Digital Days

Digital Days

From measuring the force of a soda rocket to writing prose, handheld computers are inching their way

Dear Johann,

My name is Schuyler and I live in Delmar, Maryland, U.S.A. I like video games and pizza. Also, I like to ride bikes. I am going on a 3 week break. Happy Easter!

From your friendly internet buddy,

Schuyler

Dear SSgt. Bradford, Sgt. Williams, Cpl. Hosford, LCpl. Kelly, Cpl. Turner,

Thank you for defending our country. Have you ever been in any danger? Do you miss home? Do you feel scared in Iraq? We read on the web page that it will be a high 103F on Sunday where you are! Wow you are going to be hot in that uniform! Are there any car bombings near you in Fallujah?

Your friend,

Tyler

Dashing around just a few grammatical mishaps, Maryland third-graders students at Delmar Elementary School sent e-mail letters in March to new friends in Peru. Students used Palm handheld computers to explain their favorite foods and sports teams. Fourth graders at the same Salisbury school get more serious, asking military troops stationed in Iraq a slew of questions: what they fear and how they cope with the brutal heat.

The students in this small, rural town may never get the chance to travel far from home, but the world is their electronic oyster. They learn about latitude, longitude, weather, maps, flags, animals, environments, cultures and even war in dozens of countries and continents from South Africa to Argentina and from Iceland to Israel. All on a handheld.

Welcome to the 21st century. Kind of.

It still lags far behind the business world, but education in America is slowly playing catch-up in its handheld use in K-12 classrooms. When handhelds made their big splash on the tech scene in the early 1990s, administrators mostly used them to keep track of meetings and schedules. And No Child Left Behind brought about the need three years ago for greater assessments given a plethora of data, according to James Sweet, senior program associate at Learning Point Associates. Using handhelds, teachers could enter data regarding their students' work and upload that to the district site for future analysis, Sweet says.

But using handhelds in class, integrating it with the curriculum, is just starting to make tiny waves. So far, out of 87,782 public schools in the U.S. in 2004-05, only 3,558 schools have handhelds for teacher use and only 1,629 schools have handhelds for students use, according to Market Data Retrieval.

No research has been conducted to compare handheld use in classrooms to non-handheld use in terms of test scores, grades, or graduation rates, but educators swear handheld-using children are more engaged and more willing to write and do exercises.

" I will never go back to traditional teaching. I can't do that. It's not as exciting. It's not as engaging for students. This is the hook." - Monique Shorr, sixth-grade teacher, Hartland Farms Intermediate School, Mich.

"Technology is critically important for teaching and learning," says Elliot Soloway, professor and head of the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan. "It is what the kids are all about. Kids today are digital kids."

Not only are handhelds lighter, smaller and more accessible for simple 30-minute tasks in class than seven-pound laptops, they are also cheaper. The total cost of ownership, or TCO, of a laptop is about $9,700, compared to a handheld, which is more like $2,100, according to Computing Unplugged magazine.

However, others would disagree. Scarsdale (N.Y.) Public Schools Technology Director Jerry Crisci says handhelds have their place in education and can be used effectively, but handhelds can't replace laptops. "Laptops are so much more powerful," he says. "You can store a lot of information on a laptop and the software on the laptop is more robust. The screens on laptops are bigger and you can do anything from editing a video to working with sophisticated databases."

Cathie Norris, professor of technology and cognition at University of North Texas, stands firm on handhelds. "The beauty of a handheld is when you want it on, you push a button and whatever you were doing last comes up on the screen," says Norris, also chief education officer at GoKnow, a provider of educational software, curriculum and professional development for handhelds.

"We estimated that handhelds can serve 80 percent of what laptops can do at 10 percent of the cost. Our perspective is that you take the existing curriculum and you add a little handheld to the existing curriculum. It's evolution not revolution," adds Soloway, also GoKnow's chief executive officer.

Software Drives Use

Even though handhelds have been around for a decade, educational software has been slow in coming. Some companies that offer educational software include GoKnow, Media-X Systems Inc., and Wireless Generation with its mCLASS software and handheld versions of reading assessments. Programs cover core subjects of math, science, social studies, and English/Language arts, but is still in its baby stages.

"If there is one drawback to handhelds ... today is the availability of educational content," Soloway says. "That will change dramatically over the next couple of years."

Still, Soloway knows a chasm exists with handheld use in the curriculum. "It is still only the early adopters," Soloway says. "But we're seeing glimmers of hope because laptops have also not crossed the chasm because people can't afford them. Maine had the idea [a few years ago] that every seventh grader get a laptop. It could work in Maine because they have seven kids in Maine."

Soloway is obviously joking, but it is comparatively smaller than say the pockets of handheld use in Maryland, Washington, Michigan, New York and Oklahoma.

And as in any true success of a program, teachers must feel comfortable enough to use handhelds. "We've done professional development not just for the whole group but we've done one-on-one mentoring with teachers," says Karen Fasimpaur, president of K12 Handhelds, Inc., a professional development and curriculum integration source in handheld applications for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. "Schools are getting more sophisticated with what they want to do with handhelds. As people get deeper into using them in the curriculum, 'with my grade level, my subject, my kids,' that one-on-one time is so great."

The Tools

palmOne handhelds or Windows-based Pocket PC handhelds such as HP's iPAQ, Dell's Axim, and Toshiba are most popular in schools.

The older 160 by 160 pixel black-and-white screens have given way to 320 by 320 color screens with some newer models offering higher resolution displays, according to A Guide to Handheld Computing in K-12 Schools, a 2004 report from the Emerging Technologies Committee, Consortium for School Networking.

"The PDA is going to morph and disappear and the sublaptop" with a bigger screen and better battery design will reign, Soloway says.

" We don't have a means to get a laptop for every student. This is the next best option - to give a small personal computer that can do 80 percent of what a laptop can do at a fraction of the cost." - Bob Melton,science curriculum specialist, Putnam City Schools, Okla.

Just this summer, Israeli company Fourier Systems released its NOVA5000, a new "sublaptop" that sports a 7.5-inch color LCD display and touch panel that runs under the Windows CE operating system. With a built-in scientific probeware choice, students can also use it for science and math. Pini Ben-Zvi, of Fourier's R&D team, says he hopes it's the wave of the future: "We want all kids to have these."

The handheld today includes rechargeable batteries; a touch-sensitive LCD screen with stylus and handwriting recognition for input; basic tools like calendars and address books; built-in infrared "beaming" capabilities; the ability to connect, via cable, with a computer; and other options such as access to Internet, e-mail, and wireless connectivity, the CoSN report states.

For example, students can write short stories and beam them to one another, allowing classmates to add comments to the stories and beam them back. "This would never happen with paper-and-pencil stories. No child wants another child marking up their paper," Soloway says. "And change is cheap this way. It's less threatening and more of an empirical observation. ... the kids welcome their classmates to make comments."

Another essential for classroom use is the projection device for class lessons. Margi's Presenter-to-Go, which delivers high-quality color presentations, and iGo's The Pitch solution work with digital projectors.

A document camera, for example, can attach to a TV or projector. And Veo's Photo Traveler that attaches to a Pocket PC transforms the handheld into a camera. Some handheld models have cameras built in, such as palmOne's Zire 72.

Math and science classes benefit from scientific probes from ImagiWorks, Vernier software and technology and PASCO's solutions for science, for example, CoSN's report states. And informational games are designed to reinforce what students learn in class.

Testbed in Michigan

Location, location, location works in school as well. About five years ago, Soloway approached Hartland Farms Intermediate School in Michigan to be a test pilot for handhelds and technology.

"We formed a huge collaborative with the University of Michigan," says sixth-grade teacher Monique Shorr, who took the chance. "I will never go back to traditional teaching. I can't do that. It's not as exciting. It's not as engaging for students. This is the hook. They're excited about doing research papers" and gone are the groans and moans of days past, she says.

The handheld program started off with students learning how to respect handhelds, she says. Now, 60 handhelds are used between two sixth-grade classrooms that test GoKnow's software programs and work out some of the bugs.

Using PicoMap software, for example, students will first take an idea and draw a circle around it. From there, other words can map relationships related to the main word. Using this concept mapping, students have visual lessons to understand complicated concepts, such as the Earth's atmosphere of different layers. The question then becomes, do students retain the information better using this type of program?

Shorr would say yes. "I believe it does support them academically from what I'm seeing in the quality of their work," she says. "They are more engaged as a result of the integration of technology and they get immediate success. I see the light bulbs go off quicker and there are fewer disruptions and behavioral issues."

Using GoKnow's PAAM, or Palm Archive and Application Manager, teachers can hotsync students' work on Palms to a server to view the contents of any student's work. And Shorr can keep tabs on where students are in assignments. "I can also delete things that shouldn't be there," such as a game, she says.

From Letters to eBooks

More than 10 years ago, Maryland Title I teacher Patricia Weeg caught the technology bug. She discovered how her students could connect with students two oceans away through an online globalization organization called KIDLINK. Over the years, her students have met new friends from all corners of the globe. Now, Delmar Elementary School students in Wicomico County Public Schools have an exchange with students in Cape Town, South Africa, where they can compare weather, times, environments, history, culture, and lifestyles. Using Palms and laptops, Delmar students view pictures of the rocky and sandy beaches dotted with jackass penguins of Cape Town while Cape Town students can learn the history of Maryland and Chesapeake Bay.

Using Title II D education technology funds, the Wicomico County Public Schools in Salisbury started the initiative several years ago. First, handhelds went to teachers and administrators to help them make data-driven decisions. From there, it evolved to use in the classroom, says Carla Hurchalla, coordinator of technology and professional development. Every eighth grader also has a handheld which is used like a textbook, Hurchalla says.

Only teachers who want to get involved sign up for training. "We don't want to force something on them that they're not ready to have," Hurchalla says.

She adds that the district uses program materials from K-12 Handhelds to help teachers delve deeper with lessons. "Having the K-12 curriculum helped our teachers move forward," Hurchalla says.

Eighth graders do concept mapping while third grades are creating ebooks. "I have watched this in action for two years," Weeg says. "It is amazing how the students want to type when they have that little keyboard in front of them on their desk."

Resistance Caves to Opportunity

Unlike Weeg, former technology specialist Ken Gray resisted handhelds at Mount Vernon (Wash.) Schools until Palm spent three days intensively training Gray on the ins-and-outs of the Palm. He became the Palm Educator Training Consultant in the fall of 2002 and his district hasn't been the same since.

The schools superintendent realized then the district could not afford a laptop for every child, Gray recalls. In the mean time, the curriculum director and others started looking at the Achievement Via Individual Discipline program, which selects students with potential for college but are not performing high enough to likely get into college. In high school, they have one period in AVID to take notes, keep track of their classes and assignments, talk about college and discuss what is needed to succeed.

With a $34,000 federal Education Enhancement Through Technology grant, Gray started small, buying Palms m30s, software and keyboards so students could keep track of their assignments and type. Using K12 Handhelds programs, Fasimpaur trained students as well as some staff. One special education teacher now realizes the potential for students who have slow motor skills and struggle with writing, but who can type on a handheld, Gray says. Another student diagnosed with ADHD also discovered the "power to remember things that he needs to do" using a Palm, Gray says.

Students hotsync their materials to a desktop computer where notes are saved in a shared folder on the school server to keep track of their scores and class work. Every student in high school has their own folder, accessible via a password, Gray says.

Bottle Rockets

In Oklahoma, high school science students are using handhelds to study the forces of a bottle rocket.

In one lesson, Bob Melton, science curriculum specialist at Putnam City Schools in Oklahoma City, used Vernier's Force Plate, which measures forces of action, and a low-g Accelerometer to have students measure forces on a two-liter soda bottle rocket.

The Force Plate measures the force of the water coming out of the rocket upon launching and the accelerometer measures the acceleration of the first six feet of the flight. "The data provided a very neat picture of the forces and velocity of the rocket at launch," Melton recalls. "Pop bottle rockets use water and compressed air to launch the rocket. The students pressured each rocket to the same internal air pressure and varied the amount of water. The resulting data really challenged their predictions and explanations."

Over the past five years, Melton says federal grants worth $800,000-900,000 covered tech support, software and hardware, including 2,100 Palm m505s, m130s and Zire 31s for eighth graders through high schoo.

Melton also uses GPS receivers, which attach to handhelds, in environmental science class in part to determine latitude and longitude of a location. And students use ImagiProbe, for example, to create a portable laboratory attached to a handheld, to collect water quality data such as stream flow and the amount of dissolved oxygen.

Eighth-graders use Sketchy to draw and animate outlandish devices for the simplest tasks created by the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, such as a contraption to open a refrigerator or trap mice, Melton says.

Deaf education classes use them in much the same ways as other students but also use the Palm's Zire video capability to assist them in communicating using manual signing. The use of videotape for this purpose is common in deaf education classes, Melton says.

Using PicoMap, kids can map photosynthesis by drawing lines and showing relationships. By the end of a unit, "you would expect a very large and complex map with ideas, words, structures and pictures. "We place high demands on writing and literacy skills," Melton says. "This is a powerful tool in the development of literacy.

"Those are strategies that make learning very personal and highly interactive," Melton says.

Last year, students in two middle schools who used handhelds grew in achievement at a higher rate, especially among the minority and economically disadvantaged students, than more affluent students who didn't use handhelds in another middle school in the same district, Melton says. "We always thought about the power of computing might be but never thought of computing in education would be. We don't have a means to get a laptop for every student. This is the next best option--to give a small personal computer that can do 80 percent of what a laptop can do at a fraction of the cost."

The Great Outdoors Meets Technology

Counting bird nests and eggs at Nassau Spackenkill School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has never been so much fun, according to technology integration specialist Karen Vitek. With various grants, Vitek was able to get 20 palmOnes for third through fifth graders to help them count and do other projects.

Fourth- and fifth-grade students take part in The Birdhouse Network at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has citizens, such as students, collect data on bird nests, egg laying and hatching to learn how the population of certain cavity nesting birds are changing over time.

On school grounds once a week, the students walk the trails where 17 bluebird houses dot the landscape. Students use handhelds to collect the data on the number of nests, eggs, and those that hatch, taking the confusion and focus on the actual data collection away so students can focus more on analyzing the data, she says.

Second graders use handhelds to collect information on weather, such as temperature, and then graph it by syncing the data to the desktop to use with Excel. "It was a fun lesson on weather and then kids can spend more time looking at weather," Vitek says.

WordSmith word processing program from Blue Nomad is especially helpful for special education students who struggle with longer handwriting assignments. "Once they started using handhelds with portable keyboards they really wanted to use them," Vitek says.

The Poughkeepsie students also watch the migration of Monarch butterflies, through a Univ. of Kansas Monarch Watch program, using their handhelds as data collectors.

In the fall, participants tag butterflies to follow their trail to Mexico. The tags on the butterflies, which students attach to the hind legs, include latitude and longitude of their takeoff town, as well as the county, temperature and date. In the fall, Vitek says she collects a couple dozen caterpillars at a nearby lake, brings them to school, and feeds them milkweed. Within 14 days, they start the metamorphosis into butterflies.

"I think on the math and social studies tests and when they have to interpret graphs and pictures, they are doing better in those situations," Vitek says. "They need more activities. They can't just do practice tests. They need more to build confidence. When they accomplish something, like making a movie or tagging butterflies, they feel accomplished."

Cons of Handhelds

It isn't all good in the world of handhelds. Gray in Washington says some students aren't so impressed with the handhelds while others "can't live without it."

A problem with handhelds is the fact that kids will be kids--take them and not return them. "The biggest issue that kids get into trouble is not because they make poor choices with handhelds, but their friends get a hold of them," Gray says.

Another issue is actual use for school. "Some teachers think they [students] play games with them and don't use them for school," Gray adds. But as with any new technology, such as cell phones, it takes time to iron out the kinks and ensure students are mainly using them for work, he says.

Because her Michigan sixth graders are so engaged with the gadgets Shorr says it's sometimes difficult to tear their attention away to listen to her. "You have to try to pull them back," she says. "That is tiring every day."

Vitek in New York adds that every six months there is a newer model. "We don't have all the money in the world," Vitek says. "It would be kind of cool to have a new set."

And Melton in Oklahoma adds there is still a problem with assessing the effectiveness. "We have learned a great deal about how to manage and work with handhelds in the classrooms but we don't have a good handle on their effectiveness of how to assess such varied teacher practice," he says. "There is a need for such educational research if the handheld movement is to expand."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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