Educational Touch: Handhelds in Schools

The more I think about it, the more Touch-style handhelds seem to make sense in educational and academic contexts. They don’t need to be made by Apple. But Apple’s devices are inspiring in this respect.

Here’s a thought, which would be a deal-maker for many an instructor: automatically turn off all student cellphones. A kind of “classroom mode,” similar to the “airplane mode” already on the iPhone. And it could apply to non-phone devices (i.e., the iPod touch and future models in those Touch lines). An instructor could turn off all audio out from the all the handheld devices in the room. Or turn them all on, if needed. This could even be location-based, if the devices have sufficiently precise positioning systems.
To go even further, one might imagine some control over what apps may be used during class. Turning off games, for instance. Or chat. Or limit browsing to the LAN. Not “always off,” mind you. But selectively opting out of some of the handhelds’ features. Temporarily.

In most situations, such controls seem overly restrictive to me. Apart from preventing cellphones from ringing during lecture, I typically want to let students as free as possible. But I do know that many of my colleagues (not just admins) would just love it if they could limit some of the things students can do during class with such devices.

One obvious context for such limits is an in-class exam. If they could easily prevent students from using non-allowed materials during an exam, many teachers would likely appreciate the convenience of exams on handhelds. Just imagine: automatic grading and grade reporting, easy transfer of answers, access to rich multimedia content, seamless interface…
As was obvious to me during the Apple event yesterday, Touch-style handhelds could be excellent tools for “distance education.” Learners and teachers could be anywhere and the handhelds could make for more direct collaboration than large lectures. Advantages of handhelds over laptops are less obvious here than in classroom contexts but it’s easy to think of fieldwork situations in which learners could collaborate with experts from just about anywhere there is a wireless connection. Immediate access to learning materials at almost any moment.

And podcasting. While podcasting got a big boost when iTunes began podcast support, there’s a lot which could be done to improve podcasting and podcast management. As iPod media devices, Touch handhelds have good playback features already. But there could be so much more in terms of interacting with (multimedia) content. Transcripts, tags, associated slides, audio comments, fast-speed playback, text notes, video responses, links, cross-references, playback statistics, waveform-based navigation…

Podcasting can still become big.  It’s now a “household concept” but it’s not as mainstream nor as life-changing as many hoped it’d become, back in 2005. I’m not really forecasting anything but I can envision contexts in which enhance podcasting feautres could make our lives easier. Especially in schools.

Education in general (and university education in particular) may be the context where podcasting’s potential is most likely to be realized. Though the technological basis for podcasting is quite general in scope (RSS enclosures, podcatching software, etc.), podcasting often feels like an educational solution, first and foremost.

A lot has been said about educational uses of podcasting. Early reports showed some promising results with those teachers who were willing to think creatively about the technology. I personally enjoyed a number of advantages of podcasting in my own courses, including several imponderables. Software packages meant for lecturecasts (podcast lectures) already exist. Apple’s own iTunes U is specifically geared toward university education using podcasts.

But there’s still something missing. Not just for podcasts. For handheld “educational technology.”
Momentum? Possibly. Where would it come from, though?

Killer devices? Apple already pushes its own devices (including the iPod touch) for “Mobile Learning.”

Cool apps? Haven’t really looked at the Web apps but it seems likely that some of them can already lead to epiphanies and “teaching moments.” Not to mention that tons of excellent learning software will surely come out of Cocoa Touch development.

Funding? My feeling is that apart from providing financial support for user-driven and development projects, “educational technology” monies are often spent unwisely. The idea isn’t to spend money but to “unleash the potential” of learners and teachers.

Motivation? Many learners and teachers are ready and it would be absurd to force anyone to become enthusiastic about a specific tool or technology.

My guess is that the main thing we need to make “mobile learning” a reality is to take a step back and look at what is already possible. Then look at what can become possible. And just start playing around with ideas and tools.

Learning is a component of playfulness.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

3 responses to “Educational Touch: Handhelds in Schools

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