Palm Computers Moving From the Workplace to the Classroom
Handheld computers--those digital organizers that busy executives today can't seem to live without--could soon be just as useful to students, some educators believe.
Portable and surprisingly powerful, the little devices can be programmed to run educational games, operate scientific probes, and send and receive data over the Internet.
Few schools are using them yet, but that could change, according to Robert F. Tinker, the director of the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit group in Concord, Mass., that studies and develops applications of new technologies for education.
"It has a huge potential [for schools]," Mr. Tinker said of the handheld computer. "It's not the only answer to things, but it can be a serious computer for young children. I call it the 'equity computer,' a computer that you can afford to give every child."
Some models sold by Palm Computing Inc., owned by 3Com Corp. and the leading manufacturer of handheld computers, are available for under $200.
Unlike calculators and some organizers that are limited to very specific functions, the Palms are fully programmable computers, running the Palm operating system.
One of the models being used in schools, the Palm III, is just a little larger and thinner than a deck of cards. A flip-up plastic lid covers the screen, which has a viewing area that is 2¬ inches square. Text and graphics appear with clarity on the screen, though in monochrome black on metallic gray.
The screen is touch-sensitive. Commands are issued by tapping it with a penlike stylus or a finger. Text can be typed in by tapping a keyboard diagram or by writing a modified form of block letters.
The device can send and receive data files wirelessly with other computers that have an infrared port, and it can swap files with a personal computer through a cable.
Most people use Palms to keep their lives in order, by letting them look up phone numbers, scan a city map, and jot down notes--anywhere, anytime.
For the Hudson, Mass., school district, which has been experimenting with mobile computers such as Palms for several years, their greatest benefit is that students can take them outdoors to collect data.
"There's no inexpensive laptop for field use by students," said Sheldon Berman, the superintendent of the 2,800-student district 40 miles west of Boston.
"We have seen the potential for handheld devices to go home with kids," he said, "and to go out in the field, so kids could collect data and watch visualization of graphs, and see relationships in the data they were studying--in visual concepts--and analyze them."
What is lacking is an ample supply of software and hardware for the Palm that is tailored to classroom and educational needs. Hundreds of programs have been written for the Palm operating system, including games and presentation tools that could be used for learning, but so far programmers have focused on the business and hobbyist markets.
"It's a chicken-and- egg problem," Mr. Tinker of the Concord Consortium said. "Educators won't use them until there is a good quantity of educational software. But people won't develop educational software until it has a wide use in schools."
The Center for Interactive Learning Technologies, a nonprofit organization in Cambridge, Mass., is trying to nudge software developers to pay more attention to the school market by holding a contest in which programmers can offer new educational applications that run on the Palm IIIx. That model retails for about $300.
The contest--which opened last month and closes Jan. 15--will give awards in six categories: assessment tools, collaboration tools, "edutainment"/games, science and mathematics applications, sensor or control, and "8 and under." The top prizes will be high-end Palm VIIs.
Assessment tools, for example, might help students evaluate their own performance or involve parents in student assessment; collaboration tools could assist students, say, in staging role-playing simulations or in consolidating data collected by a group; edutainment/games are problem-solving activities with a clear goal and academic value; science and math applications might simulate physical motion or make population projections; sensor applications would, in real time, collect and display data from sensors; control applications might direct a robot; and the "8 and under" category is for applications simplified for pupils of those ages.
In a sign that the industry might be taking note of the school market, one of the four contest judges is Jeff Hawkins, one of the inventors of the Palm who is now chairman of Handspring Corp. That company recently unveiled a rival device, the Visor, which will go on sale in January.
Among the educators who are hoping the contest inspires programmers to look toward school needs is the Hudson district's Kelly Rogers, a 5th grade teacher at the Farley School.
The 23 children in Ms. Rogers' class have used Palms since last March, mainly to investigate the conservation area that surrounds the public school. Each child has a Palm, which is connected to a temperature probe and loaded with software that can record the data and analyze it.
"They're taking computers out in the field," Ms. Rogers said. "They're truly investigating their environment, their community, and their surroundings."
With their Palms, students can graph temperature changes over time in ponds and piles of leaves, at various depths and at different times of day. "They're able to collect this information and go into [the Palm's] notepad and record their observations of what plants and animals exist there," Ms. Rogers said.
Using the infrared port, the students can easily compile their data on a single laptop, enabling them to have a discussion without a retreat to the classroom.
"This is a springboard for opportunities and problem solving," Ms. Rogers said.
Handheld computers have obvious limitations. Because of their tiny screens, "they are not good at inputting a lot of text, or editing any type of text," said Stephen Bannasch, the Concord Consortium's director of technology.
Schools that buy Palms for their students must still purchase laptops or desktop computers for word processing and detailed color graphics. Even though handheld computers are relatively inexpensive, many schools will view them as a luxury.
"I can't imagine a school making a decision of a Palm over a PC, whether it's a desktop or a laptop, today. That decision is going to be down the road, where there are software applications making them useful," said John Lent, a vice president for learning ventures at Scholastic Inc., the educational publisher.
"Getting the Palms to complement classroom computers makes a lot of sense to me, if you take advantage of the portability," said Christopher J. Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "It doesn't make any sense to substitute Palms for laptops or desktops."
Mitch Resnick, a professor at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the interest in Palm devices reflects an "undeniable trend" toward many different kinds of computing devices.
But he added that Palms will not necessarily succeed in the classroom as well as they have in the workplace. Children might learn more from working with other devices, Mr. Resnick said, such as small plastic bricks containing programmable computer chips--a technology he helped develop that is now used in educational toys marketed by Lego.
"Things like Palms are the dominant way that the handheld computer entered into the business world, not that it's the best way to enter the lives of children," he said. "It doesn't mean it's the richest way or the only way."
Vol. 19, Issue 9, Pages 1, 14-15Published in Print: October 27, 1999, as Palm Computers Moving From the Workplace to the Classroom