By Maureen McTaggart
Students are starting to take control of their learning, happily using mobile technology where allowed, and it’s teachers’ support and skills that are helping it happen. That was the picture emerging from the Handheld Learning 09 conference in London this week.
There was no mystery or hype from the teachers presenting at this three-day event at London’s Barbican, which focuses on mobile and inexpensive access technologies – just straightforward moves towards 21st century learning and teaching.
The backbone of HHL09 was made up of teachers and leaders who are enthusiastically embracing the ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning opportunities provided by mobile, gaming and social media technologies. And although they haven’t reached their promised land, said Philip Griffin, who uses Nokia internet tablets with his year 6 pupils at Radstock Primary school in Reading, “The classroom has changed and the control of learning is moving from the teacher to the learner.
“But they are really engaged in their learning, not because of the use of technology but because of the use of pedagogy,” he added. Give children those devices, whether they are iPod Touches or other devices and what can change? What can change is nothing. If the pedagogy doesn’t change then the learning doesn’t change and we may be up at a dead end”.
For Philip Griffin and his learners the three Rs have become the three Cs – create, communicate and collaborate.
Nearly 1,500 international educationists thronged to HHL09 to listen to a variety of speakers in sessions that included “Best Practice in Action”, “Reflections on Learning” and “Creativity and Innovation”. It was a sprawling and ambitious event that veered from the polarizing to the occasionally inspiriting, with some unfortunate timetable clashes – perhaps inevitable for such an aspirational programme.
Among the keynote speakers were former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, billed mysteriously as “artist” but more accurately “agent provocateur”, and Zenna Atkins (left), whose long list of job title includes that of Ofsted chairman.
Her rapid-fire and anecdotal keynote was prefaced with the rider that her beliefs were based on “absolutely no evidence whatsoever and completely unsubstantiated”. But she didn’t let that stop her from warning that “The current passport to your future and employability – GCSEs, potentially diplomas, A levels and university - I think that’s absolutely outdated.
“The beginning of the passport to your future is already here. And that comes with your ability to demonstrate through immediate time online, through your handheld or any other environment what it is you have learned today and your ability to immediately benchmark that with everybody else in your class, everybody else in your area, your school, your country and internationally”.
Malcolm MacLaren meandered his way through his early life only touching on the conference theme at the very end when he said it is a good thing if teachers can use technology to rediscover the idea of the romantic notion of learning for learning sake.
'Don't become a slave to technology'
“Use technology in the right way”, he urged. “Don’t become a slave to it. Don’t become so reliant on it that you can’t calculate or read a map because then how will you know when to turn left rather than right? How do you know how to even spot a lie? Use technology as a tool just like a pencil to learn with. It’s not a replacement for experience.”
Unsurprisingly, it was developments in learning and teaching that were the priority for visitors. The children in Dawn Hallybone’s Year 6 class at Oakdale Junior School in east London have immersed themselves in mental mathematics thanks to the exercises provided by Dr Kawashima's Brain Training software on their Nintendo DS handheld gaming consoles.
Consoles are used a minimum of three times a week and, right from the beginning, learners were so enthused that teachers noticed they were also working on their times tables at home!
“They are not competing against each other; they are competing against themselves,” said Dawn, who picked up the event’s Special Achievement Award. “They want to get better for themselves, and they look forward to getting them out, constantly asking, ‘Have you got the consoles in the class today?”
“We need to get over the media negativity about games in the classroom but should remember at all times that it’s not about the games – its not the main thing”, she added. “What it is, is giving the children that stimulus to engagement and enhancement to their writing and other skills. I think we need to work out which direction we are taking as teachers but for me it has just been a constant pleasure and excitement every time I teach with the children using the consoles. It is only part of my teaching but I think it’s a big part”.
Inspirational teacher and consultant Tim Rylands (left) is used to doing one-and-half-hour presentations and even then he has to be dragged off the stage yelling, “There’s more”. So it was a challenge for him to give his audience just a taste of the innovative work he does to support teachers and their learners using the Nintendo Wii in just 30 minutes. Of course he wowed them with his Wild Earth African Safari project and the mixed up animals in Switcheroo Zoo.
Meanwhile John Davitt, now with a stage persona somewhere between Dave Allen and an eccentric professor, showed his audience how easy it was to multitask - paying attention to him while building a “twit school” that would reveal a snapshot of capability in the room and collaborating to complete a pass-around Guardian easy crossword.
The curriculum - 'many paths to the same destination'
“A good definition of the curriculum is ‘many paths to the same destination’,” said the author, teacher, journalist and now software developer (see Learning Score). “I am not sure we’ve explored powerfully enough yet how many different paths are available to us. I am worried history is going to judge us harshly. I am worried history is going to say, ‘What tools? They did what with them?’”
He also blew minds with a demonstration of his latest creation, the open source Learning Event Generator and the Rag - an interactive learning tool for the iPhone where you can literally shake up a learning challenge.
Waving his notebook and iPhone in the air he asked his audience which world they wanted their students to live in. “For me the answer is simple,” he said. “We want them to live powerfully in both and we also need to allocate resources at the point where these two worlds meet.”
It was left to the Scottish contingent in the “Spotlight Scotland” sessions, supported by Learning and Teaching Scotland, to show just how far the envelope is being pushed in classrooms. Derek Robinson and Ollie Bray won even more new friends.
Twitter 'ovation' for Scottish contingent
It was standing room only in their “Web Tools for Teachers: how Scottish schools are making the most of free web-based resources to communicate, collaborate and learn” and “Leading the change: social media in schools” seminars. Each 30-minute session provided examples of innovative practice in both primary and secondary schools, and they were incredibly well received, judging by the Twitter back channel during and after the presentations. There was even a new hashtag - #jealousofscotland. Really.
In keeping with all things 21st century, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil delivered HHL09’s closing keynote from the US via a huge video screen. In his future (not a utopian one), teachers, thanks to technology becoming a million times more powerful in 20 years than it is today, will be role models.
“Already we see that learning special skills such as learning to read can be done by machines. So the role of the teacher will be as a mentor to help children develop the emotion and morals.”