Multimedia wireless handhelds could change the way we approach education

University of Birmingham students are issued with iPaqs in mobile learning trial.

University of Birmingham students are issued with iPaqs in mobile learning trial.

Mobile learning, where courses and information for students are delivered to handheld devices, has been the focus of research by 15 universities across Europe over the past year as part of an EC-funded project called Mobilearn.

The University of Birmingham's Centre of Educational Technology and Distance Learning (Cetadl) is one of the main contributors to the project.

Mobilearn's aim is to change the way people approach learning by integrating new technologies such as personalisation, multimedia and mobile devices into education and training.

Through multimedia learning, various types of education could become more accessible. Another goal of the project is to circulate knowledge freely, such as medical advice, in a way that is appropriate for individual users.

Mike Sharples, director at Cetadl, has been heading a team that has developed the first wireless learning organiser, specifically designed for university students.

Sharples said, "Our aim is to move teaching out of the classroom to wherever people find it most convenient to learn. Students could work at home, on work placements or field visits."

Students at the university's school of engineering who are taking part in the pilot have been using Compaq iPaq handheld devices. The students can access course material, timetables, lecture notes and communication tools such as instant messaging. Another aim of the project is to discover how students will use the devices to supplement their education.

Lecturers at the university also benefit from the pilot project through a reduction in time spent doing administrative tasks.

"We are trying to get away from the bottleneck situation where the tutor has to do everything," Sharples said. "Lecturers have welcomed the pilot project, as it means lessons are less of an administrative burden."

Cetadl's mobile learning research received a financial boost earlier this year, when the centre announced a strategic partnership with Microsoft.

As part of the partnership, supported by education secretary Charles Clarke, Microsoft has contributed bursaries to students on IT and related courses and has provided software for Cetadl.

Its funding supported a programme of research in mobile learning and mobile gaming, as well as training and support in Microsoft products for academic and IT staff.

Sharples said the partnership with Microsoft also provided the opportunity for the development of mobile learning applications. "We have set up a server at the university which allows students free access to Microsoft development tools once they have paid a one-off £12.50 administration charge," he said.

Cetadl's other ongoing research projects include collaboration with Microsoft and Wave Solutions, a spin-off company within the university's school of engineering. The company is producing a wireless Lan "starter pack" for schools, colleges and small and medium-sized firms.

Where Mobilearn will be used       

European Resuscitation Council 

The European Resuscitation Council has said it will make its knowledge base available to students using Mobilearn. The knowledge base is designed to support non-specialised students learning medical procedures such as basic life support. The students will be able to access quick-reference and audiovisual procedural guides and virtual reality simulations. 

Firenze Musei 

Firenze Musei is a consortium which manages all the European heritage locations in Florence. It will be using Mobilearn to offer historical and cultural information to people visiting the art galleries and museums. 

MBA schools 

International institutes offering masters in business administration courses will be able to extend the reach and scope of their current learning programmes by providing students with personalised and tailored subscriptions to educational content on mobile networks.

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