Oct 31 2006

Mobile Device Smackdown: PDAs vs. Notebook Computers

Do PDAs or notebook computers deliver the most bang for the buck?

With so many technology options on the market, the average school technologist — let alone a teacher or an administrator — is often left confused. The contest lately has been between the notebook and the personal digital assistant. The debate continues as to which technology device will produce the better, if not best, bang for the buck in increasing student achievement.

What is too often lost in this debate is that they are quite different devices offering similar functionality. Although both may offer Wi-Fi, word processing, a camera, music, mobile telephony and even Geospatial Positioning Systems applications, comparing these devices is like comparing apples and, well, PCs.

Ideally, the decision should be directly linked to intended use, with cost being only one of the deciding factors.

The administrators at Kissimmee Charter Academy (KCA) in central Florida decided to arm their students with notebook PCs for the 2005–2006 school year. Conversely, St. Lucie County Public Schools on the state’s East coast chose PDAs as their device of choice. The administrators, teachers and students of both schools were surveyed to try to determine if there is a clear winner after Round 1 of the notebook versus PDA smackdown.

The Technologies

KCA selected a notebook with a 12-inch monitor for its one-to-one program. With the combined functionality of wireless Internet and Bluetooth, the students are logistically free to roam the campus. The notebook also sports a keyboard, fast processing speeds and decent storage capacity. Conversely, St. Lucie Public Schools, under the technology leadership of David Jasa, opted for a PDA one-to-one program. The Windows device also offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The PDA weighs 7 ounces, offers longer battery life and costs, on average, less than $500 compared with $1,500 for the average notebook.

What the Administrators Say

JoAnn Kandrac, KCA principal and the driving force behind the decision to implement a one-to-one program, says the notebooks’ durability was the key driver in her decision-making process. “Most laptops offer Wi-Fi capabilities, but these laptops were selected based on the wider selection of preloaded applications and the overall durability,” she says. Kandrac confirms that they have had no issues with breakage, and their only frustration was issues with Internet connectivity related to bandwidth, not the notebooks. She urges schools implementing one-to-one programs to carefully plan for bandwidth usage.

Jasa, director of management information services for St. Lucie County Public Schools, heavily influenced the decision to pursue a handheld one-to-one program. The district also selected a wireless keyboard to be assigned with each device. “The low total cost of ownership, very mobile and lightweight, durability and wireless connectivity were all determining factors when selecting this device,” explains Jasa. The PDA and wireless keyboard combination cost the district slightly less than $400 a setup. Jasa did consider the disadvantages of PDAs, including small screens, and that “some Web and operating system applications will not run, and management tools (software) are still in their infancy.” Jasa has been surprised and pleased with the robustness of the PDAs. During the course of the school year, only two out of 90 were damaged.

Since Hollywood High School began giving students notebooks, “we have more graduations, fewer dropouts, and there is a sense of excitement.”

— Hollywood High School’s Ron Smith

What the Teachers Say

Sharon Hicksman, a fifth-grade teacher at KCA, sings the praises of the one-to-one notebook program. During the first week of using these devices, Hicksman noticed the excitement over the notebooks, which spilled over even into homework assignments. She reminisces about her teaching prior to the one-to-one implementation when she would hold up her personal notebook for students to listen to the music and then create the story. Now, with each student on their own notebook, they can listen to the music again and again as they complete their assignment.

Hicksman says the notebooks are an engagement tool and has found the only real difficulty was connectivity regarding wireless access to the Internet and printers. When asked about improvements in student achievement, she adds that “it’s a little too soon to determine the impact on student achievement, but disciplinary issues are reduced, and how students view work and homework has improved since implementation.”

Kevin McInerney, a fourth-grade teacher in St. Lucie, has students use the PDAs approximately 60 percent of the school day, as well as for homework.

“I use the audio capabilities of the PDA to have the students record themselves reading a short selection,” explains McInerney. “After they sync up, I can play it back through my laptop without the other students around. This helps the shy student and gives me an indication of their oral reading fluency. I also convert audiotapes of the weekly reading selection to MP3 files. The slower readers can then play it back on their own as they reread the story to help their comprehension.”

McInerney also utilizes a digital camera to load pictures into the devices and have the students use them for storytelling. Daily morning reviews, Internet research and video capabilities are also important tools for McInerney.

“I use student assessment and presentation software to conduct interactive review sessions based on class discussions or materials, such as BrainPop video lessons,” he says. “It allows the students who are unwilling to speak out in class to participate without fear of reprisals.” McInerney sees the students’ increased responsibility for the handheld and peripherals as a major achievement.

Increased student motivation, responsibility and involvement are all advantages of the device, according to McInerney. When prodded for the disadvantages of the device, he says, “Screen size: The handheld format limits a lot of Internet research, for example because most pages are either designed for a much larger screen (requiring too much left-right and up-down scrolling to be useful), or they use Hypertext Markup Languages frames that PDAs do not handle well. The handhelds also have a limited ability to display pages using the now nearly ubiquitous Flash or Java scripting languages.”

What Other Teachers Say

Ron Smith of Hollywood High School in Los Angeles teaches in the school’s New Media Academy. All the students in this subset of the high school are issued notebook PCs. Smith has embraced with exuberance the one-to-one program. He has seen an improvement in the success of the students since the introduction of the program. “We have more graduations, fewer dropouts, and there is a sense of excitement,” he says.

Holly Rae Bemis-Schurtz of Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, N.M., participated in the now defunct one-to-one notebook program at her school and feels the loss of the notebooks. “We saw a major improvement in achievement when it came to participation and a higher assignment completion rate,” she says of the program recently cancelled due to a lack of funding.

After comparing the two Florida programs, it is clear that there’s no right or wrong device. What works in the hands of students is the right device. This also illustrates that students will make the most of the devices they are given and likely learn to love them. Both the PDA and the notebook PC have advantages and disadvantages that must be reviewed in comparison to intended use. Although the trend is toward “smaller is better,” the best device is the one that will be used effectively and consistently to improve learning.

PDAs versus Notebooks

Software: Notebooks win in terms of the large quantity of software programs available. But PDAs are gaining ground quickly. Many companies specialize in software for the PDA, which ranges from pocket chess to language dictionaries. While there is currently a dearth of educational software for PDAs, this is changing rapidly. Major players on the notebook side, such as Inspiration, are making PDA versions.

Training: While the upside to the notebook may be more available software, the downside comes with increased required training. PDAs require less training time and effort.

Connectivity: Due to the limited size and power of PDAs, they must be closer to Internet hot spots than their larger technology cousins, notebook PCs. When considering connectivity, you should consider adding more wireless routers with PDAs as opposed to with notebooks.

Features: It is important to compare and contrast all the features that are available for each device being considered. The desired functionality should determine the necessary software, which should be a driving force in selecting a device. Technologies such as Bluetooth have enabled mobile devices to have capabilities only thought possible in science fiction, but can be difficult to configure. The tool needs to serve the purpose as opposed to reshaping the purpose to the tool.

Cost: The PDA clearly is the top competitor when it comes to cost, even when wireless peripheral items such as keyboards are added; however, as notebook prices continue to fall, this cost divide is narrowing. Although cost is an important consideration, especially given many schools’ shoestring budgets, the end user’s intended use should supersede in the decision-making process.

Julia Parra is a doctoral student in the educational technologies program at Pepperdine University. Tina Sartori, who spent 14 years working as
a middle school principal and social studies teacher, is working on a doctorate in education technology at Pepperdine.