By Bob Harrison
Louise DuncanLouise Duncan: maven with mobile learningWhen Louise Duncan set off from Australia on a five-week tour of US and UK schools – part of the Lindsay Thompson Teaching Fellowship she won in 2009 for successfully embedding ICT into her school’s curriculum – the  Handheld Learning 2009 conference in London was one of the first stops on her schedule.

As one of the conference speakers it was her job to inspire her audience, a task made more difficult when her slot was at the end of a long day. But her story (video here) of how the Studywiz mobile learning platform and the iPod Touch helped revolutionise teaching and learning at Shepparton High School, in the Hume Region of Australia, won them over.

Dubbed "e-learning champion" at the school where she has taught for seven years, Louise Duncan now provides e-learning and personalised learning leadership. Her London presentation, "Essential ingredients for the implementation of mobile learning", had a profound effect on conference delegates.

With her advice that schools should be clear and decisive about what they use, and why, ringing in his ears, Mark Talbot, head of photography at Bodmin College, Cornwall, was so switched on that he immediately bought iPod Touch "portable classroom" sets of 20 and 13 units for teachers across his college. Thanking her online for the presentation, he said that she steered him “to great paths of discovery and have given fantastic ideas for teachers across all subject areas of the college”. His next move is to secure funding to provide an iPod Touch for every pupil. Louise's brand of innovation, it seems, is highly infectious. Regina Cockerill, Educational Technology Co-ordinator at TASIS England, was also inspired to start an iPod touch pilot based on foreign language study.

Being winter, it was dark by the time Louise had finished her presentation and while most delegates were thinking about getting home or back to their hotel rooms, she was full of unstoppable enthusiasm about her plans for a trip to the United States to connect with like-minded mobile learning theorists and practitioners. Not one for keeping quiet about innovative ideas for using technology to transform learning she was looking forward to sharing her discoveries with colleagues back in Australia.

'You don't go into the classroom and close the doors anymore'

“Working in education today, the technology and the ability to communicate and collaborate on a global scale are very exciting so you don't go into the classroom and close the doors anymore,” she says. “When you're in that classroom, using the technology and the relationships that you build up, you can be collaborating with the world and therefore make the learning that's going on for those kids in your class so much more meaningful by bringing that wider audience to them.”

That thirst for information and communication meant that interview tables were turned from the outset. The first 15 minutes of our Skype chat for this article were spent being quizzed by Louise about what I had seen and learned at January’s Learning and Technology World Forum and BETT 2010. She was particularly interested to learn about TeachMeet and the TeachMeet Takeover and also keen to know more about Vital, the potentially ground-breaking CPD (continuing professional development) project to support teachers with ICT. Perhaps this is the first insight into why Louise is regarded as an innovator. Her own hunger to learn.

So what were the circumstances and conditions, which created Louise Duncan “the innovator”? “I have always had an inner desire to take risks and have lots of ideas and a passion about learning,” she told me. “But it was after I happened to sit next to Studywiz boss Geoff Elwood on a flight from London to Melbourne, by accident, and we had installed the Studywiz learning platform as part of our personalising learning project that things started to come together.”

She was invited to take part in the Global Mobile Research Project, looking at the potential for the Studywiz mobile learning environment and handheld devices to affect pedagogy and student engagement. The pilot of a one-to-one trial of the iPod Touch came along just as the iTunes Apps Store opened, which revealed, as Louise puts it, that “There were wide, unknown frontiers of learning to charter.”

'iPod Touch the ideal personal learning technology and has integrated seamlessly'

The initial international project involved schools from the USA, Australia and Singapore. "The iPod Touch was the ideal personal learning technology and has integrated seamlessly with our curriculum," she says. "As our program centres on student choice and strong student-teacher relationships, the iPod Touch/Studywiz mobile combination provided so many avenues to strengthen these purposes and build student knowledge, confidence, curiosity and communication skills. The kids felt really special to be allowed to explore the potential for mobile devices in their learning. No two students used the iPod Touch in the same way; each had its own set of tools and resources collected to meet that student's needs."

She created a blog and then a new one to document the experiences of the teachers and the children during the pilot and beyond, and this is required reading for anyone else beginning a similar journey. This blog and her tireless fundraising to raise money to improve learners’ access to personalised learning through one-to-one technology, led to her winning the Lindsay Thompson Fellowship.

Also responsible for her success was her role in providing CPD for Shepparton’s teachers, investigating the programmes that would best suit the school and running the personalised learning programme that, she says, “has provided me opportunities over the last few years to design and build a new flexible learning space and implement a lot of ICT – including a learning management system – and employ three teachers over three years and give them special roles in running this program”.

During her travels since winning the award, she has encountered many initiatives that have reinforced the momentum for her learning journey with technology and her desire to share on a global level. The examples she cites are Travis Allen, a Kennesaw State University student and founder of the iSchool Initiative a video blog he uses to share his experience with iPhone educational apps with other students; the mLearn conference in Orlando where she touched base with UK mobile learning professors Mike Sharples and John Traxler; and a serendipitous discovery about Bolton, Lancashire.

The Bolton inspiration she explains was a result of some family research. “My grandfather was a piano tuner who came from Bolton, Lancashire, and I discovered a story about the ESSA Academy there that had given all 900 pupils an iPod Touch. And I just thought 'Wow, what an inspiration.'

'I felt learning had to be more personalised and engaging for pupils'

“I am really excited by the whole notion of 21st century learning and the potential to do things differently and do things you could not do before. I have been teaching since 1988 and was concerned that the school curriculum did not give children the time and space to create because of bells and time slots, so we now have longer blocks of time for learning. I was also increasingly concerned with the line of teachers at the photocopier every morning hitting the 25 button. I felt learning had to be more personalised and engaging for pupils.”

As a result of a workshop she ran last year for the teacher training program at LaTrobe University in Victoria, 100 trainee teachers now have an iPod Touch as part of their course, to learn how to implement mobile learning programs in their schools. "This program is the first of its kind in Australia," she says. "It is very exciting, as each teacher there has the capacity to seed a mobile learning program in their new schools."

So what's next on the innovation trail for Louise Duncan? Back home in Victoria with her English husband, she is continuing with her passion and is currently planning a two-day Slide2Learn ('Slide' as in the finger action on an iPod Touch screen) mobile learning event in Shepparton, Victoria, early in July.  “I am hoping that many of the people I have met on my travels will participate," she says. "These people have inspired me and I know they will inspire others.”  She hopes to meet with more educators inspired by mobile learning at Handheld Learning 2010 in London.

Conditions for Innovation

  • Believe in yourself and your pupils.
  • Be prepared to take risks.
  • Have a go and share as much as you can.
  • Always be prepared to learn and listen to others.
  • Take people with you.
  • Surround yourself with the “right” people.
  • Be passionate.
  • Tune into others' fear of change.
  • Focus on the learner – student or teacher – and their “hooks".
  • Make the activities relevant to their needs.
  • Create momentum.

Sources of inspiration

  • Tony Vincent, the inspiring mobile learning practitioner from Phoenix, Arizona and a regular contributor to Handheld Learning, described by Edutopia magazine as a "tireless evangelist for the power of handhelds".
  • Susan Wells, principal at Culbreth Middle School, Chapel Hill, NC and the Classroom Web 2.0 community.
  • The 1-to-1 iPhone/iPod Touch team from Abilene Christian University in Texas, US, whom Louise had the pleasure of meeting at Handheld Learning 09, especially Dr Scott Perkins and Dr William Rankin.
  • The Apple Education Team in Cupertino – Gordon Shukwit, Janet Wozniak and Stephanie Hamilton – who provide such insight into the importance of enhancing learning.
  • The great Australian mobile educators – Jenny Ashby, Stacey Kelly, Deon Scanlon, Jonathan Nalder Megan Iemma and Kate Maccoll – who will be joining with Louise in July for her 'Slide2Learn' mobile event.
  • Professor Mike Sharples from Nottingham University LSRI.

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (and a contributor to its Future website), the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.

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