Oct 31 2006

Notebook PCs vs. PDAs

Two different one-to-one programs reveal the pros and cons of each type of device.

So many devices and so many choices; the average school technologist is left confused, let alone teachers and administrators. The competition lately has been between the notebook PC and the personal digital assistant (PDA). The debate continues as to which device will produce the better bang for the buck, in terms of increasing student achievement.

What is too often lost in this debate is that they are very different devices offering similar functionality. While both may offer Wi-Fi connectivity, word processing, cameras, music, mobile telephony and even GPS, comparing them is difficult. Ideally the decision should be directly linked to the intended use of the product, with cost only being one of many factors.

The administrators at Kissimmee Charter Academy (KCA), located in Kissimmee in central Florida, made the decision to arm their students with notebook PCs for the 2005-2006 school year. St. Lucie County School District, located on the east coast of Florida, chose PDAs instead. When the technologies were put to the test, the teachers’ and students’ experiences revealed the strengths and weaknesses of each kind of device.

The Technologies

The keyboard and screen size are big selling features of notebook PCs. The screen size can be a particularly important issue in an education setting, in order to accommodate visually impaired students This in combination with faster processing speeds, more memory and large storage capacity enable users to work at maximum efficiency.

KCA selected a notebook PC with a 12-inch monitor for its one-to-one program. With the combined functionality of wireless Internet and Bluetooth, the students are free to roam the campus, which promotes anytime, anywhere learning.

With a general trend toward smaller devices, the modern PDA, usually weighing less than 200 grams, offers the convenience of true mobility. Battery life is the other strong point of the PDA, which allows students to learn longer without the frustration of devices powering down. The speed of turning the device on is also an advantage. Although these features are significant, the one that most often surfaces to the top is the price of the device. On average, these devices cost less than $500, making them a more affordable solution.

St. Lucie County School District committed to a one-to-one program using a Windows-based PDA. It also offers Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The applications on the PDA include an office productivity suite, and multiple low-cost and shareware products that enable the students to do their work.

Weighing the Advantages and Disadvantages

David Jasa, director of Management Information Services for the St. Lucie County School Board in Florida, heavily influenced the decision to pursue a handheld one-to-one program. The district also selected a wireless keyboard to be assigned with the device. The mobility and light weight, durability and wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi) were all determining factors when selecting this device, he says. The low total cost of ownership was appealing too: the PDA and wireless keyboard combination cost the district slightly under $400.

Jasa did consider the disadvantages of PDAs, including smaller screens and the fact that “some Web and operating system applications will not run, and management tools are still in their infancy.” He has been surprised and very pleased with the robustness of their PDAs: during the course of the school year only two out of 90 were damaged.

“We trained staff on a variety of tools for PDAs,” Jasa says. “Our teachers don’t have much time for training, and some assistance was provided by our full-time technicians at some of our PDA schools.”

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

The only real difficulty was connectivity regarding wireless access to the Internet and printers, Hickson says. “It is 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,” she adds.

Teachers’ Experiences at Other Schools

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

Susan Smith of Canutillo Elementary School in Canutillo, Texas, saw the benefits for students’ performance with the introduction of eight mobile carts with 10 notebook PCs each, but she sees an advantage of PDAs over notebook PCs on at least one count: Notebook PCs are “not physically designed to be used and carried by kids on a daily basis,” she says.

Holly Rae Bemis-Schurtz of Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, N.M., who participated in a now-defunct one-to-one notebook PC program, feels the loss of the devices. “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 these two programs, it is clear that there is no right or wrong device. What works in the hands of the students is the right device. Generally, students make the most of the device they are given and learn to love the tool. Both the PDA and the notebook PC have advantages and disadvantages that should be reviewed vis-à-vis the intended usage. Although the trend is leaning to smaller is better, the best device is the one that will be used effectively and consistently to improve the learning process.

The Student Perspective

Three KCA students who used notebook PCs as fifth graders during the 2005-2006 school year had this to say about the devices’ ability to help them learn:

“I do think it makes it easy to learn things, and when I grow up I will be ready to use one when I am working in the real world.”

“Yes, it helps me learn because it has tools that make it easier to learn. We never have to have broken pencils, and it has spell checker which makes it easier to write, and the Internet makes it easier to research.”

“Play and learning are getting all mixed up. … so you can play and also learn.”

Some St. Lucie County School District students who used a PDA as fourth graders in Village Green Elementary during the last school year had this to say:

Some advantages include being able to “watch movies, play games and [I] don’t have to use paper and pencil.”

One student says, “I even learned how to type this year!”

A disadvantage is that “some kids leave them home and don’t charge them.”


Choosing between notebook PCs and PDAs is a complex decision. Here are five key aspects to consider.


Notebook PCs win out in terms of the large quantity of software programs available; however, PDAs are gaining ground quickly. Many companies are specializing in software for the PDA, which range 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 PC side, such as Inspiration, are making PDA versions.


While the upside to notebook PCs may be more software, the downside comes with more required training. PDAs require less time and effort in regards to training.


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 notebook PCs.


It is important to compare and contrast all of the devices’ features, in relation to your intended use. The desired functionality should determine the necessary software, which should be a driving force in selecting a device. Technologies like Bluetooth have enabled mobile devices to have capabilities once only thought possible in science fiction, but can be difficult to configure. The tool needs to serve the purpose as opposed to shaping the purpose to the tool.


The PDA is clearly the top competitor when it comes to cost, even when wireless peripherals such as keyboards are added. However, as notebook PC prices continue to fall, the cost divide is narrowing. Although cost is an important consideration, especially given that many schools are on a tight budget, the intended use should be paramount in the decision process.

Julia Parra is a project coordinator and Web-based curriculum developer at New Mexico State University and a doctoral student in the Educational Technologies program at Pepperdine University.

James B. Rhoads is a doctoral student in the Educational Technologies program at Pepperdine University. His focus is on learning through play in online environments.

Tina M. Sartori is technology administrator for River’s Edge Charter Academy. Prior to that, she was a teacher and a principal, and ran an educational Web site design and technology consulting business.