Kimberley Clark (left) and Gail Lajoie worked together to help introduce handhelds to elementary classrooms in New York’s Horseheads Central School District.

Jul 23 2007

Motivating Students With Mobile Computing

Teachers who have introduced PDAs to their classrooms in New York's Horseheads Central School District see positive results.

Teachers who have introduced PDAs to their classrooms in New York’s Horseheads Central School District see positive results.

With Palm handhelds available for each of her 23 students, third-grade teacher Kimberley Clark is always brainstorming new ways to enrich their learning by weaving the personal digital assistants (PDAs) into her classroom exercises.

To make use of her Palm devices’ built-in digital cameras, she recently devised an English lesson in which her students take pictures, pick one picture and write a poem or short story about it on their devices.

“When I tell them to use their Palms, cheers go up. Their interest level is piqued,” says Clark, who teaches at Big Flats Elementary School in Big Flats, N.Y. “They don’t see it so much as a learning device but as a game exercise, and whenever you can teach children with a game, their learning is heightened.”

Clark embraced PDAs during the 2000–2001 school year when her principal, Virginia Abrunzo, wanted a teacher to experiment with the technology. Since then, the adoption of Palm handhelds has spread through word of mouth, first at Big Flats Elementary, and then to other schools in Horseheads Central School District. Today, 12 teachers from the district have joined thousands of other teachers throughout the nation who are taking advantage of Palm, Windows Mobile and other handheld devices as educational tools.

Students in Horseheads High School’s business class regularly use their Palm devices to develop note-taking skills and to work on Microsoft Office documents. A Horseheads Intermediate School physical education instructor uses the PDAs to take attendance and to record students’ exercise results. The handhelds are also popular among many administrators, who use them to keep calendars and send e-mail, says Gregg Moyer, the district’s technology coordinator. The district purchases the devices with district funds and federal Title IID funding.

Educational Benefits

The teachers at Horseheads don’t have statistics to prove the PDAs improve learning, but anecdotally, they know the technology works. Children learn better when they work on a hands-on, interactive project, says Lisa Comer, a fourth-grade teacher at Big Flats Elementary who began using PDAs this year. “The kids are more vested in a topic because they all want to use the Palm,” she says.

For example, every year, her students work on a PowerPoint presentation on the Erie Canal. She brings in the school’s mobile computer lab, allowing each student to conduct Internet research and to work on a PowerPoint slide showing a fact they learned. In the past, Comer would combine the slides and go through them on a television in front of class. But this year, Comer had each student “beam” — or wirelessly send — their slides to one another, so they would all have the full set of slides on their Palm T|Xs. That allows each student to review the slides on his or her own, so they can more easily memorize and retain the material.

Clark uses her Palm Zire 71s in a lesson once a week. The technology helps her meet not only state curriculum goals but also her district’s own technology benchmarks.

Sometimes, she has groups of children collaborate on short stories. One student writes the first sentence of a story and then beams it to a second student, who adds a second sentence, and so on, she says. The students use software that allows them to create visual outlines of their stories. They also use the Palm devices to create electronic flash cards to practice math or to review science or social studies. On the device’s to-do list, a student can type a question and attach a note with the answer. So when the student clicks on the note, the answer pops up, she says.

Technology Troubleshooting

As long as children handle the PDAs with care, the devices have a long life span and require little technical support, says Gail Lajoie, instructional technology specialist at the Greater Southern Tier Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which serves the school district. For example, Clark’s original set of Palms from 2000 are still in use by another teacher.

If the screen freezes, a “soft reset,” in which users gently push the tip of a stylus or an unfolded paper clip into a tiny reset hole, will solve 90 percent of the problems, Lajoie says. A soft reset is similar to rebooting a PC. If that doesn’t work, then teachers may have to do a “hard reset,” where they push the reset hole while pressing the power button. This wipes out the data and returns the device to its factory settings, but if teachers have the data stored on their computers, they can synchronize the handheld with the PC to retrieve the information.

A few Palm devices break down each year, usually because the screen stops responding to the stylus, Lajoie says. Because the devices are out of warranty when they break, the district buys replacements for $100 to $300 because that’s cheaper than fixing a broken one, she says.

How to Effectively Use Palms

Lajoie says training is vital. She offers three three-hour training sessions to teach the faculty. The first is an introductory course on the PDA’s basics and built-in applications. The second class is on the advanced features of built-in applications and educational software from vendors, and the third session covers incorporating PDAs into the curriculum.

When Clark introduces Palms to her third-grade class, she teaches the students Graffiti, handwriting recognition software that allows them to write on the devices. The devices are housed in hanging shoe organizers to protect them. When carrying the devices, students are required to hold the PDAs with both hands, and they must place the handhelds at the center of their desks.

Thousands of educational applications are available, Lajoie says. Many teachers download free software, but the district purchased licenses to Documents To Go, which allows everyone to use Microsoft Office applications on the Palms.

The school district also offers wireless Internet access on the devices. The Wi-Fi connections for the Palm were offline this past school year because the IT staff wants to add MAC address filtering to bolster security, and they need to configure each Palm’s MAC address to the wireless network, Lajoie says. When it’s up and running, Wi-Fi will give students high-speed Internet access on the Palm devices. But unless Web sites are also formatted for PDAs, some of the elements might not load correctly.

Other Add-On Technologies

The teachers in Horseheads have added a few add-on technologies that have aided them in using the Palms in the classrooms. Clark has installed Palm emulation software on her PC, so when she’s teaching the students how to use a new program on her Palm, she can project the handheld screen onto her classroom TV. Elsewhere, at Horseheads Intermediate School, one fifth-grade teacher purchased keyboards to make it easier for students to type.

Moyer has also purchased a rolling cart that houses and recharges a classroom full of Palms through one power outlet. In addition, teachers keep a few backup Palms on hand just in case they break down, as well as a few styluses, in case students lose them.

Alternative to Computers

When Abrunzo first introduced the handhelds to the district, she envisioned the PDAs becoming a good teaching tool to complement the computers available. And that vision has become reality.

“It’s part of my job as a principal to look ahead and experiment,” she says. “Introducing the Palms was unknown territory, but we did it and it was easier than we thought.”

Clark has access to PCs, but she prefers the Palms. “The Palm devices fit perfectly in their little hands,” she says. “It’s easy for them to manipulate and control.”

Study: Handhelds Help

Handheld computers do help students learn better, according to a University of Michigan study. In the study’s first year, 2003–2004, Detroit seventh-graders with PDAs performed 2 percent better on science tests than did students without the units. In the study’s second year, seventh-grade students performed 13 percent better. One key difference? In the second year, teachers had learned how to more effectively integrate handhelds into class, says University of Michigan professor Elliot Soloway.

Ensuring Success

Cathleen Norris, education technology professor at the University of North Texas, gives the following tips to successfully use PDAs in K–12 classrooms:

  1. Provide regular training. Teachers need professional development several times a year to get comfortable with the technology and to discover new ways to incorporate it into their curricula.
  2. School districts must develop technology-integrated curricula, providing teachers with sample activities or lesson plans that make use of PDAs in classes.
  3. Use educationally appropriate software.
  4. Provide strong support. If parents support the use of the technology, then administrators will implement the parents’ wishes and provide the resources and support the teachers, need to be successful.
  5. Teachers need to support one another, especially by regularly sharing best practices.

More On