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« on: December 13, 2004, 10:50:20 PM »

It was in 1988 that I was lucky enough to be one of the first winners of what was then called a DTI SMART award (Small firms Merit Award for Research & Technology). Presented to me by the Rt Hon Tony Newton, I even got a spot on Tomorrow’s World and a visit from HRH Prince Charles. A year or so previously I had been working for a British computer manufacturer called Research Machines where I had been leading several ventures into interactive media such as the Domesday Project.

It was just before the arrival of the CD-ROM, and when the Internet was hardly a twinkle in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee, that a partner and I threw caution to the wind and decided that new media was the future. And it was, we set up a research and development facility in Cambridge as a tenant in a brand new innovation centre where we produced the system software that allowed Apples, Acorns, Suns, Commodores and co to talk to CD-ROM drives, developed educational multimedia applications on the multitude of systems that came and went and won that SMART award.

The award was “for the research and development of a lightweight, handheld computer suitable for use by school children”. Our name for this project was “Satchel”. At the time we had been working with the British Library for whom we had developed the world’s first CD-ROM jukebox. Containing nearly 300 discs per unit we realised that this could contain a very large amount of the knowledge of man, given that we were already fitting entire encyclopaedias onto single discs. With the right search technology and a readily available access computer we imagined a world where a child could sit under a tree (heck we were romantic!) and search these amazing libraries via their Satchel computer. We were inspired by the work of Alan Kay, a technology visionary whom we’d met at a conference in Palo Alto and who had envisaged his own Dynabook. Of course, there was no Internet as we know it now, no Google but we did manage to create a short wave radio link that uploaded software at around the same speed as a compact cassette on a Sinclair Spectrum and only if you were in line of sight.

The first stage award enabled us to complete enough research to develop our specifications and test feasibility that led to a coveted Stage 2 award that enabled the creation of a prototype. This presented us with a number of difficulties given that colour LCD screens were in their infancy and our budget didn’t go as far as chip design so our prototype was more “Suitcase” than “Satchel”. But never-the-less it did provide us with key insights as to what was required to make a concept like Satchel really fly.

Our key problems with Satchel were power consumption, weight, start-up time and data access. In reality what we’d ended up with was what today passes as a Tablet PC!

In 1996 the Palm Pilot was born, no colour, hardly any memory with the ability to store just 500 addresses and some primitive organiser features. Hardly what we’d imagined when we were dreaming of Satchel but we could foresee where this device and those like it were heading. So much so that we later developed a Sinclair Spectrum emulator to run on the Palm and Pocket PC operating systems, just to prove a point.

So why after nearly 20 years do we think that the handheld computing revolution is finally about to happen in schools?

Well, as always, it’s all about convergence in both ideas and technology.

Once upon a time there was a computer room in a school where all the computers were kept and where students would visit for computer lessons. As time moved on and applications developed the computer became recognised more as a general-purpose instrument that has a place in virtually all subject areas. The problem, of course, is that there just aren’t enough computers to go around so rather than taking the tools to the job, the job is constantly being taken to the tools. Not always convenient if you’re wanting to data capture during a physics class or download revision notes during English.

Timetables and availability of equipment mean that students in even well equipped schools may get less than 5% of their school week to use a computer.

The solution often quoted, mainly by manufacturers and those who think portable means taking it to and from the office, is to give them all laptops. Gosh! what a fantastic idea because if every child was given one then they would be as cheap as chips. Not so cheap would be the RSI that the students would suffer after carrying the laptop from class to class every time the bell goes or the 15 minutes that the laptop takes to start and shut down or the power points that would need fitting to every class to top up the batteries.  Perhaps not such a good idea after all then.

Now, the original Palm Pilot had around the same computing power as the original Macintosh and as if this was some official unit of measure many of the handheld computers now on the market are close in performance to that of the original Macintosh Imac. Unlike the desktop or laptop computers the handhelds start up immediately and can go for 6 hours on a charge.

This isn’t to suggest that regular computers have had their day but perhaps the notion of the desktop metaphor, i.e. where we are slaves to the desk like 21st century factory workers, should make way for the digital hub. The hub is what we use to manage all our stuff whether it’s pictures, video, music, books, information, education, etc. Maybe we shouldn’t be sitting at a desk at all. This is the world that our children and students are growing up in. So the handheld computer is like an iPod for the mind.

The next part of the jigsaw is wireless networking or Wi-Fi. The ease and relatively cheap method of setting up an 802.11 network within a school and very often a home means that handheld computers can be easily used to surf the Internet to upload, download and share knowledge, information and applications.

Just as the digital camera has been truly given life as a consequence of the Internet and the digital lifestyle so is the handheld computer. The key to the success of the handheld computer in educational applications is their power and portability combined with the inexpensive availability of wireless networking and access to the largest library in the world, i.e. the Internet. The kind of software applications that will drive this revolution will not be poor renditions of old educational software translated from desktop learning environments but those that truly recognise the mobile, immediate and pervasive nature of the platform.

Handheld Learning Ltd is a consultancy and developer specialising in the educational application of handheld computing devices. I have started this online forum in the hope that it will engender a community spirit that will foster discussion and debate with the sharing of ideas and knowledge. This forum can only exist and be successful by the involvement of its community so please feel welcome to join in, make comments, suggestions, ask questions, give advice and tell your colleagues!

Viva la revolution!

I look forward to meeting you.

Best wishes

Graham Brown-Martin
« Last Edit: December 13, 2004, 10:56:19 PM by Graham » Logged
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