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Female using a laptop and mobile phone.

In the short space of time they have been used in education and training, mobile and wireless technologies have been fast changing and relatively unstable. As a result, they are often viewed as being 'only for the technically-minded'.

Projects such as the m-learning project,where mobile devices have been used to target young adults aged 16-24 at risk of social exclusion, have opened up the possibilities inherent in mobile learning to the wider community. Other examples of use may require more introduction, but the vision here is one of rich new possibilities that confront practitioners and learners with choices and challenges.

The devices illustrated in this guide are:


Image of a Laptop computer

Laptops can provide portable access to full desktop and network functionality and have become an established tool in many institutions. Laptops have been used in schemes to encourage use of e-learning by practitioners, to provide learning opportunities in ICT and other basic skills for learners in community and outreach venues, and to support those undertaking training on multiple sites or in remote locations, such as the Electronic Portfolio Projectfor nurses in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Studies at the University of Bangor.

Mobile laptop schemes have attracted funding in support of projects to widen participation by disadvantaged or hard-to-reach learners, but a broadband or satellite connection is required for full flexibility of use. An innovative solution to connectivity in locations remote from the main campus has been a satellite communication van with a driver/technician.

A case study, Bringing the technology to the learnerfrom Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology, illustrates how a mobile laptop scheme has widened participation by adults in ICT classes as part of a community-based learning programme. This case study is also available on video.

Tablet PCs

Image of a tablet PC.

These are portable computers in the shape of a notebook or slate, which offer similar advantages to laptops, but are lighter and more supportive of collaborative classroom practice. Tablet PCs can be wireless-enabled and controlled by stylus, voice, keyboard or mouse, and so may have potential for supporting learners with disabilities. Tablet PCs can be used in both portrait and landscape modes - helpful when viewing mind-maps or page layouts in desktop publishing. Handwritten and drawn items can be converted into text and, with built-in wireless connectivity, tablet PCs can also be used to access the internet anywhere within a wireless local area network (WLAN).

These functions make a tablet PC a very flexible tool for educational purposes and one which can be used to promote active learning - either by developing collaborative resources by sharing the tablet amongst learners in small groups, or, if connected to a digital projector, by displaying information, multiple choice questions and interactive digital resources to larger groups of learners. A tablet PC could also be used to offer higher education students portable and personalised access to course resources and appropriate software to support group work in a variety of locations.

A case study, Supporting personalised learning - the Interactive Logbookfrom the University of Birmingham, explores the benefits of providing higher education students (and potentially students across the sector) with a suite of software applications for use on a mobile device, such as a tablet PC. This case study is also available on video.

Mobile phones and 'Smartphones'

Image of a mobile phone.

Third generation mobile phone technology has converged with that of other devices, such as digital cameras, media players and PDAs, to provide a 'one stop shop' offering some or all of the following options: connectivity, games playing, email, stills camera, video camera, personal information management, keyboard, audio recording, music and video playing facilities.

The most successful educational uses of phones have been straightforward ones, for example sending course information to learners via bulk SMS text messages. Mobile phones can also provide access to basic skills resources and, when used in conjunction with web technologies, can assist in the capture of information and images to build a website, as a record of a field trip, for example. Mobile phones are now being used in schemes to re-connect with learners no longer participating in mainstream education in order to support basic skills training through purpose-built games and quizzes. Their acceptability to younger learners has formed the basis of such projects, as illustrated in the m-learning project.

A case study, Multimedia learning with mobile phonesfrom City College Southampton, illustrates how mobile phones in conjunction with web publishing have provided an innovative way of supporting off-campus learning.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

Image of a Personal Digital Assistant(PDA).

PDAs are handheld devices which were designed for business and personal use, for example for personal information management, but have also proved valuable in supporting off-campus learning. PDAs offer pocket versions of basic office software, providing opportunities to capture information and access learning resources on the move. Wi-fi cards can allow users to connect to a college network and GPS cards can convert these devices into location-sensing tools and the addition of SIM cards can enable PDAs to work as mobile phones.

In educational terms this is an emergent rather than established technology in the UK. However, their convenient size, connectivity and portability have encouraged innovative uses particularly in contexts where access to e-learning technologies is restricted.

A case study, Mobile learning and teaching with PDAsfrom Dewsbury College, Thomas Danby College and Bishop Burton College, shows how e-learning resources can be taken into outreach venues and work-based learning environments on mobile devices to motivate and empower learners, and provide evidence of their achievements. This case study is also available on video.

Electronic voting systems

Image of an electronic voting device.

Electronic voting systems can add a dynamic interactive element to large group teaching contexts and are emerging as a valuable tool for formative assessment in large group contexts. Learners are provided with a wireless or infra-red handset to answer multiple choice questions and their responses are read by a receiver in the room. Software installed on the computer converts the responses to summaries projected as histograms or bar charts which can be projected onto a whiteboard or screen. Questions can be designed to test understanding of core conceptual knowledge and generate discussion both prior to voting, and again after voting has taken place, to allow individual students to test their interpretations with those of their peers.

Interacting with others in this way can help students to reach an understanding of more difficult aspects of the curriculum and to retain their knowledge for longer.

A case study, Active collaborative learningfrom the University of Strathclyde, illustrates how use of an electronic voting system in higher education has supported innovative pedagogical approaches, developing students' grasp of core concepts and enabling practitioners to assess their understanding. This case study is also available on video.

USB storage devices

Image of a USB storage device.

Course resources stored on one of these devices at the outset of a course can focus learners' attention on required learning goals and provide a promotional gift to learners at comparatively low cost. However, this simple and rarely considered device can also form the basis for collaborative learning. Students could become more able to think and research more effectively when required to add the results of their own research to the resources they have been given at the outset of the course. These resources can then form the basis for presentations by students and play a part in encouraging more active ownership of learning.

A case study, A digital key to productive learningfrom the University of Sussex, illustrates pedagogical uses of the USB storage device which have encouraged student ownership of digital resources, promoted active participation in learning, and provided innovative opportunities for formative assessment.