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Written by Dr Neil Bailey on Friday, 23 June 2006
/children1.jpgTwo years ago a colleague and I from Oxford Brookes University wanted to use handheld devices to help novices identify and record wildlife.  We felt the technology would appeal to the younger generation, and would represent a less daunting experience than traditional dusty field guides.   To our surprise, there was very little out there in the way of software.  In the UK, the most advanced software was developed by Adit Limited (www.adit.co.uk) and consisted of a PDA-based wildlife recording form, but this was aimed at wildlife experts.  As a result we decided to create our own user-friendly wildlife identification and recording program for handheld devices.  Not being programmers we entered into a partnership with Adit to make it happen and WildKey is the result.

WildKey uses simple prompts and images to enable novices to identify and record the wildlife they observe. To date we have created keys for butterflies, pond-life, rocky-shore life and woodland leaves.

/wildkey.gifWith its links to classification, food chains and collation of data, WildKey has great relevance to the National Curriculum  (we are accredited by BECTA). In contrast to web-based keys the mobility of handhelds enables users to take the key into the field and identify the wildlife they discover.  Improvements in screen quality means that the devices can display high quality images of the species in question.  When linked to a GPS the device enables users to plot an accurate location of their sighting, which can then be mapped out on the desktop.  Additionally, photographs of sightings can be linked to records. WildKey thus capitalises on the mobility and functionality of handhelds. At a time when 51% of teenagers regard science lessons as boring, confusing or difficult (BBC news, 16th June, 2005), handheld identification has enormous potential to reinvigorate basic biology fieldwork through its interactive appeal

School-based trials of WildKey have produced fantastic results with ‘before and after’ wildlife recognition test results increasing by 800% (without a handheld in sight!).  Whilst such tests were not undertaken in strict examination conditions, these results indicate that handhelds can be a great tool for improving knowledge recall. It is also apparent that the software provokes a greater interest in the wider environment and in topics such as climate change. (We shall present some new findings at HL 2006 based on 1000 additional users of WildKey programmes over the summer)

/children2.jpgRather perversely we have spent a lot of development time creating virtual field trips that operate on the desktop or white board, enabling those who don’t have handhelds to practice at home or in the classroom.  This is somewhat against our mantra of “taking education beyond the classroom” but reflects the fact that handhelds have yet to penetrate the education market in large volumes.  This in itself may be symptomatic of the lack of high quality educational software for handhelds.  At this years’ BETT show we were somewhat taken aback by the absence of any such software. Indeed, of the (rather small) pool of software that I have viewed for handhelds, many seem to be stripped down versions of desktop programs that offer little in the way of additional functionality.  

So if you are a school, wildlife enthusiasts or visitor attraction, and are keen to really explore the potential of handhelds visit the website (www.wildkey.co.uk) and let’s start making full use of these devices’ capabilities!

About the Author

Neil Bailey is a post Doctoral researcher at the Spatial Ecology and Landuse Unit (SELU) at Oxford Brookes University and has a GIS/conservation background.  He is in the process of spinning out a company from Brookes which uses the power of mobile devices to help pupils (and other novices) identify and record wildlife. Neil may be contact via neil (at) wildkey.co.uk

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Last Updated ( Friday, 23 June 2006 )
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