Oct 31 2006

Pros And Cons Of Using PDAs In The Classroom

By dividing technology implementations into small pilot projects, schools can get a clearer idea of costs and benefits.

Measuring Value — Under The Microscope

When Washington Township Public Schools in Sewell, N.J., determined that personal digital assistants would be an affordable, effective way to move toward its goal of one-to-one computing, it started small. Rather than distribute PDAs to every classroom in the district, it handpicked four teachers who cover a range of subjects and grades to take part in a pilot project.

The pilot raised many questions: How much classroom prep time and cleanup would the PDAs require? Would they be too fragile in the hands of active children? What additional equipment or software would they need? How much training would be necessary? What’s the cost of replacing batteries? How do students respond to the devices? Do PDAs make a difference in the quality of work produced?

“Would you buy these for every single student, every single classroom right off the bat?” asks Joe Vandenberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Washington Township Public Schools. “No, you wouldn’t, because you don’t know how they work. You assess return on investment by calculating in a pilot what the total investment will be.”

Weighing Costs And Benefits

Yet schools around the country invest in technology all the time without knowing its real value. While it’s difficult to measure a tool’s specific effect on learning, that’s exactly what pioneering schools are doing. (See “Add IT Up ” on page 24.) Running small pilots helps them get a clearer idea of costs and benefits. And arming themselves with specific numbers helps schools sell their proposals to school boards and communities and make good purchasing decisions.

Return-on-investment projections show communities that projects can be worth the financial investment, and they force schools to look closely at all the costs and scenarios of the technology. That can go a long way toward educating all the stakeholders — students, teachers, administrators, parents, board members and the community — on how the technology works and what impact it can have on the educational process.

Washington Township’s PDA pilot, for instance, revealed that the district would need to buy portable keyboards, cradles, software and possibly even classroom desktop PCs for the devices to function smoothly. On the upside, students seem to be far more motivated to participate in lesson plans when using the PDAs, and it’s showing through in their work, says Vandenberg.

“Because we’re in public education, we’re accountable for every dollar we spend,” explains Bobbi Marciano, Washington Township Public Schools’ director of elementary education. “Any time you purchase something new, you’re venturing into the unknown. It’s a calculated risk, so we take baby steps and then we evaluate it.”

With 11 schools in the district and 9,600 students, a full technology rollout is a substantial investment for Washington Township schools. The pilots may reveal that the technology is not needed throughout the district, but only in certain classrooms. Or the district, which is simultaneously running a notebook PC cart pilot, may find that a mix of PDAs and notebook PCs is the best approach.

Enhancing Value

Not only can pilots measure value, they can actually enhance it. For instance, rather than buy 10,000 software licenses only to learn the software doesn’t work well with the curriculum, schools can buy a dozen licenses of a few different types of software to assess which is the most effective for their needs.

Pilots also make training more manageable. A few teachers can be trained as part of the pilot. Then, as they master the technology, they can help train their colleagues.

Those teachers can also be invaluable as advocates because they can explain to colleagues why the new technology is so effective. In addition, they can be there to support them during the full implementation and can share the best practices they've learned during the pilot.

“We try in small steps to work out the kinks and identify the needs,” says Vandenberg. “We can’t afford to be frivolous.”

Chris Rother is vice president of education sales for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based CDW•G, which is a leading technology provider to government and education. She is a passionate advocate for enhancing the educational experience with technology.