Oct 12 2006

What's the Recipe for Success?

How do you decide what type of mobile computing device is best for your school? The teachers at the Mamie Lou Gross Elementary School offer their advice.

Remember to calculate the costs of extras because they can really add up.


THERE’S NO DOUBT THAT MOBILE computers make it easier to share computing resources within a school. However, costs can also push this option out of reach for many schools. That’s one of the reasons that the educators at Mamie Lou Gross Elementary School in Woodbine, Ga., decided to take a different route.

Why try a portable personal digital assistant (PDA) lab? For us, that was a straightforward decision: Cost. The idea of using mobile computers to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our classrooms intrigued us. Two years ago, Glen Bull, past president of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, based in Norfolk, Va., challenged the educational community to provide “a personal portable wireless computer to every student,” and to prepare students “to use it effectively for learning in their schools, their community and their future lives.”

Click HereBull, like many educators, believed this was a real possibility because some schools had started to provide students with mobile computers, including notebooks and graphing calculators. Utilizing wireless computing could also enable teachers to try new instructional methods and help students explore topics interactively (“Grand Challenges: Preparing for the Technological Tipping Point,” Learning & Leading with Technology, May 2002).

At Mamie Lou Gross Elementary School, we weighed the pros and cons of various mobile computing types and explored the costs involved. Technology selection turned out to be an educational process for all of us.

Our first issue was determining what type of mobile computer would serve our students best. We weighed a “computers on wheels” system (a group of notebooks on wheeled stands) against a portable personal digital assistant laboratory (handheld PDAs on wheeled charging carts). The carts can hold cases, optional keyboards and battery chargers, can move easily among classrooms and can charge a group of handhelds simultaneously.

We decided that handheld PDAs would be more cost-effective than notebooks and more mobile. Notebooks would require a larger initial outlay to purchase, would use more electricity to recharge and would be more expensive in terms of peripherals. However, after making this decision, we realized that there were other variables that we needed to take into consideration.

PDAs Are Versatile

In selecting the equipment, we focused on four characteristics: portability, mobility, accessibility and adaptability.

Handhelds meet these needs: They are compact, so they’re easy to carry and store. Essential tools and information are easily accessible. And they can be adapted to numerous uses. For example, they can serve as a miniature version of a desktop PC, a note and memo pad, a calendar, an address and telephone book, and an e-mail and Internet device. With recent innovations, they can even be used as telephones.

Many types of software are available, such as applications for organizing and planning, as well as gathering and analyzing information. Databases for various uses can be downloaded for instant access. In addition, handheld versions of standard productivity applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets, can interface with desktop versions.

Having decided on PDAs, we needed to figure out which type would be most useful for teachers and youngsters in an elementary school. Because more applications are available for the Palm OS than for other handhelds we evaluated, we decided this device was best for our elementary school. After assessing various models, we purchased Palm Tungstens for the teachers and Palm 500s for the students.

Adding Up the TCO

The technology selection team at Mamie Lou Gross had originally planned to purchase 65 handheld computers with keyboards. Unfortunately, an expenditure of that size would not leave funds for software, replacement and other issues. Accordingly, the plan was revised and it was decided that 35 handhelds without keyboards would fit our budget. The original cost of the PDA lab was $9,000, which was funded through a federal Title 5 grant. The eventual cost—when more keyboards, software and peripherals are purchased—will be about $15,000.

We knew it was important to consider not only the original cost of the PDAs, but also the total cost of ownership (TCO). This includes consumables such as styli, film sheets and batteries; accessories such as cases, chargers and charging carts; and warranties, if needed. In addition, TCO involves training time for staff and students, as well as electricity use, service and repair, and replacement costs.

However, when assessing the value of the PDAs, we considered more than monetary issues. We also evaluated the impact these devices were having on the learning environment—on both our teachers and our students.

Consider how the PDA mobile lab is being used with our fifth-grade students. The teachers use their handhelds to give their students short diagnostic tests on a regular basis to determine their strengths and weaknesses. The teachers “beam” the questions to the youngsters’ PDAs, and the students beam their answers back. This lets the teachers make corrections in instructional techniques on an ongoing basis to improve the learning process.

In addition, gifted fifth-graders in the Challenge Program taught by Angee Blount are using the PDAs for a research/creative writing project. Currently, they are publishing an e-book, Beams of Lightning: Some Futures Illuminated, a science fiction anthology.

The students wrote the 1,000- to 1,500-word stories using standard word processors, and then transferred them to PDAs so they could share their work with the others. Being able to see “the big picture,” Blount adds, helps the 10- and 11-year-olds proofread their work more effectively.

Blount says her class will also use the handhelds as tools to organize and store their research in preparation for an overnight trip to the Kennedy Space Center. The students will take several PDAs with them for full access to their notes. When they return, the students will beam a full report to “Mission Control” (our principal).

“My Challenge Program fifth-graders and I are having a great time learning to use the PDAs,” Blount reports. “Many times, they catch on more quickly than I do, but they are always willing to help me out. Their enthusiasm is contagious.”

In thinking over our experiences in setting up the mobile PDA lab, we realized that we should have consulted the students about what kinds of additional software to buy. For example, we should have obtained some free math games that work like flash cards, a periodic chart of elements, and some e-books and puzzles.

For us, this entire process has been a learning experience—and a very satisfying one.

Louise Hay is coordinator for instructional applications at Grand View College, Des Moines, Iowa. Sabrina Sterling is the technology teacher at the Mamie Lou Gross Elementary School, Woodbine, Ga., where Michael Wooden is principal. He has recently been promoted to deputy principal at the Camden County High School, effective during the 2004-05 school year. The authors are also students in the education specialist program in instructional technology at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga.

A Guide for Educators

To help other teachers create a portable PDA lab, we wrote a booklet, “The PDA Mobile Lab E-Book: A Guide for Educators.” It contains the chart we used to compare and evaluate PDAs, as well as resources and references for teachers. You may e-mail Sabrina Sterling at ssterling@camden.k12.ga.us or Louise Hay at LHay@gvc.edu to request an e-mailed PDF file of the booklet.

Figuring Out the Total Cost of Ownership

Purchasing handheld computers is one thing, what it costs to use them is something else. In addition to the considerable initial cost for the hardware, be sure to allow for the cost of software and peripherals.

•Consider the stylus a consumable supply—like pencils or chalk—since it’s a small item that can easily be misplaced or broken. Keep a supply on hand.

• Protect your investment by purchasing film sheets to prevent etching and damage to the handheld’s small screen. When writing, young children are not known for their “light touch.”

• Add a charging cart to your wish list, as it offers an excellent way of storing, charging, securing and maintaining the handhelds. Purchase individual PDA cases and recharging devices so that students can take the handhelds home and to locations outside the classroom, such as educational trips.

• Consider purchasing a warranty, especially if you don’t have trained staff in your school system to service the equipment. An extended warranty or service agreement can include options such as phone consultations and troubleshooting, repair and, in some cases, replacement.