Workshop Position Paper

Kori M. Inkpen
School of Computing Science
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6 Canada
Tel: +1-604-268-6605
E-mail: inkpen@cs.sfu.ca


This position paper discusses the potential impact of handheld collaborative technologies on children's classroom work. These technologies may enhance the children's collaboration and in turn positively affect their learning in educational environments.

Monday morning, Brittany, Sarah and Madeline got together to work on their butterfly project. Brittany had found two yellow butterflies when she was playing in her treehouse on the weekend. She showed the girls the digital pictures she took of two butterflies. The girls examined the images of the butterflies and looked up information on the species from the Internet. Sarah and Madeline worked together to construct a hypothetical computer model from the data, simulating the butterflies' flight pattern. Later that day, walking home, Madeline happened to spot another yellow butterfly! She compared the simulation the girls created earlier to the real butterfly and updated the simulation. How exciting! She ran to Brittany's house and the girls discussed the new model. They called up Sarah (who was visiting her Grandmother) and showed her their latest discoveries.

While the above scenario is possible with existing technology, it unfortunately would not occur seamlessly. Most computer technology available to children is segregated from other aspects of their lives. Spontaneous discovery and construction of knowledge utilizing computers is often limited.

Two main goals must be addressed to provide for more ubiquitous computer use in learning environments: mobility and sharability. Mobility would provide children access to computer technology in all facets of their lives, augmenting their day-to-day activities. Children's activities take place in diverse settings, such as the bus to school, in class, on the playground at recess, in their backyards, or even at Grandma's house. Sharability would provide support for the children to collaborate with their friends and share information using computer technology. This would involve shifting towards development of multi-user hardware and software products or augmenting single-user products with collaborative functionality.

The motivation for using handheld collaborative technologies in learning environments stems from the benefits that traditional cooperative learning has been shown to provide. Educational researchers have noted positive academic and social benefits from having children work together in small groups [1,4]. Collaborative work is a priority in many classrooms and schools, teachers and curriculum standards emphasize the importance of group work. If we utilize computer technology to augment this learning process and provide seamless accessibility in the many facets of children's lives, the academic and social benefits of cooperative learning could increase dramatically.


Children's access to personal computers tends to be disjoint from the rest of their daily activities. Computers are commonly placed at the back of the classroom or in a separate computer lab and children are given a designated period of time in which to "work on the computers". At home, if computers are available, they are often found in a home-office or another communal area. In both cases, the physical location of the computers is separate from many places where children's activities and learning occurs.

Smaller, more portable handheld computers would allow children easy access to computer technology. Learning does not occur in a vacuum (i.e. math learning is not limited to the 20 minute math period each day), and flexible access to technology will provide tools to help children construct knowledge throughout their day-to-day activities.

Children's use of handheld computers is not a new concept. Many children's toys contain small, handheld computers. Nintendo Game Boys1 are small portable video game units; Tamagotchis2 are virtual cyber-pets that children are required to take care of by feeding, playing with and putting them to bed. One aspect that contributes to the success of these products is the ease of integration into the children's world. The children can carry these products with them wherever they go. During recess they can show their friends the latest trick they learned while playing Donkey Kong. After school they can sit on their bed with their friends and play with their Tamagotchis. While these products have been successful, they have been designed primarily for entertainment purposes and are limited in the scope of functions they can perform.


Most computer hardware and software available to children at school and at home are single-user systems. Computer hardware normally consists of "Personal Computers (PC's)", and as the name suggests, have been designed to be used by a single user. In addition, most educational software applications have been developed for PC's and also adopt the single-user paradigm. Currently, children who wish to collaborate while using these single-user products are forced to adapt their interactions to fit the single-user model. The children often cluster around a single computer and utilize turn-taking strategies to give each child an opportunity to interact with the system.

In terms of computer hardware used in educational environments, we need to shift from the single-user PC, with it's small screen, and single keyboard and mouse, to hardware that better supports the interactions and collaboration of multiple children. My research has shown that adapting the computer to better support multiple children's interactions can positively affect their motivation, level of participation, and overall achievement [3].

Software must also be adapted to support multiple-users, providing for seamless information sharing and maintaining personal and shared information spaces. Learning often involves a knowledge building process that can take place individually or in group settings. It is important that both of these settings are supported and that information can flow easily between the two. Knowledge discovery while playing in the backyard should be easily shared and discussed in future collaborative sessions to support peer teaching and learning situations and group exploration of ideas.


It is important to examine current research thrusts in handheld CSCW from the perspective of children's use in educational environments. Children's uses and needs are often different than adults and the goals of a learning environment are also different than those in a workplace setting [2]. Advances in handheld CSCW to support children's learning will provide strong academic and social benefits and will also help integrate computer technology into the learning environment.

My goal is to provide children with better access to computer technology and to develop technology that is better suited to their needs. Through the mobility of handheld and wearable computers, technology can become a natural part of the children's day-to-day activities, and an integral part of their learning environment. In addition, the technology must support collaborative interactions and the transition between independent and shared knowledge discovery. These goals will help provide a richer, more seamless, learning environment.


[1]   Hymel, S., Zinck, B., and Ditner, E. (1993). Cooperation versus competition in the classroom.

[2]    Inkpen, K. Three Important Research Agendas for Educational Multimedia: Learning, Children, and Gender. AACE World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia 97. Calgary, AB, June 1997.

[3]    Inkpen, K., McGrenere, J., Booth, K.S., and Klawe, M. Turn-Taking Protocols for Mouse-Driven Collaborative Environments. Graphics Interface '97. Kelowna, BC, May 1997.

[4]    Johnson, D.W., Maruyana, G., Johnson, R.T, Nelson, D., and Skon, L. (1981). Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement: A meta- analysis. Psychology Bulletin, 89(1), 47-62.

1Game Boy is a product of Nintendo.
2Tamigotchi is a product of Bandai Co. Ltd.