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Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.

:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),

First Experiences with OLPC in European Classrooms


Martin Ebner
Social Learning Department
Computer and Information Services
Graz University of Technology
martin.ebner@tugraz.at

Johannes Dorfinger
University of Teacher Education Styria
Johannes.Dorfinger@phst.at

Walther Neuper
Institute for Software Technology
Graz University of Technology
neuper@ist.tugraz.at

Christian Safran
Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media
Graz University of Technology
csafran@tugraz.at

Abstract: The use of laptops in educational settings is discussed by lots of e-Learning researchers
for years now. Since 2002 the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC-project) tries to bring digital
devices to developing countries avoiding the increase of the digital gap. Austria has been one of the
first countries in the European Union (EU) to start an OLPC-project on its own. The focus was on
the use of digital devices in education at a very early stage. Accompanied by a solid research team,
bringing teachers, e-learning experts as well as software developer together, a first attempt was
established.
This publication aims to carry out the description of the prework, the first real life setting and
concludes with the experiences of the whole research group. Furthermore it summarizes a
recommendation for a transfer of the project to developing countries.

Keyords: OLPC, XO, classroom, e-learning, digital literacy, digital device, children

1 Introduction
Digital technologies begin to pervade our daily life through the ubiquity of Internet availability by a huge amount of
different devices. As Mark Weiser stated in 1991 (Weiser, 1991) that the most profound technologies are those who
disappear he described for the first time the idea of pervasive computing. Currently the emphasis and availability of
the WorldWideWeb as well as computer technologies lead to a dramatic change how mankind is working with
digital data. These changes have a great impact on teaching and learning behaviors. After Tim O’Reilly introduced
Web 2.0 in 2004 (O’Reilly, 2005) Stephen Downes described the use of Web 2.0 technologies for education as e-
Learning 2.0 (Downes, 2005). The Web turns into a community of loosely connected participants who share their
knowledge and interests. Communication and collaboration became key factors (Tuchinda et al, 2008).
In the sense of increasing connectivity through different devices the famous expression A3 (anytime, anywhere,
anybody) reach a new dimension. Enhancing traditional as well as online teaching and learning standards by
ubiquitous devices is called: u-Learning. Zhan & Jin (Zhan & Jin, 2005) defined u-Learning as a function of
different parameters:

u-Learning = {u-Environment, u-Contents, u-Behavior, u-Interface, u-Service}

It can be shown that the switch to u-Learning needs entirely new didactical approaches (Holzinger et al, 2005)
(Ebner & Schiefner, 2008). On the one side it must be taken into account how digital technologies can be explicit
used. On the other side it also must be considered how e-Literacy of in teaching and learning involved people can be
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
guaranteed. Gilster (Gilster, 1997) defined Digital Literacy as the ability to understand, evaluate and integrate
information in a variety of formats delivered by computer. Eshet-Alkalai (2004) extended this definition and
provides a conceptual framework by splitting into several cognitive skills: Photo-visual, reproduction, branching,
information and socio-emotional literacy.
However, in the digital world of tomorrow education experts have to ensure that children are educated in terms of
digital literacy. They must be appropriate prepared for a broad digital environment. Furthermore problems like the
Digital Divide must be taken into account, which is described by the Association for Progressive Communication
Organisation (APC, 2004) as “the increasing gap between those who have and those who do not have access to
information and communication technologies, access to content that benefits them socially and economically, skills
to take advantage of ICT services, and the ability to afford to pay for digital services.”
As an important contribution to all these problems the non-profitable organization OLPC (One Laptop Per Child)
can be pointed out. The mission of the project is to empower the children of developing countries to learn by
providing one connected laptop to every school-age child 1. Of course the major focus of the project is to bring
digital technology to developing countries, but also for european classrooms the use of low-costs laptops especially
for children is of high scientific interest. Several projects have already been carried out (Martinazzo et al, 2008)
(Fichemann et al, 2008) (Franco et al, 2008) with focusing South America, particular Brazil.
In this paper we describe first steps using XOs (name of low-costs laptops) in European classrooms.

2 OLPC Initiative / Resarch project in Austria


2.1 OLPC Initiative
Professor Nicholas Negroponte founded the One Laptop Per Child initiative in 2002 and aimed to provide a means
for learning, self-expression, and exploration to the nearly two billion children of the developing world with little or
no access to education1. So the main focus of the project is to improve the education by bringing robust and usable
digital mobile devices to countries that suffer less technology. According to the digital divide (Nielsen, 2006),
especially the economic divide the project addresses to bring computers to children of developing countries to
contain raising differences in digital literacy towards children of industrialized countries. The concept of the OLPC-
project is that when anyone in the industrialized world buys an OX computer a second one gets sent for free to a
developing country independent on hardware and software issues. With other words the slogan might be “buy two,
get one and help anyone who need it”.
It is easy imaginable that there have been and still are special requirements on the development of the hardware and
software of the XO, because of lacking environment settings in the developing countries as well as lacking monetary
issues. For example, developed software must be offered as open-source products worldwide available. As operating
system the Linux-installation called Sugar is used and all programs are using the programming language python.
Furthermore to enhance the community partners all over the world have been established. In Austria the none-profit
organization called “OLPC Austria”2 cares about bringing the idea to educational institutes. Of course there is a
close relationship between this association and the project described in this paper.

2.2 OLPC Initiative at the University of Teacher Education in Graz


The “OLPC-project” at the University of Teacher Education in Styria (PHST) is the very first OLPC school-project
in Austria, even more the first within the whole EU. The project helps us to teach the children in a very new way.
The involved project partners had to deal with completely new teaching methods and to evaluate their actions
constantly.
The project was started basing on following decisions:

• The Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture called for participation on an OLPC-project.
Four primary school classes should be equipped with 25 XOs each.

• The hardware was sponsored free of charge by OLPC-Austria.

• Because four classes should participate, there should have been a special training program for the
concerned classroom teachers. Special Software for the target group should be developed before the start of

1
http://laptop.org/en/vision/mission/index.shtml (last visited: April 2009)
2
http://www.olpcaustria.org/?setlang=en (last visited April 2009)
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
the school-term.

• The research results should affect the studies for all forthcoming teacher-students at PHST.

In November 2008 the PHST has started the project with 25 XOs. The project class is a first class at the
“Praxisvolksschule” (PVS) of the PHST. This PVS is an elementary school for pupils between 6 and 10 years. As a
part of the PHST the PVS tries to keep up to date in modern teaching methods and technical equipment. Our student
teachers have to practice their teaching skills during their whole studies to perfect their teaching methods. The
parents had to apply their kids for this special project class with a written statement. Although the pupils are normal
average children, we thought it is important for the parents to know, that the teaching methods in the project class
will differ from normal classes.

The class consists of 25 pupils (10 boys and 15 girls) at the age of six. The children will stay in this school for four
years. Throughout these four years they’ll be accompanied by the XO laptops. For it is an all-day class, the kids stay
in school until 3 p.m., which includes eating and doing the homework. A female and a male teacher are alternately
working in the class to balance the gender representation. For the pupils of the project class are doing all their
homework at school, the XO laptops are not carried home each day. The laptops stay in school and are only
activated if needed. In the daily work the XOs are in use for several 30 minutes blocks. These blocks shall practice
the subject matter and work out new information in a connected and collaborative surrounding. The XO – as an
additional tool – became an important part for working on the subject matters in a new exciting way. Picture 1
shows pupils working with the XOs in classroom.

picture 1 XOs in use

2.3 Research team and role of partners

It turned out quickly that for the success of the the project, further scientific partners have to be involved. XO's
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
activities in the standard distribution cover a wide range of educational settings. Nevertheless, we expected some
gaps in coverage for primary education (which addresses illiterates in the beginning) and anticipated respective
development efforts.
Thus a collaboration with Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) has been set up: The collaboration includes the
department “Social Learning” and a team at the Institute for Software Technology. The roles of the partners are
manifold to ensure a highly valuable research output:
• Department Social Learning at TU Graz: Experiences about e-Learning in general and help in instructional
design of new software as well as didactical approaches in using it. Furthermore the department supervises
one project about usability issues of the software (how are children using the developed software, how
works the interface?) and about the user requirements (teachers as well as children) to achieve the intended
tasks
• Institute of Softwaretechnology at TU Graz: The main research area of the Institute are formal methods for
software development, and the main teaching areas are the basics for such research; in addition to that
'didactics of informatics' is hosted by the Institute. Thus it was straightforward to establish a developer
team under supervision of the Institute. One member of the team is a student of “Software Development
and Business Management” and another student is enrolled in the Teacher Training Programme. The team
collaborates with the Department Social Learning with respect to user requirements engineering on the one
hand, and with OLPC-Austria with respect to software requirements and architecture on the other hand.
• University of Teacher Education in Styria: Two Bachelor-Students of PHST carrying out their thesis by
monitoring the progress of the children in mathematic- and writing skills. Four tests in seven months are
planned to establish a pre/posttest experimental control group design. Additionally real working time (in
contrast to handling time) in the classrooms on the XO laptops will be measured as well. The importance to
distinguish between different times is well-founded in technical problems which distract children from their
core learning goals. In this particular case pupils of the project class as well as pupils of the control class
would have different practicing times.
• Non-profite organization OLPC Austria: OLPC-Austria supports the project with technical know-how and
helps to exchange experiences with the global OLPC-network. Our outcomes are returned to the main
OLPC developer team to improve the standard for the worldwide OLPC-project.

3 Research Study – The first Prototype


3.1 Experimental Setting at Teacher Education in Styria
The first year of primary education is the entrance to the Austrian school system. The children come right out from
the kindergarten were they predominantly used to play and learn voluntarily. Therefore most exercises still base
upon games. The teachers are very creative to find ways in making learning exciting. Of course the XO has to fulfill
these standards too. The Sugar interface of the XO has been adapted to meet the requirements of the creative
processes in working and learning. Collaborative writing and drawing cultivates classic educational goals as well as
social skills. But also scientific subjects have to be covered in these early years. First calculations in a number range
between zero and ten are followed by the very difficult ten break. It is very important to practice these operations
again and again. Our special interest in the XO usage therefore is to make these exercises more provoking and
motivating.

3.2 The software development cycle


The XO's user-interface Sugar follows clear cut pedagogical concepts3. To follow these concepts while extending
the basic set of activities was the central issue for development at TU Graz. The most interesting experiences in
realizing this issue turned out to concern communicative details of the development process rather than technical
details. Thus we restrict the description below to communicative details.

3.2.1 Observations about competent „ordering customers”


The development process started with requirements engineering (Bjørner 2006). Tthe initial meetings with the
teachers at PHST pointed out, that there would not be a final product according to some requirements, but that any
software product would not succeed without accompanied support structures.
The observations from the developers’ point of view were:
• The teachers are ICT-literates, who received knowledge in didactics of e-learning during their education or

3
http://www.sugarlabs.org/ (last visited April 2009)
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
during further education. They had clear opinions of which classroom activities could be supported with
which kind of software tools; they were far-off being satisfied with the software contained in the OLPC
standard distribution.
• The teachers pronounced requirements on the software clearly and at a high level, since the school
administration requested a proof that the introduction of computers does not reduce the success of the
learners.
• Teacher and experts on didactics underpinned their requirements on the software with well-established
principles in didactics of mathematics in primary education (Schwetz 2001) and with respective long-
proven experiences.
Thus the means for electronic communication, established by the project leader (mailing list, blog; wiki from
OLPC), immediately were used to align the teachers’ requirements on software with the (limited) capacities of
software development.

3.2.2 Development cycles and division of labor


Very soon the following needs for the structure of the software development process became apparent4.
Short cycles of development – feedback: Since the development efforts started after the XO’s had been introduced
in class several months ago, specific software was needed at once. A priority list of development tasks was agreed
on between the project partners, with top rank for software supporting systematic exercising in calculating, called
“ReckonPrimer” 5.
Another good reason for short development cycles was the fact, that software with rather novel features (for
justification of the novelty see the subsequent paragraph) was to be developed. Just re-engineering existing
textbooks or software would not have covered the requirements pronounced. And novel features request rapid
prototyping and early feedback from the users, first cycle from teachers and subsequent from the learners.

A mediator role for didactics experts: The requirements gathered from the teachers during the initial meeting
needed documentation. Elaboration of these requirements confirmed the well-known fact (Bjørner 2006), that this
task requires domain expertise as well as technical expertise. It pointed out that there are hurdles in mutual
understanding, and that the two parties have to develop a common language. Since we wanted not to distract
teachers from their task of personal communication with their pupils, teacher students from PHST and TU Graz
were engaged for the following tasks:

1. Elaborate the user requirements document: this task coordinated the didactical expertise of the students
from PHS with the technical expertise of the student from TU Graz
2. Check existing software for the requirements as established, since it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel.
Such research also collected various ideas to be discussed with respect to future development.
3. Provide details for cooperative ranking within the priority list of development tasks: e.g. requirement “We
need exact ’Austrian Schulschrift’ ” versus “We need summative feedback of this specific kind”
4. Perform usability-testing (Holzinger 2005) equipped with the “usability kit” provided by TU Graz.
5. Perform evaluation of the pupils success, following the test design established by the project leader.

In our experience the teacher students performed well in these comprehensive and laborious tasks, adequate
supervision provided.

Openness to a variety of application scenarios: After the first development – feedback cycle some requirements
were refined by the teachers; they were considered to be too specific.. This estimation originated by reviewing the
many variants and alternatives on exercises.
Teaching is an individual activity and individualization is a specific strength of computer supported learning. Being
aware of the fact that learning is an individual activity oriented process, the resulting design decisions were clear
(Bjørner 2006):

• Parameterize methods as much as possible; in our case e.g. the generation of numbers for exercises.
• predefine Parameters in respective settings; in our case the kind and frequency of feedback, explanations by
graphics, etc.

4
Concerns with the XO’s operating system and hardware, see Sect.2.
5
http://www.ist.tugraz.at/projects/isac/rp/reckonprimer.html (last visited April 2009)
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
• Abstract to appropriate data structures; in our case exercises which can be defined, sequenced, edited.

Parameterization, settings and definition of exercises within learning sequences requires authoring; thus the
generalization of e-learning tools raises demands on those who use the tools, learners as well as teachers and course
designers; this is concern of the subsequent subsection.
One issue of software design is to provide all of the users with appropriate authoring tools and furthermore to
provide the learners with feedback not only about the actual exercise but also about their progress within their
course.

3.2.3 Findings for development of e-learning tools


The three points mentioned in the previous section are considered typical for educational software development
processes — an interdisciplinary cooperation between developers, experts on didactics and teachers. The active
involvement of both, experts on didactics and teachers, pertains to the “production phase” of learning and exercising
in order to accomplish appropriate adaption of the exercises. Thus the involvement shifts from developers to users
during the software life-cycle as follows:

1. Usability can be optimized by short development – feedback cycles. The feedback is not only important
from the learners, but also from those who are concerned with preparing, monitoring and evaluating the
learning process, i.e. the teachers.
2. Individualization is only possible by profound abstraction of learning processes, which systematically
identifies the possibilities of variation; this abstraction requires intimate cooperation between didactic
experts and technical designers.
3. Authoring is the consequence of features for individualization (parametrization, settings, definition and
sequencing of exercises). The acceptance of authoring by the teachers in the project team was easily
achieved, because it reflected their personal expectations.
4. Model courses for different learning situations should be created as soon as possible. Such different
situations might be different abilities of the learners, different teaching styles, different kinds of school
organization (all-day or half-day school) etc.
5. Community building among the teachers might originate from the teachers involved in the project. They
are the kernel that shall transfer their enthusiasm to their colleagues, their experiences, and even their
visions for further development of the software6.
6. A support system should be provided by the school administration, which enables the teachers to personal
cooperation and to exchange of experiences, which methodizes the learning sequences for individual
adoption, and which installs respective Web2.0 facilities.
The bullets 4, 5 and 6 have not been realized yet within the actual project. These points state the challenge for
educational administrators to transfer the involvement and enthusiasm of teachers in the development phase into the
production phase. In section 5.1 this challenge is even extended to developing countries.

4 Discussion
4.1 Experiences from the real-life adoption
Unfortunately only one of the four project classes was approved, which changed the intended collaboration plans.
Another problem was the delivery of the XOs: they were delivered to the school eight weeks after the start of the
school-term. Therefore the hardware could not be tested as well as software to brief teachers. Therefore teachers fall
back to established teaching methods and the use of the XOs degraded to a further additional tool for education.
Some technical difficulties made it even harder for the classroom teachers to use the XOs during the lessons:

• Design: Most of the applications on base of the Sugar operating system work with written buttons; for six
years old children it is hard to use them without guidance. For example if they stop an activity, they have to
press a “Stop” button. The main design was built to be easily understandable, even without reading. But if
they made any changes without saving, the application asks whether to stop with or without saving. For
children who even cannot read a single German word yet, it is impossible to answer this question.

6
We do not advise, however, that the community should be centered on any kind of software; rather it must
be more general and concern at least the whole subject matter.
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
• Beamer: A beamer would be very useful for the teacher in classroom, but there’s no way to connect one to
an XO. A classroom server has to be implemented on a standard PC. The Sugar user interface can be
beamed easily.

• Connectivity: The mesh network, which should connect different XOs just in time, seems not to be very
stable. If all children are connected at the same time, they temporarily get disconnected. A reconnection is
hard, for they have to read again. Therefore we installed a WLAN router. But in fact it did not help much.
The classroom server had to help again.

• Activities: The applications (“activities”) on the XO are spread through a wide range of age groups but
miss some basic functionality. But for the beginning it is essential to have software for the training of
reading, calculating, writing and typewriting. Such programs are not available yet.

4.2 Experiences of the first developing steps


The first steps of development might be quite typical for educational software:

1. A rapid prototype was delivered to PVS as soon as possible. However, functionalities implemented first
have been determined carefully with respect to didactical (not technical) considerations: The learners
freedom of choice was ensured immediately. In this case the choice concerns the range of numbers (in this
case 0..5) and the position of the cursor for input (in this case all three possibilities for one calculation, e.g.
2+3=?, 2+?=5, ?+3=5). There are other choices as well. Choice is indispensable for individualization (see
Sect.3.2.3 Pt.2) and for fostering independent learning.

2. The above choice was selected as an default, because earlier experiences with such software predicted
difficulties for some, but not all learners in the XO class. This fact not only motivates learners to adapt their
exercises, but also motivates teachers to reflect certain difficulties 7 -- and such reflection involves teachers
into stating further user requirements.

3. All other features have been postponed after the first prototype, since engagement of teachers is definitly
more persistent: authoring (see Sect.3.2.3 Pt.3), course design (Sect.3.2.3 Pt.4) and support system
(Sect.3.2.3 Pt.5) will be an issue for years.

4.3 Recommendations for transfer to developing countries


Transfer of products and techniques into other socio-economic contexts and in particular transfer of educational
material into other cultural situations needs caution and careful cooperation. This fact is well reflected by the XO’s
concept of basic (software supported) activities, which are open for varieties of usage and for adaption to the users’
needs.
The OLPC-project, however, strives for highly elaborated methods of didactics for the basic arithmetic operations.
Nevertheless, we do not recommend a top-down transfer via ministries and universities within official foreign aid;
rather, we suggest to trust the democratic potential of ICT and follow a bottom-up approach:
1. Rely on the facts, that numbers areubiquitous, that operating with numbers is an indispensable civilization
technique (independent from socio-cultural affairs), that calculating by heart needs exercising all around
the world. Thus we have
1. All prerequisites for ubiquitous acceptance
2. Good reasons for mutual understanding on this topic in international contacts
3. Occasions for school twinning, not only about this topic (while it might be funny to compare the
performance in reckoning between peers from different countries, already personally introduced to
each other via internet)

7
For those who are surprised: The fact that these default settings cause difficulties for learners is not due to
specialties of the particular class. Rather, software makes difficulties apparent, which are not detected within paper
and pencil work. To overcome exactly these difficulties (in particular to see equivalences within 2+3=?, 2+?=5,
?+3=5, 5=2+?, 5=?+3, ?=2+3) is necessary to foster abstract concepts of concrete calculations.
Originally published at: Ebner, M.; Dorfinger, J.; Neuper, W.; Safran, C.:
First Experiences woth OLPC in European Classrooms. - in: E-Learn - World Conference on E-Learning in
Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education ; 2009 (2009),
4. Opportunities for early language learning (for instance, when gathering virtual teams consisting of
peers from different countries, and using the XO’s loudspeakers for generating the words in the
respective language).
2. Support community building, local and international: The opportunities for international contacts as
indicated above need to be complemented by local cooperation. Only local cooperation can optimize
learning with respect to the local situations; this should be supported by Web2.0 features:
1. A wiki describes the didactics of reckoning in primary education, while the description is open for
personal amendments according to local specialties; a description generated according to Sect.3.3 No.4
and written in German (containing many pictures!) shall be available in the same wiki and might serve
as a model.
2. Newsgroups shall offer opportunities to discuss didactics of reckoning in primary education, and to
exchange exercises.
3. Mailing lists serve for distribution of information (see the subsequent point).
3. By that way European experiences (see Sect.3.3 No.5) can be transferred to developing countries in a
bottom-up approach. The same might work for the following point:
4. Develop a local didactical support system: An information structure built bottom-up as described above
might be complemented by top-down approaches via UNESCO and ministries or UNI/IIST and
universities. The installation of educational support systems as described in Sect.3.3 No.6 might be even
more efficient in developing countries.
Summarizing: the topic of the software developed first in this project has the potential for fruitful development
assistance, provided appropriate contacts via internet at a full range from curriculum developers, educators, teachers
to students. These contacts might start with predominant contributions from Europe, but seem to have good changes
to shift completely to local communities.

5 Conclusion
In the end we like to conclude that the OLPC project itself has a great impact on bringing computer literacy to
developing countries. In contrast the role of these mobile devices in the industrialized world (and in this particular
example European world) differs arbitrarily. Because there are comparatively less problems concerning hardware
issues as well as software and internet availabilities, the research work has to concentrate on the use of digital
devices on a very early stage of education. Bearing in mind the increasing importance of digital literacy education
institutes must think how the integration of laptops can be done worthwhile. Due to this fact the authors address to
the question: Can education be improved by using such digital devices? This paper reported the first experiences
done in Austria and stated that further studies will be necessary to enhance traditional education by using digital
devices.

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