of appropriate software and applications in order to deliver the right kind of educational benefits, working, for example, with Oxford University Press to convert some of its texts into e-books. They have also worked on the development of the hardware, collaborating on the development of an "EDA", or educational digital assistant, which was launched in 2006 by Fujitsu, and are now working with O2 to provide 3G broadband.

The technological advances have opened all kinds of educational opportunities. Using GPS and navigation software Memory Map, teachers can lay a multimedia trail to spice up field trips while WildKnowledge provides an interactive way to identify and record any wildlife encountered while out and about. The digital work created is inventive and inspiring, with children creating animations, mind maps, podcasts and PowerPoint presentations.

It's cutting-edge and fun but it also appears to deliver real educational benefits. "The harbingers of doom said if we gave the children these devices they would just play with them, but we always felt they would have a positive impact and were very pleased to see that borne out," says Whyley. "The children use their own time to find out more about their subjects, we can't feed them enough stuff."

There have been improvements in attendance, maths, reading, English and science and those children switched off from learning are now motivated and engaged. "Boys who would never open up a paperback will happily read an e-book," he says.

The children are proud of their work and take it home to show their parents, opening up new channels of parental involvement. And teachers have also embraced the technology, although Whyley points out this really only works in a school that has the technological infrastructure and knowledge to make it work.

"The device augments what's already happening in a well-led, e-mature school," he says. "You're moving from two hours a week in an ICT suite to 24/7 access anytime anywhere. It's a quantum leap."

PDA progress: top marks all round

Dean Bank Primary in Durham, winner of the 2008 primary practitioner award, has been using PDAs for three years. Head teacher Chris Young explains the journey.

"We got involved because we were so impressed by the work that had taken place in other parts of the country, particularly in Wolverhampton. We saw the results they had in terms of engaging boys, promoting links between school and home and raising literacy standards, so we paid £14,000 out of the school budget for a set of Fujitsu PDAs for our Year 5s. As those children progressed to Year 6, we really began to see improvements, particularly with boys. There has been more parental involvement and support for homework and our 2008 Sats results showed improved standards of reading comprehension.

"We wanted to try them further down the school, so we met with the e-Learning Foundation and successfully submitted a bid for 50 per cent (£7,000) of the costs of a new set of handheld devices for Year 3. The rest of the money is contributed by the parents, who pay £9 a month over three years. We got 100 per cent parental participation – and this is an area of high deprivation.

"The children quickly become adept with the PDAs. Who knows where we will be in ICT when they leave education?"

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