Back to School
River’s Edge Charter Academy mobilizes students and teachers with handheld devices that integrate technology into the curricula.
There was an air of excitement at River’s Edge Charter Academy as 150 middle school students received what was for many their first “personal” digital assistant (PDA) last September. For most of the six teachers participating in the initiative, this was also their first experience integrating technology tools into their curriculum. And this was the first attempt at a mobile technology program for this Brevard County, Fla., Title I charter school, as well as for the district as a whole.
“The day I received my PDA, it felt like Christmas,” says a seventh-grader at the Palm Bay, Fla., school, where 85 percent of students qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. “We were all really excited.”
The project’s goal was to equip the students and teachers with Internet access and handheld tools, which would prepare the students for notebook ownership in high school and pepper the learning environment with technology. At River’s Edge, these students now use technology while they do math, science and social studies class work.
Jenifer Vozzella is a prime example. This seventh-grade teacher uses the Palm T5 handhelds to send vocabulary words to each of her students. Though students often lose paper vocabulary lists, they usually don’t lose their homework when it’s captured on a PDA.
“My curriculum has improved because my students are able to access the Internet, which allows for real-time research to occur,” says Vozzella. “Additionally, my students are more engaged in the classroom during lessons that integrate [PDAs], and [the devices] have definitely helped the students’ organizational skills.”
“One of the biggest challenges [the teachers] faced was finding the time to become skilled users of the PDAs,” Vozzella recalls. “The students seemed to inherently know how to use these devices, but we needed a little more assistance. We found our informal discussions at the lunch table to be very valuable to our learning curve.”
PLANNING AND PROCUREMENT
Initially, the best technology choice wasn’t obvious, so the staff made a list of what they wanted most from a mobile device. Wireless Internet was the top priority. Many of the school’s students do not have Internet at home, and one of the goals of this program was to bridge the digital divide and provide Internet access to all the students.
Ultimately, the staff chose the Palm Tungsten T5 wireless handheld based on functionality and cost. Adding a keyboard and wireless routers convinced the staff that they had the right tool to accomplish their objectives.
Making the hardware choices seemed easy compared to the many other smaller, but important, tasks that had to be handled. Permission slips, rules and guidelines, and tips for taking care of the devices were among the areas that required thought and preparation.
Issues concerning student and parental responsibility for the PDAs had to be addressed. Parents had to sign contracts accepting financial responsibility for the device in the event that their child was negligent, and students were required to commit to an acceptable-use policy. The school kept the rules simple and flexible.
Of course, no amount of planning could anticipate the many creative ways that middle-grade students might use a PDA inappropriately. Those situations would have to be handled individually and with appropriate consequences.
Technology is fragile, and students can be clumsy. With that in mind, River’s Edge purchased five extra devices to serve as temporary replacements while broken PDAs were repaired. It also purchased an insurance policy to cover screen breakage, which was not covered by the standard warranty.
Handing out thousands of dollars worth of equipment to students requires some logistics, since it’s essential to know who has what device. In an effort to keep track of the PDAs, the staff numbered and marked each unit. They also created a spreadsheet that lists the serial numbers of each device and the student assigned to it.
River’s Edge also had to decide whether to buy or lease the PDAs. Purchasing the devices would have been simpler, but the high initial cost, which is approximately $350 per device, did not meet budgetary needs.
The school decided to lease the PDAs at a cost of $800 per month for 12 months over three years. At the end of three years, students can purchase the PDAs for $1. The school also obtained a two-year, screen-breakage replacement plan and warranty.
TRAINING AND SUPPORT
During the summer of 2005, technology coordinators at River’s Edge conducted training sessions and online tutorials to prepare teachers to use the PDAs in the classroom. The focus of the training included technology and curriculum integration workshops. The training also featured a mentoring system, which paired novice teachers with technology-savvy teachers.
One of biggest challenges the school faced in conducting the training program was finding time with the teachers. To overcome that obstacle, the tech coordinators provided online tutorials as a series of media player files for teachers. They also shifted from one-time, all-purpose training to a model designed for the specific needs of individual teachers. Appropriate training — including practice, feedback and coaching — provided teachers with the confidence to use and experiment with the new technology.
It was important for teachers to understand and buy into the advantages of using mobile devices in order to hold effective training sessions and for the program to succeed. Without the support of the teachers, the devices would have ended up as overpriced digital calendars.
Conversely, having teachers embrace the new program with enthusiasm facilitated training and curriculum integration. By promoting virtual environments, such as Web logs and online groups, River’s Edge provided its teachers with space to share tips, advice, curriculum suggestions and general information. This promoted collaboration and a sense of community.
River’s Edge introduced PDAs into the classroom primarily to increase student engagement. Engaged students are better learners and have higher attendance and lower discipline issues. To gauge the effectiveness of the program, school officials agreed to conduct surveys and encourage self-reflection via journaling, as well as reviewing students’ attendance and discipline records.
At mid-year, the school reported a 25 percent decrease in disciplinary problems that result in a trip to the principal’s office and a 17 percent decline in absenteeism among students who participate in the PDA program.
In addition, the teachers are looking for anecdotal evidence to gauge the effectiveness of the PDA project, such as monitoring how actively students are involved in the day’s lesson, as opposed to passive knowledge acquisition. The lesson plans involving PDAs include digital storytelling, journaling, data analysis, graphic design, foreign language assignments and musical analysis.
Wireless Internet access also enables the PDAs’ use as research tools. For example, teachers can beam projects via infrared laser to students to encourage collaboration. These new lessons were acquired from shared ideas posted online and pre-existing lesson plans by individuals, companies and professional development organizations.
Lastly, River’s Edge will compare the students’ scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is given to third- through 10th-grade students annually.
About six months into the PDA initiative, River’s Edge reports strong indications that the new tech tools are having a positive impact on educational outcomes. And teachers report both anecdotal and hard data to support the overall belief that students are more engaged in curriculum work after the introduction of the devices.
The six teachers who participate in the program report strong student enthusiasm and engagement levels. Vozzella describes some positive results, such as students enjoying real-time research on the Internet or looking up vocabulary words, along with some unexpected outcomes.
“The PDA is a new type of learning tool for me,” says a seventh-grader in Vozzella’s class. “I’m a visual learner, so as my teacher is teaching geometry on the board, I can create shapes in color on my PDA. When I’m reading a story, I like looking up the words online using dictionary.com.”
Due to the unanticipated popularity of the rollout, River’s Edge underestimated how much students and teachers would utilize the devices during the school day. That popularity presented one of the biggest challenges of the initiative: dealing with the increase in bandwidth utilization at the school. Since the students and teachers with PDAs requested access to the Internet during the day, the school needed to increase the number of access points and the bandwidth to support the higher number of concurrent users sharing the school’s wireless network.
Another unforeseen issue was cultural in nature. Teachers and administrators needed to set up a usage policy that reflected the right balance between the teachers’ more limited use of the devices and the students’ nearly full-time usage requirements. Accordingly, the teachers had to establish and communicate clear guidelines as to when and how the devices could be used.
The anytime, anywhere learning environment created with this affordable, portable device has led to an excitement and engagement level not present in the nonwired classrooms. Students seem to be developing problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills. And they are relying more heavily on collaboration and cooperative learning.
While the final verdict on the PDA program is not yet in, all indications suggest that the integration of mobile technologies into the classroom is an effective way to better serve the 21st-century learner.
RIVER’S EDGE REPORT
After introducing PDAs into its seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, River’s Edge Charter Academy officials report:
• 25 percent decrease in disciplinary problems that result in a trip to the principal’s office
• 17 percent decline in absenteeism among student participants in the PDA program.
Tina 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.
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.