Use of devices: summary
Design Issues: summary
Hardware/ software issues: summary
Interface Issues: summary
There has been an extension of use of the internet for learning purposes. This is demonstrated by the development of web sites by those institutions who consider they have a learning remit (Bitesize from BBC , HomeWork High from Channel 4, Learn from the Guardian, SchoolNet2000 from Tesco ). and the scramble by companies, especially from the USA, to established web courses. Children's use of the Internet in Europe was recently researched by NOP and the findings showed that use in England was only surpassed by Scandinavian countries2. These figures demonstrate considerable experience among under 16's, but also indicate there is progress still to be made. Since 1994 there have been twelve major UK government programmes with an investment of over £250 m to support the use of ICT in education. In schools these government initiatives, for example NGfL (National Grid for Learning), have insured that all schools will have internet connections by 2002 and NOF (New Opportunities Fund) training for all teachers will ensured that teachers are familiar with the Internet and understand its potential value. As a consequence of these initiatives we could anticipate a rise in the NOP figures in a relatively short space of time.
In their homes more children are spending spare time in their bedrooms where studies find most computers are based (NOP, 2000). NOP research found that this was mainly due to parents concerns over 'stranger danger' and road safety. Given this context it is unsurprising that under 16s are using the Internet in ever increasing numbers. However popular media reporting has rasied parental concerns of stanger danger invading via the internet and this may make parents wary of their childrens internet use. Parents initially need to be reassured that sites visited by children are genuinly 'safe'.
In all our research we have looked at existing online activity across a number of online learning projects, spoken to teachers and pupils in a spectrum of schools, to children and parents who are involved in experimental online learning projects - who offered a valuable input - and to those managing online learning projects around the world, including those at ULTRALAB .
Although technology is rapidly changing we have taken a considered look at technology futures to inform the debate.
We have tempered all our research with the things we ourselves know in ULTRALAB about technology and learning.
Use of devices
Our research, confirmed by recent BBC investigations (BBC programme "Classrooms at War"), shows that given the opportunity children will go to great lengths to keep in touch with their peer group. This translates into SMS messaging to friends and logging in to access online communities at anytime. Here individual identity is crucial so that children know who is sending to them. Most pupils found messages from 'unknowns' numbers' or emails from strange addresses disturbing.
Rarely will children use such devices to simply read personal mail or messages without responding. Almost all children using computers regularly check the discussions within the active communities they are a member of. Currently this is impossible with phones as the facility for multiple messaging is unavailable for children in the SMS world, so that support for learning or social cohorts is non existent.
Within the school situation duration of time contacting others is variable- any spare minute is liable to be grabbed if access is open. Most popular login times on computers - and the longest - are just after school or lunchtime, pupils often using the whole lunch break. This is because children have to go to a specific place to log onto a computer and this all takes time. Personal devices, like PDAs or phones, which use wireless connections, can be used in breaks to 'keep up to date'. We have noted the tendency to use every single opportunity to communicate when pupils have wireless iBooks. They will stop at the cloakroom area and open the iBook simply to login for a few minutes to check mail messages. Also almost without exception children originated messages as well as reading them - for them the Internet is always a participative environment.
Predictably, activity on computers from school is for a significantly longer time period than from home reflecting the worry which exists concerning costs of telephone calls. This should be soon eliminated with cheaper services becoming available.
Even the youngest children connecting from home are aware that long calls are expensive and our discussions showed that most had an impressive understanding of the cost of different services on both their computers and their mobile phone packages.
Our research has shown that on systems where there was a resumés or a type of 'about me' available, children accessed this information a number of times. They were interested in any information concerning others in their communities. They wanted to know who was in their community, what their interests were. Age matter less than other details, for example pets and hobbies. They reread resumés of active users on a regular basis to look for additions and/or changes. They were also keen to write information about themselves for others to see
A key feature of this behaviour is that children are accessing where and whenever they currently can, from a multiplicity of computers, eventually from a number of devices. This effectively rules out local storage of files other than as a very short term expedient and emphasises the importance of individual identity .
Our research shows that children do respond to messages in an online community. However the communication when children are the main members of a community is characterised by short and direct responses, an average discussion involving mainly children consists of a number of quick fired one liners and/or questions interspersed with longer comments. This pattern is reinforced in SMS messaging 'conversations' which take place.
In a recent questionnaire we asked children, aged between 10 and 14, what they most liked doing in the communities in which they belonged
"What things did you like doing best on the Internet project?"
Children's answers :
"chatting", "looking things up", "making web pages", "movies"
Teachers were asked
"What do you think that your pupils enjoy doing most when participating in an OLC project"
"..giving feedback and seeing their ideas take shape",
"sharing joint project and communicating", "taking part".
In both cases the majority mentioned some aspect involving communicating and creating , or as the children commented, "doing things!" This is not surprising: memorable learning takes place when we are 'doing', especially with others.
The questionnaire also asked pupils what they least liked doing
"What were the most boring things?"
Children's answers :
"sitting around waiting to work",
"when we were downloading on the computers",
"All the hours we had to put in to download",
"not being able to download my pictures..",
Teachers were asked
What do you think that your pupils like least when participating in an OLC project"
"unreliable hardware/software", "slow responses",
"when things don't work for no apparent reason".
Unsurprisingly these comments demonstrate that what children liked least were interruptions in the flow of their work.
Again unsurprisingly all our projects have reported that under 14 year olds are not all strong readers; many have relatively weak reading skills and all exist in an information world of graphics, video, sound and images in addition to text. If a online community is to be for all, rather than for a literate elite, it must be from the outset designed as a multiple media site and designed in a way that does not make it slow and bandwidth hungry. This is a major design task.
In addition, not all children function fully on all media channels. Some are visually impaired, some hear poorly, many have English as a second language. This means designing for media redundancy - a button being depressed accompanied by a button-pressing-sound offers two alternate significations. This may seem obvious but with so many reluctant readers additions to text will always be desirable. The RNIB find that many websites aimed a children fail to implement image ALTs for example, rendering the audio browser used by visually impaired ineffective.
However, with an imperfect technology we will need to compromise on some aspects, it may be, for example. the case that playing the sound delays the visual feedback too much (and we know that children hate to wait - see above); thus the short term task may instead be to embed tags in visual objects that can be picked up later and used to trigger aural cues and clues.
For an online community for children this means designing with real care: recognising that multiple media is vital, and designing for media redundancy. It also means remembering that different devices and bandwidths will support multiple media in different ways and chanting the mantra 'children hate to wait!'
There is solid agreement that if learning is to occur mediation is essential.
Our work on projects, for example LiNM, Schools OnLine, Tesco SchoolNet 2000 and Talking Heads, has convinced us that mediation cannot be provided casually and is a real (and significant) cost to any project concerning learning. However when the activity is asynchronous mediation may not be such a 'hit' on time as it can be provided by a group. Time allocated for mediation needs to be protected if the regularity of mediation is to be vouchsafed. However mediation, whilst key at start up, can be moderated after six months and passed to less skilled facilitators. Our research has shown that any community has at least a six month high mediation start up time. . It is also worth mentioning that mediation can be through cross age mentoring and peer support in some circumstances.
Support for mediation can either be through direct appointment (some of our most successful projects employed mediators), or through templates and support materials on a website for other mediators (for example existing teachers in schools, or existing field officers for a project).
Mediators can also have a central role managing the dialogue with users; it is important that the users' input progresses the site design. For users there is a confidence in knowing that the site is being mediated. This is especially the case where children are involved and the mediation ensures that the discussions are 'led' if necessary and the online community 'protected' from abuse.
Meditation is the key to attracting online community members to become actively involved in the community. Seducing members into new communities is relatively easy, keeping them involved and developing a pattern of return is much harder. The key to this is good meditation. Strong mediators help the development of online learning communities by pulling together key points and ensuring that questions are answered. Mediation ensures that members of the community have a reason to return. A good mediator also provides a role model for a community and encourages other members to take on the role of 'experts' and helps to scaffold users until the online community becomes self-supporting.
These issues need to be enabled and supported through the project design, not bolted on as an afterthought. Even a passive "publish and disseminate only" site will need to support the mediation that must inevitably happen for a school or home associated with the site.
Hardware/ software issues
It would be wrong to presume a consistency of software/ hardware in the population. It would be simply foolish to expect that this will become more consistent in the future, indeed as we can already see diversity is widening considerably.
Our research shows that children log on where (and when) there is opportunity: from school, home, public access points, friends, anywhere. This is supported by recent NOP data.3 They use whatever equipment is available: ubiquitous desktop machines, portables but also anything else that they have access to, even temporarily. When we gave children data phone technology they also used these mobile wireless devices despite the impoverished environment and unreliability of gateways.
Children have limited problems with software choice; they use whatever browser and/or device that is available and whatever operating system. Interestingly, whilst with games they have a straightforward model of what gives good performance (fast chips + graphics capability), with Internet access they are much less aware. When a site is slow to access, children blame the site or the school's access speed primarily. Recent NOP research indicates that the maximum acceptable wait time for children under 16 is 30 seconds and that a longer wait often causes a reboot to the system.
A well designed web site supports retrospectively the legacy equipment (often quite slow, probably without Java) that runs, and will continue to run, in many schools and homes. In many instances the home computer is a superseded computer inherited from a parent's workplace. Sites that are sumptuously designed with rich images and animations work poorly in the school environment and in homes with basic modem connections because of often poor hardware and software platforms (but this does not imply that texty systems are desirable). Delays equal disillusionment, but so does a lack of ambition in the features a site offers:
We have recently been engaged in research of hardware and software futures through literature and direct interview as a result of a recent ULTRALAB project and offer the following with some certainty:
This means that every service will need to be demonstrated across the widest possible range of current and legacy equipment, including set top boxes and small portables on a wide variety of screen resolutions and sizes. It means that the service can only be browser based - the existence of a local client application cannot be assumed wherever children log on - with functionality exclusively at the server end
We have considerable experience ourselves of online project interface design but we have been involved in direct interviews and exploration of the published guidelines from the many many reliable sources around the world. These can be found in the online database at
Any project or activity targeted at this age group, will stand or fall by the quality of the interface it presents to users. There is a difference between children being attracted to content and them being drawn to participation. One may be about signposting and metaphor the other is about seduction and engagement, much more challenging to get right.
The most clear consensus however is that any interface for chilren needs to be fun / delightful without being either banal or patronising. There are a number of other guiding wisdom's outlined below:
- Young children, aged 10 to 14 don't like to read instructions on screen. If it is not obvious what to do, they won't do it the way that was anticipated, or intended. Older children, over 14, will only read screen instructions if there is no other way to access the information they desire but they will go out of their way to avoid reading screen instructions.
- A child's response to the question "What were the most boring things...?" led to numerous response of, "Reading text..."
- Redundancy. As a general principle, offering different ways to signify the same thing allows the user to decide which cues are used and which are redundant. This will vary for different users at different times - just as subtitles on a foreign language film will be more or less useful depending on your grasp of the foreign language, your eyesight, how tired you are. This principle of redundancy underpins all good web design, especially for children; their textual capabilities, and cultures, vary substantially. For example: whenever text is used, graphical reinforcers are needed to identify and categorise its use. This is particularly important for children who are poor readers: dyslexic, early learners, low esteem readers.
- Children are both conservative and adventurous! They enjoy the familiarity of a constant interface BUT they like the excitement of change. We found that Nokia phones are extremely popular amongst young people because there is real consistency in functionality, such that any Nokia uses the same shortcuts to access, for example games. In site design we need to distinguish between the structural architecture and the decoration. A child's response to the question "What did you like doing best..." was "I enjoyed the freedom to customise and add ideas to the project..."
- Colour does matter but black and white is acceptable: Where colour is used it must be used meaningfully. Children are comfortable with the conventions that, for example, differentiate a visited link with an unvisited one. Many schools set their browsers to override site font colours to maintain this consistency. Similarly we found no schools where children habitually print the colour backgrounds from web pages. In many cases it was forbidden (too slow and wasteful of printer ink / toner). Thus dark web pages with light fonts are confusing to print (in the worst case white text on any dark background prints as white text on white paper). However trawling through the Computer Archive we found that one of the most widely used pieces of software in education during the 1980's was HyperCard. HyperCard came only in black and white but this did not limit its use (it was actively used in many schools until 1996). Indeed its strength was that HyperCard was a tool which allowed educators, without programming skills, to 'build' and share their own classroom applications or 'customise' existing one to fit their needs.
- Frames will fail: It is worth taking a moment to reject frames (bookmarking doesn't then work properly, printing is confusing)All our respondents hated them.
- Gratuitous animations only impress at the launch party: too often a project launches with sumptuous animations and rich palettes of colour which look impressive run locally but are frustratingly slow or invisible on some devices, for example a phone modem or a shared school ISDN line.
- Different devices have screens that come in many sizes and resolutions: design must be cogniscent of that. Too often only large screen formats are properly supported and this ranges from frustrating to prohibitive for users on other screen sizes, especially the smallest.
- Open standards are important: given that we know that the pattern of use is anytime, anywhere, anyplace we need to allow for this. The only given should be IP. Proprietary systems lock some out at some time. This leads to frustration and, in some instances anger.
This means that there is a long cycle of development and iteration to be budgeted for and a considerable amount of testing on different platforms in different social settings. This testing will need to be on-going as new equipment is developed and must be scalable if it is to eventually be applicable to numerous groups who need eLearning.
Although there are many, many online projects in education there are relatively few that achieve the engagement of numerous children. Those that do adhere faithfully to a set of characteristics including the interface guidelines above. This is very much an all or nothing model of development; subsets will fail.