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Handhelds in the Classroom

Technology Center

Formerly only for busy executives, handheld computers -- also known as handheld devices or portable digital assistants (PDAs) -- are making a transition from briefcase to backpack. Education World looks at the experiences of four schools experimenting with integrating handhelds into the classroom. Included: School technologists share their take on the uses of handhelds in schools plus links to other great resources!

"This is what we've been looking for in education," Darrell Walery, technology director of Consolidated High School District 230, tells Education World. District 230, in Orland Park, Illinois, outside Chicago, is participating in what is probably the largest of several programs exploring the use of handheld devices in education.

Handhelds -- also called handheld computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) -- are small enough to hold in one hand and lightweight enough to carry in a pocket, purse, or briefcase. Several well-known companies, including Palm, Handspring, Sony, Casio, and Hewlett-Packard, manufacture the devices, originally designed to help businesspeople keep track of their contacts and appointments. Educators are beginning to see that the handy little gadgets can benefit students too, and handhelds are turning up in backpacks as well as briefcases.


PDAs provide the one-to-one ratio -- one student to one electronic
device -- that is necessary for true technological innovation in education, Walery says. School computer labs, even laptop computers, offer students only limited access. "Students need to use technology just as you and I do, not just one hour a day," he tells Education World.

"Inexpensive handhelds are one way of achieving that," Walery continues. "By using handhelds, we can get technology to the point of learning, such as on the bus or on the athletic field."

In Walery's district, about 65 teachers and 1,800 students use the devices in a number of ways. Through special software, some students track their nutritional intake and their physical activity to see whether they're meeting their fitness goals. Students in science classes use special probes connected to the handhelds to measure the amount of dissolved oxygen in a pond. The devices can also store and graph data from other science experiments and function as graphing calculators in math class. English students record their journal entries on their devices. Foreign language students no longer have to lug around heavy dictionaries because they can install them on their handheld devices.

The District 230 program uses Palm Pilots. The district bought the devices, then sold or leased them to students. The district also provides extra Palm Pilots that students who did not buy or lease their own devices can use in the classroom. The biggest drawback, Walery says, is the glass screens on the handhelds, which crack easily in students' backpacks and are expensive to repair. Palm has agreed to use plastic screens in the future, he adds.


Most PDAs come with a cradle that attaches to a desktop computer. A user can "sync" (short for synchronize) data between the computer and the handheld by placing the handheld in the cradle and pushing the cradle's "hot sync" button. The user can also install programs on the device by following the same procedure. The process works well for individuals who need to coordinate PDAs and home or office computers.

Although connecting one handheld device to a computer is easy, trying to set up many individual devices for an entire class is far more difficult. "We knew it would be a rough first year," Walery says. "Just getting the [software] applications on the Palms is not a typical hot sync situation." Walery's department has experimented with several ways around the problems and offers suggestions for other technology departments on the district's Palm Program FAQ Web page.


Ballard High School in Seattle, Washington, is conducting what principal Dr. David Engle calls "an action research project" with handheld devices. Students in one ninth-grade language arts class use handheld devices for organizing personal information, such as assignment calendars, contacts, and to-do lists. They can access language arts curriculum materials on the school Web site and develop "innovative uses of handhelds to help them be successful in high school," Engle tells Education World.

"We are measuring for personal organization, academic improvement, and technological fluency," Engle explains. "I took data measures at the beginning of the project and will take measures at the end of the project." The project also has "a quasi-control group," he points out. A similar ninth-grade language arts class uses the same curriculum but does not have handhelds. "Although this is not an optimal control group," Engle says, "it does give us a similar comparison group to look at."

The Ballard High program uses Handspring Visor Deluxe devices made available through Handspring, Inc., and through a grant from the Ballard High School Foundation. Engle describes the foundation as "a group of committed community supporters who have provided start-up capital for a number of exciting initiatives" at the school. Another partner in the project is PDA Verticals Network, a Seattle-area company that provides handhelds with pre-installed software.

"Students will be able to purchase their handhelds at the end of the school year at a heavily discounted price," Engle says. "Each participating student made a $50 deposit at the beginning of the project. This seems to have assisted the careful use of the handhelds by students." Engle adds that the results of the study would be posted on the school Web site at the end of the school year.

Although the Ballard project will measure student achievement in adapting to the technology, Engle says that he and other school personnel also use the devices. "Our security personnel use handhelds in their work," he explains. "They carry data about every student's schedule. In addition, I use a handheld device in the course of my workday. Several members of my administrative team use them as well. We are finding them to be very useful and supportive of higher productivity."


During the last half of the 1999-2000 school year, Northstar Middle School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, experimented with Palm Pilots donated by Palm, Inc. Northstar has several computers and encourages students and families to make use of technology. Students have e-mail accounts and electronic assignment folders on the school network.

For the Palm program, the devices were loaned to five eighth-grade students at a time for a nine-week period. The students were allowed to keep the devices and take them home. "It was an experiment to have a small number of students use the machines in any way they desired," Northstar principal Tom Fiedler tells Education World.

Students used the Palm Pilot's built-in software: address book, calculator, calendar, and to-do list. Through Palm's infrared beaming technology, they were able to access their electronic assignment folders and share data with other students using the Palm Pilots.

The school is no longer participating in the project. "I truly feel it was a worthwhile project," Fiedler says. "We learned a lot, but there is a lot more to examine in the area of student use of handheld computers."


The biggest drawback to more widespread educational use of handheld devices, experts agree, is the lack of appropriate software. Most of the third-party software developed for PDAs is primarily for business. Some business applications -- such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software -- are directly transferable to the classroom. Developers have been quick to provide other basic educational programs, such as grade books and assignment organizers. Educators are still waiting, however, for programs that allow students to brainstorm, to record a lot of separate ideas and then connect and interrelate them.


The Kentucky Migrant Technology Project (KMTP), sponsored through its parent agency, the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, serves public school children of migrant workers in more than 19 districts in the west-central part of Kentucky. The children's frequent moves cause discontinuity in their education. KMTP provides services and technology to help students overcome this discontinuity.

One of KMTP's newest services, project coordinator Mike Abell tells Education World, is the use of handheld computers. "Our goal is to provide portable technology students can use even if they don't have an Internet connection at home or at school," Abell explains.

Using a collapsible portable keyboard that opens up to about the size of a laptop computer's keyboard, migrant students can write short essays and homework assignments on their PDAs, Abell said. The students then use the built-in infrared communications capability to beam their completed assignments to a teacher's PDA. Once teachers have collected all their students' assignments, they can dock their PDAs to a desktop computer and upload all the assignments at once.

The devices also enable students to carry educational content around with them easily. Abell says students can store such resources as a Spanish-English dictionary, e-books, and content from an online course that they download to a school computer and transfer to the device.

Abell says the handheld device is an "affordable, portable appliance" that's "easier to use, more affordable, and more reliable" than a laptop. He calls the KMTP program "one of the first efforts to merge education and technology into an affordable package that can demonstrate results."