Special Report

Europe Seen Leading the Way in Hand-Held Computing

By Ian Quillen — January 30, 2012 7 min read
Six-year-old Maria shows how to learn Spanish on a mobile phone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, left, at a technology fair in Hanover, Germany, in 2010.
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While hand-held mobile learning is viewed in the United States as a recent trend, its roots go further back in the United Kingdom and Western Europe.

As early as 2001, David Whyley began directing national government funding toward hand-held computing devices for students as the head teacher of a school in the Midlands of England.

And by 2006, John Traxler, a professor of mobile learning not far from Mr. Whyley, at the University of Wolverhampton, was speaking to an audience at Microsoft Corp.'s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., about the educational possibilities of hand-held devices such as cellphones and personal digital assistants, only to be shrugged off by an audience that instead saw laptops and the ubiquitous wireless Internet—and not 3G and 4G networks—as the future of education.

“At that point, we were getting a fairly blank reception,” Mr. Traxler recalled. The attitude, he suggested, was: “We’ve got WiFi coming out of the carpet, why should we listen?”

Yet, as the United States has shaken off those doubts and has begun integrating hand-held devices such as smartphones, media players, and tablet computers into mobile learning approaches, the American path appears to differ from Europe’s. In fact, there is so little awareness of Europe’s mobile learning history that, for example, when Mr. Traxler was among a handful of European educators invited to the 2010 Wireless Education Technology Conference in Washington, an organizer billed it as “the world’s first mobile learning conference.”

Reaching Beyond Classrooms

European educators say their focus has been on using hand-held devices to allow students to interact with their environment outside the classroom through activities such as photography and videography, data collection, and orienteering. That outlook, they say, stems from a past willingness of national governments to underwrite such research, and a shift across the continent toward a more constructivist approach to teaching that includes the same kind of project-based learning many American educators are beginning to favor.

Meanwhile, the Europeans’ U.S. counterparts have focused on using those same devices to give students 1-to-1 computing connectivity inside the classroom in a manner more affordable than laptops, allowing students to respond digitally to an interactive whiteboard, access a search engine, and do work on a calculator.

It’s a model that has roots in a lack of funding from national, state, and local governments, rather than in specific government funded directives to explore new kinds of technologies for learning. And although there has been a push at some American mobile learning gatherings to bring in more elements of what could be considered a European approach, many in Europe sense the American vision may be more sustainable in “the new normal” after the recession that began in late 2007.

“I think there is certainly a more tangible business model that goes along with it,” Mr. Traxler said of the American model of hand-held mobile learning. “It’s selling content, selling airtime, and all of that is quite easy to understand when a call comes for commercial reasons or human reasons to reach as many people as possible.”

And even Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary of state for education under a Conservative-led coalition government that took power in May 2010, pushed the country’s education system to keep moving forward with its mobile learning initiatives and others related to education technology, while looking to America for inspiration.

“It was a complete surprise,” Mike Sharples, a professor of educational technology at The Open University in Nottingham, England, said of the new government’s outlook. “Everybody had been expecting that the government just hadn’t got it when it came to learning with technology, and suddenly they gave this speech where they said Britain has to catch up with the United States. It was rather ironic.”

Outlining Four Levels

But to paint Britain—or any European country—as following a uniform model of hand-held mobile learning is inaccurate, according to research on national mobile learning practices and individual observations from practitioners throughout Europe.

In a report for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, a Stockholm-based independent e-learning consultant, Jan Hylen, describes the hand-held mobile learning practices of European countries as falling into four levels.

The United Kingdom is alone in the top level, according to the report, in terms of taking comprehensive nationwide steps in mobile learning above and beyond those funded by the European Commission, the executive governing body of the European Union.

That’s largely in part because of programs funded by Britain’s Mobile Learning Network, or MoLeNet, collaboration between the national government and participating schools that paid for 40,000 students’ and 7,000 educators’ instructional use of mobile devices in 2007 through 2010, mostly at the secondary school level. (The program has since concluded.)

Then, the report says, 16 mostly Western European countries fall into a second level, where most activity around hand-held mobile learning has centered on European Commission-financed projects.

Estonia, France, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, and Poland fall into a third level of countries that are just making preliminary steps in the practice. Then Belgium, Luxembourg, and Romania are in a bottom level—those that have shown little or no progress.

Mr. Hylen also emphasizes that, while many European governments take a more centralized role in education than the U.S. government, more educators are now taking a bottom-up approach to implementing hand-held mobile learning into their schools and classrooms, and in that way perhaps following the U.S. model.

“From a grassroots level, things are starting to happen,” Mr. Hylen said. “At the moment, it’s driven by the technology itself, and the fact that teachers and students, by themselves, use these devices on an everyday basis.”

Further, the governmental structures of individual countries can also promote or impede the progress of mobile learning initiatives, though not everyone is in agreement on how exactly they relate.

For example, Gavin Dykes, an independent educational technology consultant based in London, believes a shift in national policy over the past 10 years that has given regional and local education authorities more autonomy has resulted in more productive hand-held learning projects than in countries, such as France, with more centralized education systems.

In contrast, Marcus Specht, a professor of advanced learning technologies and director at The Open University of the Netherlands, sees the centralized Dutch educational push—including the work of the country’s public Kennisnet organization that oversees information technology initiatives in primary and secondary schools—as more advantageous than his native Germany’s system. In Germany, Bundesregions, the equivalent of states, carry substantial power.

“I’ve seen a lot of initiatives on the national level just be buried [on the regional level],” Mr. Specht said of German hand-held mobile learning.

National vs. Regional Authority

While most educators agree that the breadth and uniformity of Europe’s mobile communication network in the early 2000s helped jump-start hand-held mobile learning there, they also suggest that the shape the newest trend in mobile learning may take—the push to let students use their own devices as learning tools in class—may be affected more by national culture than regional collaboration.

For example, Mr. Hylen says that in Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia, the cost of device ownership is not an issue for families in the same way as in other countries in Europe. Countries also define teacher-student relationships differently, says Mr. Dykes, pointing to Denmark’s consideration of allowing secondary school students to use the Internet during final exams as a sign of more inherent trust in students than in his native England.

But David Whyley, the hand-held mobile learning pioneer who is now a head-teacher consultant for the learning technologies team of the 45,000-student Wolverhampton Learning Authority, says where mobile educators in Europe are united is being less willing than Americans to accept the lack of constraints of some bring-your-own-device models that encourage students to use their own data plans for Internet access and teachers to surf the open Web for resources.

Mr. Whyley and others worked with a Slough, England-based mobile-service provider, O2, the commercial subsidiary of Telefonica U.K. Ltd., to produce a data-filtering plan that would enable schools to offer a filtered network to students’ smartphones and, more importantly, block other unfiltered networks while students are on campus. But he insists there’s still work to be done.

“Being able to access information behind a [personal] logon is absolutely crucial,” Mr. Whyley said. “We’re much tighter on our moral restrictions with the kids and where we set stuff.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Europe: Leading the Way In Hand-Held Computing


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