Handheld Computing: New Best Tech Tool Or Just a Fad?

By Andrew Trotter — September 26, 2001 7 min read
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As students wandered into Rick Robb’s English class at River Hill High School here on Wednesday morning last week, they fished sandwich-size computers out of their backpacks and set them on their desks. The class was instantly connected in an electronic network when they turned on the devices, prompting Mr. Robb to launch the day’s writing lesson.

Walter Worley, 13, uses a Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC to work on a writing assignment for an English class at River Hill High School. His teacher has students who use handhelds regularly.
—James Prichard/Education Week

“Let’s rock and roll,” began Mr. Robb, 41, standing at the small audiovisual equipment cart he had pushed into the room. The cart holds a laptop that orchestrates the wireless network and runs software that lets him see what is on every student’s handheld computer. He told students to examine the painting now visible on their screens: the interior of a crowded subway car. Choose a person in the car and write a first-person monologue of that individual’s thoughts, he instructed.

As they typed on the lightweight keyboards they’d unfolded and connected to their iPAQ handhelds, Mr. Robb could watch his screen to view any student’s writing as it appeared. “I said first-person point of view,” he called out to a boy on the far side of the room.

Mr. Robb, who has received special training and adapted his teaching to use the system, said handheld computers have opened up all kinds of new ways to teach. And his students are responding enthusiastically.

“I like it,” Alicia Lazaris, one of his 9th graders, said of using her handheld. “I also use it for my homework assignments.”

Learning Tool or Toy?

Handheld computing, once associated with only the most gadget-prone teachers and business people, is cropping up in classrooms all over the country, with iPAQs by Compaq Computer Corp., Palms by Palm Inc., and Visors by Handspring Inc. competing for the classroom turf. More and more school officials believe that the devices, which are relatively inexpensive compared with laptops or personal computers, are the best way to put a computer in the hands of each student.

But the devices have stirred debate in some schools. Administrators have banned their use, saying some students use the little computers to cheat on tests, play noneducational games, or e-mail friends inside or outside the school.

In Maryland, handhelds owned by students have been barred from campus since 1989, under a ban on pagers that defined them as “all portable communications devices.” The legislature repealed that law last year, effective next month, putting the decision into the hands of local school boards. For nine of the state’s 24 school systems, however, the legislature acceded to their request to keep the old state ban in place.

In St. Mary’s public school, one of the 15 other districts, a new policy allows classroom teachers to decide if student-owned handhelds are allowed in their class.

Even in schools that allow the use of handheld computers, educators have had to be vigilant in preventing mischievous students from using the devices as mere toys. In one West Virginia school, for example, students downloaded software from the Internet that enabled them to turn on the school’s television sets with their handheld computers’ wireless infrared-communications ports. Pranks were pulled for several days before a teacher caught on.

Some districts that have been skeptical of the educational value of handhelds, though, are running up against more teachers who believe the devices have a place in 21st-century schools.

Mark A. Evans, a district technology teacher in the 32,000-student Klein Independent School District near Houston, said he plans to survey school administrators next month to determine if they support reversing the district’s ban on student electronic devices. “I want to make it allowable, so if students purchase [a handheld computer], they can use it on campus,” he said.

Advocates like Mr. Evans point out that the devices are relatively cheap, with popular models priced between $250 and $550, depending on their memory and screen capabilities. That makes the goal of one computing device per student—what some education technology boosters say is the ideal ratio—almost within grasp.

Still, the growing buzz about handhelds is unsettling to some experienced educators and experts in the use of technology in schools.

Elliot Soloway, a cognitive scientist and education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said districts are making the mistake of just dropping the new devices into classrooms without making sure appropriate training and curriculum are in place.

“We’re going to make the same mistakes again” that we made with the use of personal computers in education, predicted Mr. Soloway, who has developed educational software for handhelds at the University of Michigan’s Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education.

He’s worried that many districts are rushing handhelds into classrooms without adequate preparation. “They don’t know what to do with them, or how to set them up,” he said. “There’s no curriculum.”

Wireless Lessons

But districts are moving ahead with experiments using handhelds. In Orland Park, Ill., Consolidated High School District 230 has equipped nearly 1,700 of its 2,200 students and 65 teachers with Palm III handhelds. Students purchase or lease the machines, which include software for standard office activities and for collecting data from scientific probes, such as temperature gauges. Classroom sets of handhelds and portable keyboards are available for loan.

Josh Barron, a history and world-geography teacher at District 230’s Stagg High School who uses handhelds as a supplement to other ways of teaching, said he was pleased that they have appealed especially to students who are struggling in school.

Last year in a history class, his students built a fantasy stock portfolio starting with $5,000 in fake money. They used their Palm III handhelds daily to check stock prices on the Web and wrote reports using lightweight folding keyboards that are a common accessory in classrooms that use such computing devices.

This year, Mr. Barron’s geography classes are using a Palm-based program called PiCoMap-one of Mr. Soloway’s software tools-which lets students create concept maps that show connections between various facts and ideas. For example, in studying a wetland ecosystem, a student types in key words— maybe “frog,” “dragonfly,” “water,” “trees,” and “air pollution"—into cyber bubbles that appear on the screen and then connects them to related bubbles. The concept map can be shared with other students or turned in as homework by using the handheld’s wireless infrared-communications link.

Mr. Barron said that “the kids who do have Palms get more into their homework; they do it on the Palms and beam it to me; you eliminate paper, eliminate notebooks.”

Even so, he cautioned that handheld computers cannot replace books because “on the Palm, it’s too hard to read.”

What’s more, he acknowledged that the gadgets can cause distractions. For instance, he said, students often use them to play computer games rather than to do schoolwork. “The games are an issue,” he said. “You have to be careful.”

Moreover, much like personal computers, handhelds come with their own set of maintenance demands, such as keeping batteries charged and transferring data regularly to more permanent storage on desktop computers or school servers. And educators worry that students, besides using them to play games, will use their Internet capabilities to access inappropriate Web sites.

At Colchester Middle School in Vermont, students sign their handhelds out for use at school, but they can’t take them home. “We really have an eye for supervision,” said Patrick Phillips, a science teacher at the 560-student school. “The first question to come out of [students’] mouths was, ‘Can it play games?’ They viewed it originally as a Game Boy.”

E-Books on the Horizon

In just the next few months, handhelds will be challenged by a new generation of electronic books, which have larger screens that are more suitable for diagrams and paragraphs of text, said Carole C. Inge, the executive director of the Institute for Teaching Through Technology and Innovative Practices, in South Boston, Va. The institute, a part of Longwood College, is funded by the Virginia legislature to come up with ways of using technology to help teachers cover the state’s academic standards.

Since 1999, Ms. Inge has been devising “virtual reality” software for handhelds that uses the Windows CE operating system. She has worked with Palms, too, but has found the 3-by-3-inch screen sizes of the little machines too limiting for virtual reality and other multimedia uses.

“I’ve got a spider, and I can look at it three-dimensionally, but if I want to look at the spider in an ecosystem, the screen size is too small [on a handheld],” said Ms. Inge.

In contrast, she said, an e-book with a 7-by-7- inch screen is large enough for virtual reality. And, she added, it is also easier to use to read large amounts of text, view detailed pictures and diagrams, and deliver computer-based assessments.

This is the first of what will be a regular page about technology in education. Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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