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Laptops, Handhelds, or Tablet PCs?

Which mobile computing device is best for data collection? For Web searches? For grade books? For collaborative activities? Which is most practical; most usable; most economical? Members of Education World's Tech Team share their thoughts about how each mobile computing device might help teachers teach and students learn. Included: Advice about the plusses and minuses of laptops, handhelds, and Tablet PCs.

Laptops... handhelds... Tablet PCs... the choices for computing in the regular classroom seem to multiply daily. But which device will best help you teach -- or help your students learn? What do you do with a Tablet or a handheld in your high school history, 4th grade math, or middle school art class?

Education World asked its Tech Team members to share their thoughts on the mobile computing debate, and to offer their personal tips for using handhelds, Tablets, and laptops in the classroom.

For background information on one-to-one computing -- including information on using laptops, handhelds, or Tablets in the classroom -- see The 411 on One-to-One Computing and One-to-One Computing: Lessons Learned and Pitfalls to Avoid.


Only a few Tech Team respondents cited Tablet PCs as their personal choice for the K-12 classroom.

Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain, an educational consultant from Georgetown, Maine, sees the strengths of Tablets as being their multiple inputs -- which include handwriting, keyboarding, and free form drawing --, their search capabilities, small profile, OneNote connectivity, and closest-to-the-edge status.

Melanie Northcutt, a Latin teacher at Girls Preparatory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just received her Tablet PC and is "still experimenting." She notes that she can see real potential for math and science classes with the technology.

Tom Haynes, a math instructor at Culver Academy in Culver, Indiana, says, "I have seen Tablets at conferences and shows. I would like to have one on a trial basis and I think I might like it and be able to use the flexibility." He does caution that Tablets are more expensive and seem more fragile than laptops, adding that the "cost of playing" can make one hesitate to buy one just for fun right now.


For Sky-McIlvain, the choice to use a handheld such as a Palm or Pocket PC arises from their "extreme portability, instant file sharing, ease of collaboration, differentiated price range, and optional word processing functionality." She adds that handhelds are best when they are used by students for data collection in science classes, and as an "on-the-fly mobile tool for teachers -- interconnection with planning, e-mail, [and] SIS (student information systems)."

Find Out More From Our Experts!

Want more information on teaching with technology in the classroom? Check out these presentations from our Tech Team members: Classroom Management by Melanie Northcutt and Digital Portfolios in the Math Classroom by Tom Haynes.

Vicky Romano, a tech support staff member for student teachers at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, suggests using a handheld to keep class demographics. Include names, family names, and phone numbers, she says, and be sure to put notes on the calendar feature to remind you to actually make those calls to families at night.

The ease of data collection as well as the availability of information makes handhelds one of Jennifer Wagner's top picks for technology. Computer coordinator at Crossroads Christian School in Corona, California, Wagner does add that you can't have handhelds without a laptop or desktop. Information almost always has to be transferred back to a laptop/desktop, she notes, and "though I do have 'documents on the go' and can create word documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations from my PDA [Personal Data Assistant or handheld], I still can't print unless I sync to my tower. (Perhaps I just don't know how?) I guess I am just blessed to be able to have the best of both worlds -- a PDA that makes me mobile, and also a tower/laptop that keeps me grounded."

Robin Smith, an educational technology specialist at Hollidaysburg Area School District in Hollisdaysburg, Pennsylvania, is not as enthusiastic about handhelds, arguing that she still prefers laptops. She is excited, however, about AlphaSmart's Dana, which runs a Palm OS (operating system), and is "smaller than a laptop, bigger than a palm, more durable than either, and seems to work like a charm." These Dana's, Smith suggests, are particularly useful in science classes and for field-testing.


"As technology advances," says Paul Aldridge, faculty member at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "we no doubt will be using both handhelds and Tablets, but for now, we're a laptop campus." Most of Education World's Tech Team respondents agree, voting for laptops over handhelds or Tablets.

Haynes says the decision to go with laptops was simply a matter of timing -- Culver Academy adopted laptops five years ago. "In 1999," Haynes recalls, "Tablets were not an option and handhelds were fancy digital address books. The decision was driven by the choices." Now, laptops also are replacing the faculty's aging desktops, and Haynes observes that his colleagues are integrating technology more, now that they can take their computers home at night.

For Sky-McIlvain, choosing laptops means having access to

  • time-tested and widely available applications;
  • an extensive support community;
  • accessibility tools; and
  • media and probe ware support.

She also notes that laptops give more for the money, with more models and more options to choose from. Laptops also require less training, due to their close resemblance to desktops in functionality and appearance.

Calling laptops "a transforming vehicle for our grade 5-8 curriculum," Pamela Livingston, head of technology at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey, says the secret to success with laptops at her school was a strong preparation years earlier in the K-4 technology program.


Each device has its strengths and weaknesses. But, as Sky-McIlvain notes, "The most powerful aspect of all these technologies is their ability to realign, redirect, and recreate learning goals." The challenge, agree Tech Team members, lies in identifying what your school/class needs from technology, and then finding the device that best meets those needs.

Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Paul Aldridge, Faculty, Pine Crest School, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
* Thomas Haynes, master instructor in mathematics, Culver Academy, Culver, Indiana
* Pamela Livingston, head of technology, The Peck School, Morristown, New Jersey
* Melanie Northcutt, Latin teacher, Girls Preparatory School, Chattanooga, Tennessee
* Vicky Romano, college tech support/student teaching support, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois
* Elizabeth Sky-McIlvain, Director, Least Tern, Georgetown, Maine
* Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
* Jennifer Wagner, computer coordinator, Crossroads Christian School, Corona, California

Article by Lorrie Jackson
Education World®
Copyright © 2004 Education World