Handheld tested as teaching tool

Northern Virginia schools try out how handheld devices can be integrated into the curriculum

You could say Peter Taves, a seventh-grader at Frost Middle School, took his English assignment to heart: He wrote a haiku about his handheld computer.

The screen lights up fast The words from it trickle down It's like falling rain

Since January, Taves and 139 classmates in this Northern Virginia public school have been using Hewlett-Packard Co. Jornada handheld computers in what will amount to a three-year experiment for the school district. Frost is one of five district schools testing how such handheld devices can be integrated into the curriculum, whether English, history, math or science.

"Ten years ago, we thought if you put a computer in every classroom it would change teaching and learning, but it never happened," said Diane Reed, a specialist within Fairfax County Public Schools' instructional technology services office.

Now, the focus is linking technology with instruction, but the question is how you do that, said Reed, who is also project director for the district's K12NECTS, which stands for K-12 Networking Education Community Teachers and Students. The program has formed partnerships with several companies, including Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., HP and Dell Computer Corp., to provide technology in schools.

Frost Middle School (www.fcps.edu/FrostMS), W.T. Woodson High School and three elementary schools — Mantua, Little Run and Olde Creek — are part of what district school officials call a pyramid. Principals and other school officials from the pyramid are collaborating on how to strategically integrate technology into the curriculum as students advance to successive grades. It's akin to creating a business plan with an end in mind, Reed said.

HP has distributed more than 300 handheld computers, each with a foldable keyboard and case, to the pyramid, said Dan Marino, a company account manager. They also provided printers and money for wireless cards needed for Internet connectivity, which will come later, he said. The total price for the project is about $1 million over three years, he said. The schools are paying for training, hardware and software through grants and donations.

At Frost Middle School, desktop computers and laptops with Internet access have been in use for at least two years. However, using a handheld device was a novelty.

"We really had no idea how it would work when it was introduced," said Andrew Mark, assistant principal at Frost. He said teachers and administrators, who received their Jornadas two months before the students, had no model to work from. They decided they would use it first as an organizational tool and provide a typing course, he said.

The handheld computers are a boon for administrators and teachers, at least as a personal organizer, Mark said. But the potential is there for the devices to hold valuable data, such as entire school schedules, student profiles and contact information, to be accessed in times of crises. However, security and privacy policies would have to be worked out, he said.

Another concern was whether students, who could take the handheld computers home, were responsible enough to care for the $600 devices. Problems ranged from broken screens and keyboards to misplacing them to some thefts, said Mark, adding that insurance has been offered to parents via an outside vendor.

And just because the devices were given to the students, it didn't necessarily mean they would want them. School officials said most students were enthusiastic about the devices, but some didn't like them. Complaints have included the small screen, frustration because of poor typing skills and the worry of toting the handhelds around.

Despite waxing poetic, Peter, the seventh-grade student, didn't care much for the handheld computer.

"I don't like it at all," he said matter-of-factly. "It's too much of a nuisance. If you don't bring it, you get an F for the day in history."

His English teacher, Andrew Maoury, said that although he hasn't had any students send their homework via their handhelds, the potential for greater usage is there. However, he noted that learning-disabled students are making greater use of the Jornadas than other students.

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking ({http://www.cosn.org} www.cosn.org), said those observations mirror research done by other educators. "When given a tool like a Palm-like device, it can have a powerful impact on the learning experience for those kids."

In some schools, students are mounting a camera to take digital photos for reports or probes to get real-time data, he said. Teachers, he said, have also used it to poll and track students in a class by giving them multiple-choice questions.

There is also interactive software that, for instance, teaches students about how germs spread, said David Pownell, an educational technology specialist at Kansas State University (www.handheldlearning.org). He said handhelds "don't get in the way that laptops do. They blend in a little better with the actual classroom" and level the playing field for students.

While the Fairfax County school district (www.fcps.k12.va.us) hasn't collected any statistics yet, Reed said she believes the handhelds are making an impact. "Teachers are saying [students] are writing more, they're writing better, they're writing longer."

This fall, all Frost seventh-graders will get Jornadas. The next year, the entire eighth grade will receive them. The other schools, Reed said, also plan to expand usage but are likely to purchase or receive Compaq iPAQ handhelds.

Nationally, usage of handheld devices in schools has grown substantially, although still in pockets.

"I think three years ago, it would have been totally unusual to use them in K-12 classrooms," said Krueger, citing cost, mobility and battery power as advantages.

"Many districts are finding uses for that," he added. "I think they are increasingly prevalent. It comes from a desire to get to one-to-one computing. And the cost of doing that with a laptop or even a PC...is so much greater than a handheld device."

But while handheld usage is just beginning, some educators are already talking about PC tablets and other technologies.

Some say that PC tablets or light digital e-books could be the next step. Marino said HP is developing a tablet PC that might be used in the Fairfax County experiment. He even predicted that within the next three to four years, students starting in the fourth grade would have their own personal information devices instead of being issued or purchasing textbooks.

Reed said the district, which is composed of about 200 schools, expected to have an instructional model developed by 2005 for other schools to follow.

"There's a lot of technology out there, but are they really using it to make changes in pedagogy?" Reed said. "Probably not. I think we're just starting down the road. I think nationally that's where we are."

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