Oct 12 2006

How To Determine What Technology Is Right For You

Notebooks, handhelds and Tablet PCs are different animals with distinct roles. Once you know the goal you want to achieve, pick the right kind of device and the right kind of application.

The Region 16 Education Service Center in Amarillo is responsible for an area larger than West Virginia but the staff there can attest that not everything is bigger in Texas. The educational technology budget is not big enough to provide every student with a notebook, so the technology appearing in children’s hands as they prepare for their statewide achievement tests is more modestly sized—palm-sized to be exact.

This year, the center, which provides technology and instructional services to 64 school districts, will give about 2,000 Palm handhelds to 3,700 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and their teachers in 16 districts. The Panhandle Academic Achievement in Literacy and Math (PAALM) grant brings the region closer to its ideal of having a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio for only $900,000. That money will also buy printers, mini-keyboards, software and other classroom essentials. “Notebooks are great if a school can afford to purchase them,” says Instructional Technology Coordinator Paulette Baumgardner. “But right now, to get a one-to-one ratio, you have to have handhelds.”

Despite some high-profile programs in Maine, Henrico County, Va., and districts that have blessed thousands of students with individual notebooks, schools are hard pressed to come up with a computer for every student. Many are turning to handhelds and Tablet PCs to meet their students’ computing needs.

Dale McRitchie, technology coordinator for the Medina (Ohio) City Schools, says he still has thank-you cards from students in a class that used Palm handhelds for a lesson on Mendelian genetics. With Palms in hand, they milled about, interviewing each other to record dominant and recessive traits and to compile mini-genomes. “You can make the Palms do almost everything the notebooks can do,” McRitchie says. The district has four classroom sets of Palms. “I sacrificed buying a few computers [but] everybody can do the classroom activity all at once.”

Making the most of handhelds

Of course it takes shrewd management to extract big capabilities out of small devices, but schools are learning that planning, training, knowing what to buy and knowing what to download for free can make handhelds hold their own as computers.

When administrators at the West Hills Middle School in West Bloomfield, Mich. decided last year to buy all 125 sixth-graders a Palm m125, they knew they would have to carefully plan out the logistics, says Media Specialist Cheryl Kovsky Litt. If students were going to use Palms constantly for a whole school year, how would the school issue them, keep track of them, install software on them and copy each student’s work to the school computer network throughout the year?

Naturally the school identifies each Palm by its serial number, which means that the sixth-graders who relinquished their handhelds for the summer can get the same ones back this fall. Students learned quickly to take care of their Palms. At a technology open house for parents last year, their parents signed contracts saying that they would replace handhelds that were lost or broken. Out of 125 devices, about 10 didn’t make it through the school year.

When students and teachers use handhelds in the classroom everyday, they need to synchronize daily with PCs on the school network. At West Hills, software called Palm Artifact and Assessment Manager (PAAM) puts student work on the network for grading and storage and can install new applications for use in class. Litt dedicated 25 PCs in the school’s computer lab to synchronization, meaning only five students per machine (well, 10 per machine this year when sixth- and seventh-graders will have Palms). To organize this, she assigned each student a three digit number made up of a first digit, one to five, denoting the class and two other digits, one to 25, denoting the synching computer. Students can synchronize at their specified computer between 8 and 8:15 a.m. each day.

Of course, any handheld rollout will be chaos if the teachers aren’t a few steps ahead of the students, so a crucial part of the PAALM grant is ongoing teacher training. This summer, each teacher went through a four-day training program, says Region 16 instructional technology specialist Brenda Campbell.

Over the years, teachers had grown accustomed to Windows PCs but for many, the idiosyncrasies of handhelds—synching, handwriting recognition, beaming—are new ideas. Day one covered such basics. The next two days introduced them to all the software they’d use: an administrative package to keep tabs on how well students were meeting the grant’s reading and math goals and classroom applications with fun and self-explanatory names such as SpellBuddy, StudyBuddy: Vocabulary and Quizzler. Day four covered how to use the region’s Web-based bulletin board system, where teachers swap ideas and get help from service center staff and each other.

Handheld applications offer a multitude of educational opportunities to classrooms, says Cathleen Norris, a technology and cognition professor at the University of North Texas. She believes handhelds, not PCs, will play the central role in expanding student access to computing. “I am by no means advocating we do away with desktops in school,” says Norris, who is the co-president of the International Society for Technology in Education. “We need to have a handheld-centric classroom and we definitely need desktops or notebooks on the periphery.”

Tablet PC: The notebook/handheld hybrid

Tablet PCs are still relatively new but they have already captured the imagination of school IT managers. As a class, Tablet PCs, made by manufacturers like HP and NEC, run Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, the software that supports the touch-screen input and handwriting recognition that characterize the hardware. Users can cut and paste using a stylus and annotate typed documents freehand.

Armed with a Tablet PC and a wireless projector, a few teachers in the Medina City schools will be able to deliver a lecture from anywhere in the room this year, McRitchie says. Forget about getting covered in chalk or dry-erase marker while standing in front of a board. The teachers lecture as they walk around, even handing off the Tablet to students so they can add their thoughts to the classroom screen.

Jerry Crystal, technology integration specialist at the Hartford (Conn.) Magnet Middle School, has an important, if more bureaucratic, purpose in mind: simplifying the paperwork that comes out of parent-teacher meetings. Traditionally, in meetings where school officials and parents discuss the placement of special needs students, a school employee would take thorough notes, type them up and later present them to the parent for the required signature. With the handwriting recognition of Tablet PCs, the process could be accomplished in one meeting, Crystal says.

At Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie, Penn., the limitations of the handheld played a part in the school’s decision to switch to Tablet PCs. “With a PDA, you still need to have a separate computer so you can hot synch and upload programs to it,” says Eric Portenier, systems administrator/technology coordinator at the all boys school.

He notes that functionality was the deciding factor behind the purchase of the Tablet PCs for Cathedral’s teachers and students. “There are a lot of schools in the Diocese that swear by PDAs,” Portenier says. “But it all comes down to ease of use and functionality of whatever technology we give out. That was the driving force behind getting the Tablets.”