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PDAs Rule the School

Palms and other handhelds make the grade with students

by Ted Vodde

November 2001, Pen Computing 42

Ask anyone and they'll tell you that the basics of education are "readin' 'ritin' and 'rthmatic." These basics still represent the foundation of education, but how students learn these subjects is changing profoundly with the introduction of the handheld computer in the classroom. Just as business, industry, and individuals have learned that handheld computers improve personal productivity and creativity, so educators are moving quickly to bring this technology to the classroom.

This Spring, the University of South Dakota became the first University in the U.S. to require handheld computers for first year students. The University actually provided Palm handhelds to all first-year students as well as beginning law and medical students. The students will bear a portion of the cost through a small assessment during the four semesters. University President James W. Abbott said, "The University of South Dakota students live in a mobile society. We must provide a learning environment using the latest technology so our students can take advantage of the benefits of anytime, anywhere learning to better prepare for the future. Palm's mobile technology enables us to extend learning beyond the walls of the classrooms. Another benefit is that Palm handhelds can be loaded with financial calculators, reference books, literature, coursework organizers, and word processors, so we can considerably lighten the 20-pound backpack that the typical student lugs around."

Shortly after South Dakota's announcement, Forsyth Country Day School, a leading-edge independent school outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina became the first K-12 school in the country to require the use of Palm handheld computers and to pilot their use among students as young as first grade. "We see Palm handhelds as a 'transforming technology' for our students and for schools in general," stated Eric Peterson, assistant headmaster at the school. "For the first time, we have access to a device that can deliver on the fundamental promises of technology in the classroom. Palm handhelds are powerful, simple to use and carry, and they deliver a high level of utility at an affordable price."

The largest deployment of handheld computers to date is in Consolidated High School District 230 located about 25 miles southwest of Chicago in Orland Park, Illinois.

There 1,700 students and 65 teachers in all three consolidated high schools are taking part with applications in physical fitness, nutrition, biology, English, and science. The students use 8MB Palm units at a cost of US$225 each. This is paid in nine monthly payments of US$25 each or a US$75 lease program.

A key element of the District 230 project is the selection of PrintBoy Deluxe software. This program enables students to easily print their assignments directly from their handhelds. A student just has to point the Palm computer at a printer equipped with an infrared port, beam the assignment, and it will immediately be formatted and printed on full size paper. District 230 selected PrintBoy since it is the only application on the market that supports their printing needs.

Based on its innovative programs targeted specifically at professional educators, Palm Inc. is quickly moving to the head of the class. Just as Apple Computer went after the education market at the outset of the PC revolution, Palm is moving quickly into the market; and Apple no longer has a handheld computer to offer after the death of the Newton. To this end, Palm introduced its Palm Education Pioneer (PEP) Grant Program. In its second round of grants, Palm awarded US$2.3 million in handheld units to elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities to enable innovative teaching and learning, and to gain insight into how handheld computers affect teaching and learning. SRI International's Center for Technology in Learning (CTL) in Menlo Park, California administers the program. The PEP classroom grants are split between urban, rural, and suburban K-12 schools, both public and private. Information and forms for submitting a PEP grant application are found on Palm's web site at

"We believe that partnering with educators in doing research on the best practices and impact of handheld computers in education is one of the most important projects we can undertake," said Mike Lorion, vice president of education markets at Palm, Inc.

Out of the 1200 applicants for Round Two Palm grants, 80 were selected. The grants offer widely varied applications for students all over the United States. At Cory Elementary School in Romulus, Minnesota, students will address the loss of the habitat of local bluebirds. The Palm handhelds will be used to collect data to create tables and graphs. Cherokee Central Schools in Cherokee, North Carolina will use Palm handhelds to take notes and write assignments in classes that teach their native Cherokee language. In Harlem, New York, students will investigate asthma rates in the community. Students will research the causes of asthma, conduct community surveys and plot incidence maps. Whale Branch Middle School students in Seabrook, North Carolina will study coastal habitats. Over in Irmo, South Carolina, "Shakespeare Meets the Palm Handheld" will examine the potential of handheld computers to read and write about great works of literature in a 12th grade English class.

In Mountain Brook Elementary School in Mountain Brook, Alabama, Amy Nicholas' third grade class will participate in a cross-curricular program called "Super Sleuths." "This is a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge," said Nicholas. "Using a detective theme we hope to provide a springboard to explore the full range of possibilities the latest technology-based tools offer for the classroom. Students will begin the unit working in teams to learn about their Palm computers using a fingerprinting activity as an identification method."

Supported by Pendragon software, students will compare, contrast, and classify characteristics of their fingerprints by analyzing the patterns of arches, loops, and whorls, creating a class graph from the results. They will then use this knowledge to develop a series of scenarios about a lost object on which they find fingerprints. Using the identification characteristics, students theorize and compare Palm notebooks about who the culprit is, eventually proving their theory through analysis. "We'll use two websites: FBI kids and Youth Educational Page, and local law enforcement will visit the class to show students how fingerprints are taken, analyzed and shared through the use of technology. Students will use word-processing, spreadsheets, graphing, and imaging software to meet their objectives."

"Our class will be using the Palm IIIc," said Nicholas. "I expect that they will take good care of the units since they already have experience keeping up with small electronics such as a Game Boy or Walkman. We'll take turns hotsyncing information in groups and learning Graffiti will be easy using the Giraffe game. So far students seem to be most excited about the small size of the units that fit easily in their hands and beaming information from one to another."

To become comfortable with using Palm technology in the classroom, Amy Nicholas attended the Palm Education Training Coordinator (PETC) program in San Francisco this summer. Developed to train the trainer in the possibilities of using Palm computers in the classroom, the program has become so popular that Palm is expanding the number of workshops and will offer them in several locations around the country. "They put us on teams, and we worked together on a group project training us in Palm computer programs and wireless techniques," said Nicholas. "We were so enthusiastic about the program that we just bubbled over with ideas on how to apply it in the classroom. We even went out at night to look at star constellations aided by our Palm computers. It was really great!"

Samford University, a prestigious private school with a close relationship to the Baptist Church of Alabama, located in Birmingham, Alabama, will also play a part in Amy Nicholas' "Super Sleuths" success. "Samford University is our research partner," explained Nicholas. "They currently use the Palm IIIxe model in hand-held technology courses for their elementary and secondary education students. They are putting Palms in the hands of future teachers, which provides a tremendous resource for us in integrating our project into the classroom."

Alabama, like many states, has established goals for technology literacy in state classrooms. This involves placing a minimum number of computers in the classroom with Internet connections and requiring individual classroom web sites. Many school systems are finding that implementing state technology requirements is costly, and Palm computers can help meet those requirements at a fraction of the cost. One proposed solution is a rolling cart, as opposed to an expensive computer lab, equipped with handheld computers with a hub plugged into an Internet or LAN connection that can be rolled from classroom to classroom. Ideas like these can be found on a number of web sites designed for educators trying to stay on the cutting edge of handheld technology in the classroom. One such site is that covers articles as well as hardware and software reviews and discussion groups where teachers can find help.

While Palm's formal grant and teacher training programs combined with the low price point of the unit give it a distinct advantage, Microsoft is using its educational programs developed for PC software in the classroom to advance the use of Pocket PC units in schools. A goal one Kentucky educator is working on is the "paperless classroom." Stephanie Sorrell, who teaches language arts to seventh and eighth graders in the Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, Kentucky, is working with Microsoft on this vision. "You have to learn to dig in and not be frightened by technology," said Sorrell. In an effort to help highly mobile migrant students for whom English is often a second language, Sorrell's search for curriculums that could be translated into Spanish led her to the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project, a vision of the Ohio Valley Educational cooperative. "They asked if I'd be interested in using Palm-Size PCs predecessor of the Pocket PC and I said 'Sure!'" For the migrant students, the project helped to knock down barriers between those who speak English and those who don't, and migrant students felt more involved in the classroom.

Sorrell sees a good future for Pocket PC technology in the classroom. "I want to be able to switch from 'Romeo and Juliet' to 'MacBeth' without having to purchase a single book," Sorrell stated. "That can be done easily with the Microsoft Reader that comes in the new Pocket PCs."

The students themselves mirror this teacher's desire for a simple, lightweight alternative to textbooks. A survey conducted earlier this year by Versaware Inc., an Internet and electronic publisher, polled students from 63 colleges in 22 states and 87 percent believed etextbooks could be more interesting than printed books. Propelled by the proliferation of PDAs in the classroom, online publishers are forming alliances to prepare to serve this burgeoning market. Recently SkipWire, a division of Blue Squirrel, announced partnerships with Qvadis, McGraw Publishing Inc., and DiskUs publishing to provide the capability to access etextbooks by wireless Palm computer.

A recent partnership between Texas Instruments and goReader will offer educators another alternative. The goReader is a pen-based tablet device that features a 10.4 or 12.1 inch color high-resolution screen with proprietary user interface that offers navigation and feature operation such as multi-color imaging, note-taking, and bookmarking. The goReader holds more than a year's worth of textbooks, and students can also use the goReader device for browsing the Internet, sending email, writing documents, and creating spreadsheets. This partnership will combine the use of goReader devices with Texas Instruments TI-Navigator, a new wireless classroom system that uses radio signals to send and receive information between a teacher terminal and individual units.

In the Fall of 2000 East Carolina State began a handheld computer initiative called "Handsprings to Learning" with faculty and students. Each student used a Handspring Visor Deluxe including a Springboard backup module, modem, and MultiMail Pro, QuickSheet and Proxiweb software provided by the University. The project began with three courses incorporating the Visors into the delivery of academic course content. Initially, the School of Education offered one course on campus. The School of Industry and Technology offered two off-campus web-based courses. Based on the success of the handheld computer course delivery, the University has added new handheld-based courses. The professors prepare the academic content which is accessed from an AvantGo server secured through a partnership with Ericsson Communications and project known as Online Wireless Learning Solutions (OWLS). Based on the experience one student commented, "Once I got the hang of configuring and operating my Visor, I found that hotsyncing to get assignments and grades was quite easy. Overall I have enjoyed the course, learning about the Visor, and expanding my thinking in terms of digital communications."

One of the keys to making Palm computers a viable alternative in the classroom is a robust set of software and hardware. These enable the unit to actually perform scientific studies in the field as well as complex math that moves beyond the basic calculator function that comes with the unit. One such company is ImagiWorks, Inc. of Grass Valley, California. Their ImagiProbe unit attaches to the Palm like a modem with a powerful sensor probe included to record minute changes in air and water temperature. The software allows the student to control the interval at which readings are taken and then automatically graphs the finds so students can spot trends and changes.

The company also offers Quicksheet, a spreadsheet program, and ImagiGraph, which is a mathematics visualizer enabling students to plot explicit functions as well as graphs, tables, and the ability to animate plots. ImagiCalc, is a complete general-purpose calculator that supports trigonometry, statistics, finance, unit conversions and computer-style arithmetic.

While many educators wax enthusiastically about the spread of handhelds in the classroom, others lump them in with PCs and say that we should take a step back and consider their impact on children. The Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators, child-development and health authorities has called for a time-out from the overwhelming pressure on educators and parents to computerize childhood. The group calls for a moratorium on the further introduction of computers in elementary education, except for cases of children with disabilities. The group states that research shows that far better than sticking kids in front of computers is putting them with caring adults, engaging them in creative play, outdoor experiences with nature, the arts, and hands-on learning of all kinds.

Upon reflection, the group's objection seems to be targeted at the concept of setting children in front of a PC that isolates them from other students and plants them firmly in a chair instead of allowing them to roam and learn. It would seem that handheld computers offer schools the best of both worlds with the power of the PC and the portability of a computer that even a third-grader in Amy Nicholas' class could fit easily in his or her hand. The handheld computer also offers the benefit of keeping the students involved by adding an element of play to learning with something that's easily shared between students instead of isolating them. The power of the genie has leapt out of the bottle in the form of handheld computers in the classroom. A bright young boy in Miss Nicholas' class, working with his Palm computer, summed up this power saying gleefully, "This is fun!" -Ted Vodde

Ted Vodde, a frequent contributor to Pen Computing Magazine, is a freelance author and Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of Montevallo living in Alabaster, Alabama.

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