In the palm of your hand

The Handheld Learning conference 13-15 October 2008

This was a conference where you were spoilt for choice. It was thronged with like-minded people who had intriguing and interesting takes on the future of learning in the 21st century.

Digital technology can enrich the lives of our young people and this was an ideal place to see how.

Highlights included three young people showing their short films, which were astonishingly good, with corresponding confidence and presentation skills.

Another was a presentation based on author Steven Johnson ‘s book Everything that is bad is good for you. Video games, television and the like do not contribute to general dumbing down, the opposite is true, he argued.

The complex, ‘nested’ structures of today’s video games need particular cognitive abilities to work them.

For example, he says, a father asks his son about a complex video game such as Civilisation. “So how does this work, what do I do?” asks Dad. “Go and find out,” replies son. The crux of the matter is to explore rather than be told.

A new study carried out by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in collaboration with the Civic Education Research Group at Mills College in the US seems to confirm this view:

Many parents feel unease about their children’s use of social media like Bebo and Facebook, but the presentation by Danah Boyd, social media scientist, went a long way to removing the angst.

Using Nintendo DS in the classroom can improve pupils’ mental maths abilities, said Derek Robertson, development officer at Learning & Teaching Scotland

He has been researching the use of Nintendogs and the Maths elements of Brain Training using control groups in schools. There was strong evidence that the use of Brain Training can improve mental maths abilities.

Stephen Heppell used his now well known analogy of the moving walkway to describe the state of things in respect of progress with the application of digital technology for education.

He was impatient to move forward, but in my experience many people will take a lot more convincing before this sort of radical change happens.

The conference also brought out the concern that commercial interests may override the real interests of young people as there are money-making opportunities in education.

This is a very real concern as we see the attempts to apply a ‘one size fits all’ solution in the Building for Schools project which does not take into account the individual characteristics of all schools and leaves more control in the hands of the private enterprise partners than with the schools themselves.

The closing keynote speech by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate was also a highlight. A great exponent of digital media and the opportunities it affords for education, he criticised the British press for “hampering and distorting” progress.

He used the example of historian Nial Ferguson’s experience of reviewing his own interpretations of World War 2 by playing an immersive video game that allows the re-enactment of World War 2 scenarios.

He also quoted HG Wells: “the future is a race: a race between education and catastrophe” to raise the assertion that:

“Only by building upon the possibilities opened up by digital technology can we ensure that it is not catastrophe, but education that finally triumphs.”

This was an inspirational closing speech and a great high to finish the conference.

I cannot be wholly comprehensive here, so take the chance to explore with the help of videos from Graham Brown-Martin at:

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