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Written by Graham Brown-Martin   
Dec 21, 2007 at 06:15 PM
handheldAt the beginning of 2007 the UK Minister for Schools, Jim Knight, announced an ambitiously named group, “The Home Access Task Force”. With backers including Intel, RM and Dell, its stated objective was to identify solutions that would enable home access for more than 1 million young people in the UK who do not currently have access to the Internet, and therefore knowledge at their finger tips, at home. Or so it would seem.

Call me a curmudgeon but it was somewhat ironic that the choice of venue for this announcement was the BETT show, an event where the combined investment of all the participating companies, attendees, etc could probably fund the provision of every one of those learners with a device and connectivity. Or even a couple of new schools. One wag (the founder of a large and successful technology provider) suggested that his company would be better standing outside handing teachers £50 notes. But then where would we be without the annual pilgrimage to Olympia following the holiday season? Where would we find out what was coming next and how we should invest the public purse?


Well probably not at Olympia given that the BETT show falls at the same time as another event and somewhere a little more, shall we say, glamorous.  From 7th-10th January 2008 the world’s consumer electronics industry descends on Las Vegas for the CES show and it is here where all the latest technologies from gaming systems to computers to emerging technologies are to be unveiled.

What has this got to do with home access?

nintendo_wii_1.jpgI should say a heck of a lot. One only has to make an attempt to acquire a Nintendo Wii for a loved one this Christmas to understand that the technology  young learners are really interested in for home access is that being created and marketed by the consumer electronics industry. Games consoles, handheld entertainment devices, smart phones are outselling traditional computing devices and more importantly across nearly all social groups with almost scant regard for level of affluence. The last thing this audience desires is a kind of “el cheapo” laptop that “provides access to the schools VLE”. A sort of techno equivalent of getting the "wrong" sneakers. Yet this is precisely what is being suggested from many quarters as some of the traditional suppliers to this sector are being nudged out of their comfort zone.

One way of maintaining the status quo is to ensure that you are writing the brief and influencing the policy makers. So it came as no surprise to me when I read a draft document for home access containing a sentence along the lines of “systems should provide an identical learning environment to that found in the school” buried in its manifesto. Well what if the current system is wrong?  What if these systems have no bearing on the world of employment that our learners are destined to join? Aren’t we all motivated to improve things, change the status quo and be enablers for innovation in learning with better outcomes?

Looking back over 2007 I’d say that there were still some very positive steps forward not least the announcement of some serious money going into an initiative in post-16 and further education in the form of MoLeNET. £6 million has been made available to around 20 projects to develop a range of mobile learning projects using a variety of devices including smartphones, iPods, PDAs, MIDs and UMPCs. I’m looking forward to hearing the progress of these projects throughout next year and perhaps a few presentations of the outcomes for the Handheld Learning 2008 Conference.  Then there was the ALPS project with a £315 million, 5 year spend with a strong mobile learning component making it one of the largest projects in the UK if not the world.

Then we’ve seen the breadth of innovation and experimentation in learning using mobile and ubiquitous technologies literally springing up all over. Our recent conference demonstrated that in spite of little “official” support or direction many authorities and educators themselves were prepared to try new things and getting useful outcomes as a result. The people behind these projects and initiatives really should be applauded, as it’s not so easy to take risks in teaching these days whilst being hamstrung by league tables, national curriculum and moving goalposts.

Looking forward to 2008 however, apart from the aforementioned “home access” project” there doesn’t seem to be any major initiatives or directives on the horizon to exploit the lead that many of the practitioners working with mobile and ubiquitous technologies have made. Which must beg the question, why?

At the end of the year the UK received a bashing in the media because of the PISA results. So what shall we do? Train kids to pass PISA tests? Some countries do, but are they developing creative innovators or uninspired rule followers? Perhaps we should be thinking beyond PISA and what 21st Century learning outcomes should be for 21st Century learners. The alternative is that we capitulate to media pressure and through fear stick to the present path of digitising old teaching practices that control the individuals learning process, i.e. familiar techniques and tools but in digital form such as the ubiquitous interactive whiteboards and VLE’s replacing chalkboards and photocopiers, that only in the best hands deliver improvements on learning but nothing on the scale of transformational.

c4f.jpgSeveral times this year I have come upon sets of recent photographs showing the “Classroom of the 21st Century” that proudly showed a teacher with two IWB’s in front of rows of desks with learners (I can only hope they were learning) staring at 20” LCD screens. At any time the teacher could stop, start or take over the learners screen or see what they were doing without ever leaving the penalty box. Perhaps the kids were being groomed for employment at the local call centre. I wondered if these were the kind of kids that might be powering down in school?

No doubt 2008 will bring a slew of new products and services and many of them will be announced at CES and the rest of the year.  Here’s a few predications that I think we’ll see heading their way towards our next conference in October:

google.jpgGoogle, in its mission to know everything about you, will take on Facebook and MySpace (although in theory it already has a financial imperative to stay social with MySpace due to it’s advertising deal). Back in November Google announced a development framework called OpenSocial that would allow web apps to work transparently with and between different social networking systems such as Ning, Friendster, Hi5 and Linkedin. Admittedly a few of those joining the party are “C” listers but maybe they see strength in numbers and there’s certainly nothing wrong with gaining traction by encouraging interoperability. Trust me, if your software strategy isn’t open and architecturally independent moving forward you are going to have some problems down the line and this includes all the digital work that your learners are producing.

zoho-logo.jpgWeb-based applications will start getting good, we’ve seen the development of Google Docs but we’re also seeing other players such as Zoho who are delivering the capability of traditional Microsoft Office like applications but over the web with the all the collaborative possibilities this brings. Pretty much every application that you can think of will start migrating to being web-based including video-editing, drawing, painting, word-processing, sound-editing much of it is there already and we’re already seeing numerous mashup enablers that allow you to easily connect everything together and create your own desktops that scale to different size screens and types of devices.

Ubiquitous online storage will start coasting along the runway during 2008 where, as a consequence of the migration of applications to the web the majority of user data will simply reside there. Like a lot of web 2.0 technologies it will, however, take a while for these sort of services to find their way into the school or university systems while ICT mavens maintain their empires by building ever more complex sharepoint systems which mean that learners can’t remotely access their data easily but more importantly don’t own or take it with them. This is the Achilles heal of those systems and, like with YouTube, the kids will do it their way with their own personal learning spaces and the rest of us will catch up. VLE’s will be turned on their head, the kids make the pages evidencing their learning rather than the educator evidencing their teaching.

apple-iphone.jpgIn 2007 we saw Fujitsu-Siemens Computers pull out of the PDA market stating the obvious, i.e. that smart phones will inherit the pockets. Apple’s iPhone, introduced in the Summer, despite criticisms about lack of 3G connectivity and low spec camera, lived up to the hype by redefining what a smart phone should be and sending all the other manufacturers back to the drawing board. In its first months of release it outsold every other brand of smart phone combined in the USA and several other international markets. No doubt 2008 will bring us iPhone 2 and Apple's long waited tablet device that we can only assume will also attempt to redefine the MID (Mobile Internet Device) category. Connectivity for mobile devices will improve dramatically as costs fall and true mobile Internet with understandable pricing plans arrive.

Interestingly put at this years Handheld Learning Conference by Tim Pearson, CEO of RM Plc, was a category sector between the laptop/UMPC category device and the smart phone that he suggested had the useful qualities of both and was effectively an appliance. RM’s pitch into this category was the sub-£170 Minibook computer (Asus Eee) launched at the conference. Expect to see a lot of action in this ultra-cheap laptop area buoyed by the availability of cheap, if not free, web applications described above.



Identity and ownership will become a big deal in 2008. OpenID will finally kick the unwieldy Shibboleth out of the game as it gains momentum and the support of the major web players.

The convergence of the consumer electronics, entertainment software and educational technology industries will continue but accelerate. As mentioned earlier the Nintendo Wii is outselling all other gaming consoles because it has found a whole new market of gamers who have also proven that they are keen on collaborative play and games which make them think and help them learn. Nintendo Wii owners however tend not to buy so many software titles as they tend not to be hardcore gamers. Expect to see a lot of action on the Internet from Wii owners however. The Playstation 3 having outsold the Xbox 360 all over Europe and Japan will also be victorious in the USA. The firmware updates and cheaper price for the PS3 have made it attractive and the 3D social interaction world “Home” is looking very good. What will be interesting is how or if the education sector starts to embrace these or any of the other technologies in this non-exhaustive forecast.

And finally, with mLearn and Handheld Learning 2008 all happening from the 7th-13th October in the UK, 2008 will present a landmark opportunity for those passionate about learning using mobile and ubiquitous technologies.

Stay tuned and keep posting!

What are your 2008 forecasts for learning, policy and technology?

Add yours here.

Comments from the forum:
Back and Forward
Graham    January 3rd, 2008 - 6:39 PM


Feel welcome to post your comments regarding this article in this thread.
Re: Back and Forward
Graham    January 4th, 2008 - 9:53 AM
Article in today's Guardian concerning the "Home Access Task Force":

http://politics.guardian.co.uk/publicservices/story/0,,2235297,00.html

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Last Updated ( Jan 22, 2008 at 12:01 PM )
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