A Powerful Learning Tool In the Palm of Their Hands

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If you heard the sound of Palms clapping recently, it probably followed recent announcements that several educational Internet companies are serving up products for the popular hand-held Palm Pilot computers.

Manufactured by Palm Inc., the devices are ubiquitous in the business world. Recently, educators have started experimenting with ways they could be used to simplify administrative tasks and enhance classroom instruction. ("Palm Computers Moving From the Workplace to the Classroom," Oct. 27, 1999.)

The hand-size devices, equipped with a screen the size of a playing card and a stylus that allows users to enter information, are surprisingly powerful and can be programmed to run educational games, operate scientific probes, and send and receive data over the Internet. Retail prices start at about $150. The high-end Palm VII, priced at $449, is equipped to download Web pages and other data, wirelessly, from a satellite-based communications service.

And now Scholastic.com, the Internet wing of the venerable educational publisher Scholastic Inc., is offering a free information service for Palm-equipped school administrators and teachers.

They can get daily news and weekly deliveries of classroom lessons beamed over the palm.net wireless service or downloaded to a desktop machine through the Internet service AvantGo, from which the information can be "synced" over to any number of Palms using an apparatus that comes with the device.

Lessons will be on seasonal themes and standard classroom topics, mainly for grades 3-8, a Scholastic.com official said.

Another company, eHomeRoom.com, is now offering its Web-based school-calendar service for Palms and other hand-held computers running the Palm operating system.

The Atlanta-based company enlists schools and districts to create and maintain extensive online calendars of school activities, as well as homework assignments. School employees, parents, and students can select pertinent categories of information for their own personal calendars, which they can access and print out from a Web-accessible computer.

Calendars run by eHomeRoom.com may now be viewed—in some cases, edited—using a Palm device, the company says.

Combining Services:

A third conversion to the Palm platform comes from MindSurf Inc., a Baltimore- based company that was founded last July as a joint venture between a wireless-data company, Aether Systems Inc., and Sylvan Ventures, a division of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc.

MindSurf's business is distributing educational content and communications resources through low-cost, wireless hand-held devices. Last week, for an undisclosed sum, the company purchased HiFusion Inc., a company founded last year that provides educational resources, communications tools, and Internet access to school communities. (Web Sites Worry Privacy Watchdogs, June 21, 2000.)

MindSurf will adapt HiFusion's products to be accessible to Palms, said Norm Bloomburg, MindSurf's vice president of sales and marketing. The company will maintain HiFusion's nationwide sales force, Web-development team, and technical support and communication staffs, which will still be based in McLean, Va.

Tools Lacking:

None of these developments, though, addresses what some educators see as the greatest educational potential for hand-held computers: to be practical learning tools.

"What kids need are science-productivity tools and math tools," said Elliot Soloway, a professor of engineering, education, and information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In recent years, Mr. Soloway has developed child-appropriate scientific tools through the university's National Science Foundation-funded Center for Highly Interactive Computing, which works with middle schools and high schools in Michigan.

Mr. Soloway's focus has turned to Palm devices, because they are cheap enough that every child in a classroom could potentially have one.

One new product he has helped create for the Palm operating system—PiCoMap—lets students create "concept maps," bubbles that are filled in with key words and connected to other bubbles to show relationships. Students can use such maps to demonstrate their knowledge in any area of the curriculum.

Most educators will need to see several such uses of the devices before Palms become a regular feature of classrooms, Mr. Soloway predicted.

"You've got to have a critical mass of applications," he said. "You have to have the cool half-dozen."

— Andrew Trotter

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 14

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as A Powerful Learning Tool In the Palm of Their Hands
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