The Special Ways of Handhelds

The Special Ways of Handhelds

Leveraging the power of technology to help special needs students succeed.

Handheld computers can leverage the power of technology to enable all students to succeed, including children with special education needs. They are cheaper than laptops, are more portable, and have more memory and power capabilities than handhelds possessed just five years ago.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that for students eligible for special education services, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team must consider whether they need assistive technology devices and services, defined in the law as any item used to maintain or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability. Examples of high-tech assistive technology devices include calculators, voice communication devices, electronic wheelchairs, and mobile learning devices such as handheld computers. Research supports the benefits of handheld computers in the classroom, giving students access to tools and data anytime, anywhere.


Two basic choices confront administrators when considering handheld computers for the classroom: Palm or Windows-based mobile devices? Palm devices are less expensive and have the benefit of thousands of free applications available online. Windows devices can have more power and function like a desktop computer also with many free applications available. Some popular choices of handheld computers for schools include the Palm Tungsten E2, Dell Pharos Traveler 535e, and HP iPAQ 111. Once handhelds are put in the classroom, students can use them to create essays, spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations. Students can also use them to animate a research project, read an eBook, view Web sites, print or send data wirelessly via Bluetooth, take pictures or videos, create and share quizzes, and beam projects, software, and assignments to peers or teachers.

Staying On-Task

I have researched and used handhelds in the classroom for years. My focus has been on helping students with severe behavioral and learning problems use handheld computers to monitor their own performance. A $30 commercial program called HanDBase allows teachers to create databases and forms for collecting and entering any type of data. No programming is required. Using this software, my students recorded if they were on-task during 10-minute intervals during a class period. They also calculated their academic accuracy and productivity during an entire period. Both methods produced empirical gains in attention and performance, among other benefits.

One study I conducted was with a third-grader with emotional and behavior disorders in Mesa, Ariz., who used a handheld to monitor when he was on-task during a reading period. The alarm in the calendar program on the handheld was set to chime for an appointment at 10-minute intervals during his reading. In this case, we set up appointments at 9 a.m. and then at 9:10, a.m. and continued until 10 a.m. The alarm reminded the student to self-monitor his attention during the preceding 10 minutes by asking, "Was I on-task?" according to a definition that the teacher created. The results showed a 34 percent mean increase in on-task behavior as determined by independent observers during the fi ve-week study. The teacher reported an increase in reading productivity and assignment completion.

Improved Performance

I conducted another study in Phoenix to teach six middle school students with behavior and learning problems to self-monitor their math performance and record their productivity and accuracy on a handheld computer. Using the same HanDBase program but with different forms, students corrected their work at the end of the math period using an answer key and then recorded accuracy and productivity data into their handheld.

Although all students scored average or above average on a standardized math achievement test, all showed growth by self-monitoring their performance. One student increased his productivity from a mean of 41 percent to 80 percent. Another student saw improvement in accuracy from a mean of 60 percent to over 90 percent. This study demonstrated that students could independently assess their math performance and improve their math achievement using the handheld self-monitoring program.

Benefi ts for the teacher included a decrease in workload, since students were correcting their own work, and a decrease in classroom management problems. Selfmonitoring attention or performance with pen and paper is an evidence-based practice with over three decades of research documenting its effectiveness with special education students.

Valuable Skills for a Flat World

Using handheld computers for self-monitoring is just one example of the power that mobile learning offers today's students. The power to collect data, analyze it with spreadsheets or graphs, and then send a copy across the room to the teacher by Bluetooth is one example of the skills needed in today's flat world. For today's digital learners, this represents efficiency and is becoming as routine as the old habit of banging chalk brushes together to clean them at the end of a day. Laptops are also good digital tools, but since they are weighed in pounds as compared to ounces, the advantage goes to handhelds.

Additional benefits of handhelds for students with exceptionalities include setting the alarm to notify them to go to special classes or to take their meds, recording homework assignments and due dates, using a word processor to take notes or complete assignments, and using applications for remembering multiplication tables, periodic tables and various math formulas.

Most of these features are built into all handhelds, but specific applications such as formulas and tables can be downloaded easily at numerous Web sites, usually for free. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination and motivation of the user and the innovative teachers and administrators that support them.

Daniel Gulchak is a special education teacher and the Webmaster of the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.