Bob Harrison and Maureen McTaggart find mobile ICT success but also fear of cuts and a policy gap

PSPs in MoLeNETPSP for learning: MoLeNETExcitement tinged with sadness touched delegates at the third Mobile Learning in Further Education (MoLeNET) conference as John Stone, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Network welcomed them to the “biggest, the greatest and unfortunately probably the last MoLeNET conference”.

In case too much was read into the “probably”, he made it clear: “We can more or less promise you there is not going to be any more capital money in the foreseeable future to support initiatives of this kind, at least on this scale.

“We will, however, bust a gut to keep going the networking which this project has established. Particularly, we hope to continue to encourage knowledge and resource sharing through the activities of MoleShare, and MoLeTV.”

The responding nods and smiles seemed to vindicate his optimism that the momentum for transforming learning in England’s colleges will continue. And also his desire that the 40,000 learners and 7,000 staff who have been involved in the 104 “quite meaty” projects – making up one of the biggest and most ambitious handheald learning projects in the world – should “bask in the glory of MoLeNET’s achievements”. But will it and will they?

Listening to some of the college teachers, tutors and learners who have benefited from the £12 million capital investment by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), there is no doubt it has had a positive impact on their teaching and learning. But what exactly will the MoLeNET legacy be, and has it been value for money?

Lynn LallLynn LallLyn Lall is head of e-learning at Castle College, Nottingham, where one of the successful projects was piloted. She said that an overwhelming majority of the college’s teachers want to continue using mobile technology but she is anxious about the future.

“Teachers have found that using mobile devices such as PSPs DSis, Wiis, iPod Touches, voting kits and netbooks has improved learner engagement, attendance, behaviour, confidence, self esteem, communications and achievements,” she said. “And at least 85 per cent of them have expressed a desire to continue using technology to support learning.”

‘A 10 per cent budget cut would make 60 per cent of colleges financially inadequate’

However, she is unsure whether they will have the money for the resources, especially as the SFA’s “shock and awe” budget presentation – which is currently doing the rounds of college governors – suggests a best-case scenario of a 10 per cent budget cut. For 60 per cent of colleges this would mean falling into the “financially inadequate” category within the next few years. A worst-case scenario of a 40 per cent budget cut would mean closure or merger for many colleges.

“I have a meeting with the college finance director tomorrow and I hope to persuade him we need a small amount of resources to maintain some momentum from MoleNET and get some value from the technology,” added Lynn Lall. “But in order to really capitalise on the potential of mobile learning we need to invest significant resources in the wireless infrastructure and staff skills.”

Some, like Havering Sixth Form College, will be lucky. Their joint TWEET (Teaching With Emerging and Enabling Technologies) project with City and Islington College, which provided digital cameras, iPhones and iPod Touches for nearly 100 14 to 19-year-old learners to collaborate on complementary research, is set to continue thanks to £550,000 worth of funding from its governing body.

They will use the money to provide a 21st century infrastructure that will “support what we want to do now and three, four, five years down the line”, said Graham Francis, Havering College’s director of IT services.

This means replacing the entire IT structure including controllers, switches, data ports and replacing and improving the wireless network so that everyone who comes into the college can get on to the internet. Teachers hope that this will encourage students to use their own devices for curriculum work at college.

'We’ve got to start saying – You’ve got the device, use it’

“We are getting to the stage where we’ve got to stop saying we’ve got to put investment into IT – it’s already in students’ pockets,” added Graham Francis. “We’ve got to start saying, ‘You’ve got the device, use it.’ By the same token one of the things we are trying to encourage is that you don’t need a full set of mobile devices – laptops, iPod Touches – in the classroom unless it is really for individual work. Why give each student a device to do research on when research is now showing that groups of students working together actually brings better understanding and better knowledge transfer?”

There is abundant evidence from the many LSN publications and action research evaluating the hundreds of MoleNET projects that the millions of pounds of capital investment, and the creative partnerships and support services provided by the LSN, have stimulated colleges to think carefully about pedagogy and mobile technologies. But are claims of evidence of a “cultural change” premature?

And what about the question of value for money? From the beneficiaries of MoleNET – the project workers, the teachers, the students and the learners – the answer to that is a resounding “Yes”.

Over three years MoleNET has played a vital part in engaging and motivating learners and teachers, when it was supported by a Harnessing Technology Strategy and a government that had a clear ICT policy and agency, both of which are now gone.

Learning lessons to avoid 'a crisis of relevance facing our schools and colleges'

Trends in learning across the globe are towards mobile, personalised, ubiquitous, agile, just in time, context related, collaborative, and knowledge co-construction and instant communication. And if the lessons of MoLeNET (and other digital technology projects) are not taken on board and heeded by the policy makers, governors, leaders and managers of our educational institutions we surely must not be far from what Martin Bean the Open University’s vice chancellor, describes as “a crisis of relevance facing our schools and colleges”.

“Any thoughts that we in this country are going to be able to outpace India simply by being better and better at technology, should be forgotten,” warned John Stone. “They are already ahead of us and there are lots of young people with the skills there to outflank and outpace us.

“Our future lies in us using the skills we’ve got, developing them and finding niches that we can do better than any one else in the world. But we need to develop the ambition to do that. Perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves the question: ‘What is it out there that we could do almost as, or even more, effectively than we do at present if only we actually delivered a substantial proportion of our curriculum using online digital mobile technology?’

“We hope that we can find answers to these questions collectively because they are going to be damn hard to solve on a college-by-college or individual basis.”


Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (and is 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.