Mike Sharples, Shaaron Ainsworth, Russell Beale, Elizabeth FitzGerald, Giasemi Vavoula

Outside school, young people are enjoying and being empowered by personal technology. They can converse and be contacted anywhere, anytime. They can discover and share media and products. They can collaborate through social networks and multi-player games.

Contrary to the way these activities are often portrayed, research shows that they enable young people to develop powerful skills that employers want.

Inside school, the story is very different. Little has been done to link these digital activities with formal education. The status of schooling in society means that headteachers have to be cautious in adopting new curricula and teaching methods. This limits how they can engage students and connect with their out-of-school culture.

So what is the best way to connect the worlds of informal and formal learning? While young people can be given access to school intranets, podcasts and social media at home, doing so risks overloading their private lives with school. Conversely, allowing them to bring their smartphones, netbooks and other personal devices into the classroom could be seen as difficult, disruptive, and – given the issues with internet access – potentially dangerous. Yet some researchers have shown that such connections can be beneficial when done in a well-considered manner.

These benefits include:

  • helping children to learn in and out of school, through activities that start in the classroom and then continue in the home or outside, enhanced by technology that reinforces, extends and relates formal and non-formal learning;
  • putting children in touch with the expertise and alternative perspectives of people other than their teachers, as well as increasing their awareness of places outside the classroom, strengthening the relevance of classroom learning;
  • collecting data ‘in the wild’ to take back into the classroom, enabling authentic and original
    investigations that ground the development of abstract knowledge in observation and experimentation in the real world;
  • unobtrusively capturing individual children’s interests and learning strategies;
  • making use of communities and social interactions that happen outside the classroom.

Learning technologies can reconnect the worlds of formal and informal learning. Doing so successfully will see young people engaged in productive learning with personal technologies and networks within and outside the classroom.



The Essa Academy in Bolton has given young people the technology to transform learning – to make it, in their words, more ‘exciting, creative, inspiring and innovative’. As part of a drive to raise standards, it has provided each of its 900 pupils with an iPod Touch, which allows them to be in charge of their own learning inside and outside school.

Showk Badat, Essa’s principal, says this innovative use of technology is at the heart of the huge improvement in the academy’s results – up from 55 per cent to 99.5 per cent five A*-C grade GCSES in two years. ‘The iPod Touch is a really motivational tool, empowering each child to explore his or her personal
creativity and learning potential. It has done the most remarkable thing: removed the limits to learning.’

Communication between staff and pupils has improved with pupils happy to use the iPods to ask for help or advice. Teachers can also use them to monitor all their pupils’ progress in a lesson. Meeting one of their biggest challenges is made easy by being able to monitor responses to questions sent to everyone
simultaneously. Other uses include doing online research; accessing dictionary and thesaurus tools; accessing other useful apps.

The Essa initiative is also bringing parents into school and involving them in their children’s
education, something that has proved difficult in the past. Pupils are using technology to communicate with the wider world. They produced a documentary of the academy’s innovations, including interviews with teachers and pupils, for the BBC News ‘School Report’ initiative. And they made a YouTube video on how technologies such as laptops and handheld devices are transforming their learning.

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