Palm Readers

January 01, 2002 3 min read
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Hand-held computers hint at the classroom of tomorrow.

Rick Robb believes his students at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland, have seen the future of education—and it’s the size of a sandwich.

In a recent English class, his students fished small, hand-held iPAQ computers out of their backpacks and set them on their desks. Turning on the devices, the kids instantly connected to an electronic network controlled by a laptop on their teacher’s audiovisual equipment cart, and Robb launched the day’s writing lesson.

The teacher told his students to examine a painting 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 the teenagers typed on the lightweight keyboards they’d unfolded and connected to their iPAQ hand-helds, Robb watched his screen to view each student’s work as it progressed. “I said first-person point of view,” he called out to a boy on the far side of the room.

Hand-held computing, once associated with only the most gadget-prone teachers and businesspeople, is cropping up in classrooms all over the country, with iPAQs by Compaq Computer Corporation, Palms by Palm Inc., and Visors by Handspring Inc. competing for classroom turf. More and more school officials believe the devices, which are relatively inexpensive compared with laptops or personal computers, are the best way to get technology into the hands of every child. And teachers like Robb, who have received special training in educational uses of hand- helds, claim they open up new ways to teach.

But others are not so sure the little devices are all they’re cracked up to be. Much like personal computers, hand-helds come with their own set of maintenance demands, such as keeping batteries charged and regularly transferring data to more permanent storage on desktop computers or school servers. And in many districts, administrators have banned hand-helds because, they say, students can use them to cheat on tests, play noneducational games, e-mail friends, or access inappropriate Web sites.

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 hand-held computers’ wireless technology. The kids pulled pranks for several days before a teacher caught on.

Josh Barron, a history and geography teacher at Stagg High School in Orland Park, Illinois, acknowledges that the gadgets can cause distractions. “The games are an issue,” he says. “You have to be careful.”

But, he argues, acting as a computer cop from time to time is worth the benefits. “The kids who do have Palms get more into their homework,” he says. “They do it on the Palms and beam it to me; you eliminate paper, eliminate notebooks.” He notes that students who struggle in school seem particularly to like hand-helds.

And the devices allow the teacher to draw students into learning in exciting ways. For example, last year in a history class, Barron’s students built a fantasy stock portfolio starting with $5,000 in fake money. They used their hand-helds daily to check stock prices on the Web and typed reports on their folding keyboards.

So are hand-held computers set to become a staple in 21st-century classrooms? That probably depends on how well they compare or combine with other emerging technologies, experts say.

A serious challenger to palm-size computing is the new generation of electronic books, which have larger screens that are more suitable for diagrams and paragraphs of text, says Carole Inge, executive director of the Institute for Teaching Through Technology and Innovative Practices, in South Boston, Virginia. A software designer, Inge has worked with seven-by- seven-inch e-book formats and three-by-three-inch Palm screens, and, she says, hand-held computers’ diminutive size is a drawback when it comes to virtual reality and other multimedia.

On a Palm, she explains, “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.”

—Andrew Trotter

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