Handheld computers earn high marks

Industry matchmakers might want to take note: Handheld computers and education have been getting to know each other, and it looks as if the two might get along just fine.

This budding relationship is grounded in reciprocity, if not logic. Educators, administrators and students are looking for a way to best harness the educational, organizational, communicative and resource potential of computers and the Internet. Handheld computer makers are looking for a way to tap the market — some 70 million strong — of potential mobile users concentrated in 110,000 K-12 schools and 3,500 colleges and universities nationwide.

The results of these two driving forces are beginning to surface in the form of a growing number of educational institutions across the country using handheld computing devices in a variety of ways.

Companies such as Palm Inc., Handspring Inc. and Mindsurf Networks are learning how to develop products that meet the needs of teachers, administrators and students. Those very same teachers, administrators and students, meanwhile, are learning how to better coordinate, educate and communicate in an increasingly wired world.

"It seems to make sense that schools would be making the change [to handhelds] in the classroom," said Don Blake, senior technologist at the National Education Association (www.nea.org). "As these devices become more streamlined and affordable, they become more attractive to students and to administration. I don't think it can help but become a larger trend."

It's hard to quantify the number of handhelds used in schools nationwide, simply because the technology is still new to schools, said Kathleen Brantley, director of product development at Market Data Retrieval (www.schooldata.com), a Connec.ticut-based education market research firm. But the company plans to assess the market by next year.

Officials at Palm, the leading manufacturer of handheld computing devices, said education is currently 8 percent of their business, but that they expect that number to grow.

The company, in conjunction with SRI International's Center for Technology in Learning (www.sri.com/policy/ctl), has developed the nationwide Palm Education Pioneer Grant Program, (www.palm.com/education/programs/pepgrant) through which Palm provides computers for teachers and their students and evaluates innovative uses of Palm handheld computers in K-12 classrooms.

To qualify for the one-year award, educators must use Palm computers in the classroom and work with SRI to evaluate the impact of Palm computers on teaching and learning. In return for providing the hardware and training, Palm gets insight into best practices for using the powerful, portable and adaptable handheld computers.

Palm and SRI International awarded grants this year to 15 classes nationwide and plan to give them to 60 to 80 more classes next year.

Communicating, Organizing

Students at Beaver High School in Utah use handhelds to conduct on-site research and calculations for chemistry experiments. Middle-school students in Detroit use the devices to learn about sexually transmitted diseases through a program called "Cooties," which is placed on certain devices and spread via computer interaction. Sixth-grade students at St. Vincent Ferrer in Cincinnati are making the transition to junior high school easier by using the devices to manage schedules and assignments.

Rick Robb, an English teacher at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md., (www.howard.k12.md.us/rhhs) also hoped handhelds could ease the transition to high school for freshmen.

With increased course loads, more stringent academic requirements and a greater set of responsibilities than those of grammar-school students, the freshmen had a lot to handle. So last October, Robb, a former systems analyst, negotiated to get units for his English class. The handhelds — equipped with e-mail capabilities, Internet access and a host of educational software — proved a better way to communicate, conduct research, organize class materials and complete assignments, he said.

The handhelds worked so well in Robb's class that soon all 450 freshmen at the school were toting them.

Mindsurf gave the school the computers and all the trimmings for free, as a way to test the equipment. The school is responsible for the foundations of the local wireless networks, hardware in the form of Compaq Computer Corp. iPaqs, educational software and training, and support.

"We were looking for a couple of development sites where we could test and develop products before they went to the market," said Dean Kephart, vice president of marketing for Mindsurf. "We're not charging River Hill anything for our services, but we are heavily asking them to donate the time and resources it takes to help develop a product."

Robb said he had no trouble persuading the administration to sign on.

"There was a lot of overall support," Robb said, adding that a few parents were worried about how the devices would fit into the curriculum. But once they saw them in action, their concerns faded. "Now I've got parents telling me how great they are and asking where they can get their own," Robb said.

The freshmen at River Hill use the handhelds to check their assignments anytime, e-mail classmates or teachers for help and access the Internet for research.

For a recent class assignment, students used their handhelds to research how to write a thesis. The class searched the Internet for appropriate tutorial sites, downloaded information and drafted statements. In 10 minutes, Robb said, the class reconvened and shared notes, experiences and completed examples.

"It wasn't a full-blown lesson, but it certainly is a prime example of how our students were integrating this technology immediately into the classroom," Robb said.

River Hill officials hope to expand the program to include more students, but as of now, they plan to have the freshmen pass their handhelds on to next year's class. Kevin Chapman, technology coordinator for the Millard County School District in Utah, is trying to get buy-in from his administration for the computers.

Chapman would like to get students the devices, but for now he's working with Palm to get them for the administrators themselves. Principals are using handhelds to check students' class schedules; officials and local school boards are using them to coordinate calendars for meetings; and teachers are using them to file student evaluations.

Despite their newness, one problem has already tainted the idea of handhelds in the classroom — cheating. Students with the devices are finding that they can share answers to tests and do instant, spot research via the Internet.

Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., (www.d230.org/handheld) said the issue of cheating is ultimately one of classroom management, and a potential increase in the ability to cheat is a small price to pay for the increased resources the devices can offer.

Walery, who oversees the use of about 1,800 handheld devices by a cross section of the district's three high schools, said handhelds, in the long run, will redefine the para.meters of education to the extent that cheating might cease to exist as we know it.

"As we move away from the traditional group-oriented education — namely one teacher lecturing to many students — to a more individualized setting, where students can work one-on-one with teachers, and where students are encouraged...to find the information for themselves," Walery said, "the whole notion [of cheating] drops off as we know it because we'll want students to work together, share information and collaborate."

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.