Handheld Devices Make Inroads in the Classroom
Over the past two decades, personal computers have made their way into many of the nation’s classrooms, from kindergarten to high school. With more and more school computers connected to the Internet, teachers of various backgrounds have learned to navigate their students through cyberspace and incorporate technology into their curricula.
In fact, the creation of national and regional technology standards has placed a higher premium upon educators who are able to prepare their students for the technological skills needed in today’s workforce. However, it is a rare teacher who hasn’t experienced some logistical or practical limitations when trying to accommodate an entire classroom with computers.
In most cases, one of two scenarios holds true: computer labs must be shared with other classes, thereby fragmenting or abbreviating computer-based lesson plans; or the entire class is expected to share a few computers designated for their own classroom, making it nearly impossible to provide every student with enough computer time to achieve meaningful academic results.
Indeed, costs aside, due to the space limitations, it is unfeasible for most districts to provide a desktop computer for every student. Recently, a number of schools across the country have found their solution in the form of personal digital assistants, commonly referred to as PDAs.
What are PDAs?
By now, most of us know someone who keeps his or her calendar digitally using a handheld electronic device. Large, bulky weekly planners are quickly becoming obsolete, as PDAs are increasingly found in the pockets and purses of professionals from all walks of life. Slightly larger and thinner than a deck of playing cards, these hand-held devices are surprisingly powerful computers that can store data, share files with computers, display graphs and images, and rapidly exchange information.
With new wireless technologies, some PDAs even have the capability to access email or the Internet anytime, anywhere. Palm, Handspring, Sony, Casio, Hitachi, and Hewlett-Packard are the major manufacturers of handheld computers. Originally designed to organize the fast-paced schedules of businesspeople, PDAs are beginning to make inroads into some unexpected places.
Advantages of PDAs in the Classroom
While the use of handheld computers in schools is hardly widespread at this point, interest is quickly growing as they make their way into curricula across the nation. One of the most striking benefits of PDAs is that they can be used at the site of instruction. That is, instead of relocating your classroom to a computer lab, PDAs can be utilized by students at their desks. Or, should the lesson take place outdoors or on a field trip, students can easily bring their PDAs along to assist in data collection. Further, when students are equipped with handheld computers, only one desktop or laptop computer is needed in the classroom as students download their assignments from their individual PDAs onto the computer via an infrared beam.
One of the most attractive features of handheld technology is that the devices are reasonably affordable when compared to $2,000 desktop computers. Depending on the features, the price of a PDA ranges from $149 to $329 and can be given to every child.
PDAs and Curriculum
Perhaps one of the best ways to envision the potential uses of PDAs in the classroom is to explore innovative projects in K-12 classes across the country.
Fifth grade science students from the Lampere Schools in Madison Heights, Michigan are using PDAs to create nature journals and field guides of their schoolyard and communities. GLOBE (Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment) students are using hand-held computers in the field to document precise measurements and GPS (Global Positioning System) readings. Others are using these devices to create programs for robots, and physics students are using their hand-held computers to visualize Newton’s Laws as experienced at an amusement park.
Serving as stopwatches, data collectors, and calculators, PDAs are being used in Health and Physical Education classes to teach elementary, middle, and high school students how to monitor their own fitness. Students document their daily nutritional intake and exercise regiments. Additionally, students are tracking their heart rate after exercise and graphing their cardiovascular improvement over time.
In some math classes, PDAs have essentially replaced graphing calculators by providing the same capacity to visualize relationships between data and graphs. Actual stock and news data can be downloaded from the Internet and analyzed in class. For example, students at Virgil I. Grissom Junior High School in Tinley Park, Illinois are loading math and stock market games onto their PDAs, offering a playful learning alternative.
Language arts students use PDAs as a means for collecting ideas used in creative writing assignments and for journal writing. At the Eminence Middle School in Kentucky, a language arts teacher downloads most of the literature she needs from free library sites on the Internet. Standing within 3 feet of her students, she then transfers these electronic books (called eBooks), along with daily assignments, to students’ handheld computers via an infrared beam. Some handheld software allows the user to underline text and write notes in the body of their eBooks. Students can even create their own eBooks and post them on the web.
Handheld computers have been extremely helpful to English as a Second Language (ESL) students. At Miller Wall Elementary School in Marrero, Louisiana, ESL students enter new and unfamiliar vocabulary into their PDAs to assist in word recognition. In middle schools and high schools, ESL students are shelving the traditional, bulky dictionaries and utilizing electronic versions that they can take to their mainstream classes.
Aspiring journalists in Klickitat, WA and Berkeley, CA are using PDAs to conduct interviews for the school newspaper, and then promptly downloading their stories onto a desktop computer for editing.
In social studies classes, students are using PDAs to assist in research and reports. Students can download real time headlines from newspapers around the world. With mapping software loaded on the PDAs and endless information about global cultures on the Internet, students are utilizing their handheld as research tools in unprecedented ways.
Special Education students in Marysville, Kansas and Larchmont, NY are benefiting from the organizational capacities of handheld computers. Students are able to increase their confidence and abilities as they manage homework assignments and deadlines with help of their PDA calendars.
- At Consolidated High School District 230 located in Orland Park, IL, high school students are using PDAs and attachable sensors to monitor pH levels, temperature, dissolved oxygen, heat, and other qualities of a nearby pond. Immediately, the information collected by the sensors is recorded on student PDAs and data can be graphed immediately. Such prompt manipulation of data promotes visualization and understanding of the underlying math and ecological correlations.
PDAs and Student Achievement
One of the greatest strengths of PDAs arises from their original design to help manage schedules. Students benefit from this feature, too. In fact, some teachers report that they have observed student self-esteem and self-reliance increase as they become more reliant on themselves to manage their assignments.
Students can take notes in class, keep a schedule of homework assignments, write reports, share information between their PDAs, and keep track of their grades. Students can easily share information during team projects by linking their PDAs through the infrared beam-alleviating the reliance of one team member to be the sole record-keeper. Additionally, the sheer novelty of the technology, itself provides inspiration to some students. Finally, students who have been issued PDAs tend to appreciate the responsibility entrusted in them to care for the equipment.
PDAs and Parents
Some schools are benefiting from the fact that PDAs provide a reliable communication tool between parents and teachers. Teachers can download grades, notes on behaviors, and upcoming assignments onto student PDAs. When students take their handheld computer home each evening, parents are able to view the information and stay abreast of student performance.
PDAs and the Teacher
Beyond the benefits of personal organization, using handheld computers in the classroom can be a boon to classroom management. For example, when students are absent, they can simply download missed notes from another student without problems of illegible writing or misspellings. Software for class grading and student assessment is also available for PDAs. Some teachers ask students to use the assessment tools (quizzes, tests and games) to evaluate their own performance. Additionally, the transmission of assignments electronically between teacher and students can drastically reduce the amount of paperwork inherent in the life of the traditional classroom.
Managing the allocation of the devices is a matter of personal preference and resources. There are different models of how to manage the distribution of PDAs to individual students. Some schools assign a PDA to students for the entire semester or year. Other schools provide teachers with a class set of handheld computers to be used by various students throughout the day.
PDAs in the Classroom on a Limited Budget
With some effort, any teacher can devise a plan to provide all students with handheld computers. Some schools offer payment plans to students of $25 a month, for nine months so that students can purchase a PDA. Another option is to create an affordable leasing program so that students can borrow a handheld computer during the school year. If leasing or purchasing handheld computers for the classroom is not a possibility, education grants are available through some of the PDA manufacturers. For example, Palm has an educational gift program called PEP (Palm Education Pioneer Grants), and Handspring operates a foundation that gives both monetary and product grants to awardees. The National Science Foundation has also funded programs using handhelds in schools. Some schools have turned to corporate sponsors to provide classroom sets of PDAs for students.
Limitations of PDAs
The introduction of PDAs into the classroom can be exciting for students and teachers alike. However, it is unlikely that handheld technologies will replace the need for desktop computers any time soon. One of the greatest limitations of PDAs is the size of the screen (2 inches square), making it impractical and difficult to view detailed images. Further, due to their small size, PDAs are not particularly useful for inputting or editing large quantities of text. Such tasks, for the time being, are best executed on a desktop computer with a large screen.
PDAs have the clear disadvantage of potentially being lost, damaged or stolen. Any classroom or school initiative to provide handhelds to students must consider this reality and formulate a plan to handle such losses.
Finally, as with most technology, teachers must have the professional development opportunities, appropriate software, and administrative support to create a learning environment where PDAs become tools for learning instead of high-tech toys. However, despite the limitations, classrooms across the country are proving that it is possible to put a world of possibilities into the hands of every student.
Read More about Personal Digital Assistants on the Web
This expansive resource is dedicated to the use of PDAs in the classroom. This site offers product reviews, feature articles, feedback from teachers and students, discussions, and news.