Increased motivation amongst pupils has been readily observed in schools when they are allowed to use computers and other forms of information and communications technology (ICT) (Cox, 1997; Denning, 1997; Wishart & Blease, 1999). In fact, Denning (1997) reports almost universal enthusiasm amongst students for the use of ICT to support their work in schools. That enthusiasm has been seen to double or triple amongst primary school students given a personal digital assistant (PDA) of their own (Whyley, 2006). These handheld devices are small computers that can be used both off- and online via wireless or mobile phone signals. Many psychologists (Light, 1997; Loftus & Loftus, 1983) have used behaviorist theories originating from the work of Thorndike (1898) to describe positive extrinsic reinforcements generated by or associated with the use of computer software. For instance, children find the use of a computer rewarding; they get nearly immediate feedback from the programs on their efforts, which often includes entertaining sound effects, graphics and animations. Therefore, they are more likely to take up opportunities to use ICT in and outside of lessons. What is more, as described by Loftus and Loftus (1983), these rewards arrive in the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement which Skinner (1938) believes is the most compelling.
The importance of a perception of control and/or autonomy to pupil learning has been justified theoretically by psychologists studying the links between motivation and learning. Byrnes (1996) notes the way in which students can become intrinsically motivated when they have control over their environment, set challenges for themselves and satisfy their curiosities. He cites research by Stipek (1993) where researchers found that future competence will follow successes particularly if students believe they controlled the success.
Byrnes also discusses the role of self-efficacy, linking the agency beliefs (beliefs that enable individuals to personally control successes) proposed by Skinner, Chapman, & Baltes (1988) to the idea of intrinsic motivation. Control or choice within the learning environment will motivate pupils and so engender success, this in itself will, therefore, lead to further motivation.
Indeed, in his early work Papert (1980) advocated the idea of the user controlling the computer, versus the computer controlling the user. He built this concept into the development and use of LOGO, a programming language designed for education, in preference to the drill and practice software typically used. Papert (1980) also attached importance to the concept of the learner “owning” the problem making the activity of constructing personally meaningful. This sense of increased engagement of the learner controlling their learning by means of information technology has been noted for a while but not yet investigated on a large scale. However, it has been recently identified by the Kaleidoscope group (a European Network of Excellence) as contributing to one of the Big Issues in Mobile Learning (Sharples, 2006).