The UK government has triggered a major push by mobile companies to establish services for mobile learning (m-learning) with a £30 million universal internet access programme for schoolchildren. John Stokdyk reports.
At the BETT education technology event on 9 January, minister for schools Jim Knight announced that a further £30 million was going into the universal home access initiative to provide net access for the country's two million poorest school children. A £600,000 pilot scheme will promote the educational benefits of home access to parents and teachers at 50 schools, and the department's Home Access Taskforce will make further recommendations in April on how to achieve the minister's goals.
The impact of the government's efforts to promote technology skills and innovation was evident all around the exhibition, which hosted stands for industry giants such as Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and O2.
The mobile companies set the tone with major announcements to provide mobile devices and platforms for learners. Finnish mobile manufacturer Nokia has teamed up with Sanako, a compatriot education software house, to provide N810 internet tablets to the schools market.
The devices, costing £295, come with Sanako's PowerStudy 500 classroom management software pre-installed. Students can use the handheld machines to access their own learning spaces and call down materials for use in class. The teacher can use the software to lead the class around various websites, to see what the students are looking at, and to deal with comments raised electronically by individual pupils, for example if any of them get lost about the subject matter or material being viewed.
Nokia's Sami Puukari said that the mobile internet is the next step for mobile communication and that education and training were perfect vertical markets for a handheld internet-browser device.
"Handhelds have had a position in education for years," he said. "But restrictions such as costs, technical and input issues have held them back. The N810 can solve this because it's got a large screen, a full QWERTY keyboard, plus stylus and fingernail input and the same browsing experience as you have on your laptop or desktop.
"It's an extremely versatile device and you can take it where you want. As a hardware platform we think it meets many of the requirements for handheld education. The
UK is a very important market for ICT in education because the government is putting significant investment into it."
Unlike the rival Apple iPhone, the Nokia internet tablet does not include a mobile phone and connects to the web via wireless links. Why not go the whole way, as Apple has done, and provide an integrated device?
"We are Nokia, of course we're looking at putting in different things, for example SIM cards. But schools would have to look after contracts. They prefer devices that couldn't be used as mobiles - and the kids already have those," said Puukari.
Sanako UK regional director Ian McDonald explained that in spite of some niggles, m-learning pilots over the past 2-3 years have generally been regarded as being successful.
"Any device that enables pupils to access learning anywhere is a huge benefit," he said. "The government talks of better engagement - the Nokia N810 is a cool device and we feel it will catalyse engagement. You need a device children can use independently and in class."
O2 was also at the event to launch LP+, a partnership with Learning Platform to provide a "learning platform for VLE [virtual learning environments]" in secondary education. In pilot projects at Wolverhampton and Shirelands, mobile learning technology has helped the institution to achieve big improvements in Ofstead rankings, according to O2's business development manager Derek Murray.