Fifteen years ago, Paul Shuster was a computer science teacher with an assignment. His vice principal wished to carry student schedules, grades and attendance records in his pocket. Shuster took a business organizer and jimmy-rigged a way for the 48K device to hold 1,500 student records. Within two years, about 50 schools had purchased licenses from Shuster so their pockets could be information packed, too.
Now, as senior software developer at Ottawa, Canada-based Media-X Systems, Shuster's sole pursuit is creating handheld software to help administrators and teachers do their jobs better. One principal told him that at first, the ePrincipal software-which allows schedules, demographic information, locker combinations and other student information to be stored on a handheld-was used to catch kids who were skipping class. The next semester, those same kids were not only not skipping class, but also seeking out the principal in the hallways to have him call up and admire their good grades.
Handheld computers, known to many as personal digital assistants, are increasingly making their way into the education arena for administrators, teachers and students. Quality Education Data's 2001-2002 District Technology Forecast found that 22.6 percent of districts surveyed currently own at least some handhelds. Those handhelds are being used by technology coordinators (57.5 percent), principals (43 percent) teachers (21.8 percent) or others in the district (52.7 percent).
As with other computers, a handheld is only as good as it is functional. "There's an opportunity now that the technology has reached an affordable place where schools can equip each and every kid with a portable computer," says Elliot Soloway, a professor and director of the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan. The computers are like cars, he says, and the software and curriculum are the gas and wheels. "It's so easy to say, 'Just get them computers,' " he says, adding that the hardware alone won't "transform and enable classrooms to develop new practices."
Luckily for educators, a growing selection of tools is available to help them get mileage out of their handheld computers. And, vendors are eager to learn what schools want next from handhelds and deliver those solutions. The day when all administrators, teachers and students will have (and use) handhelds may not be far away.
While a growing number of administrators and educators are using handhelds, most are using them in the same way as the general public, says David Thornburg, founder and director of global operations of the Thornburg Center, which explores how technology is changing the face of learning. "The software today is great for businessmen," Soloway says. Many educators come to Hi-ce with the notion that they will "get the kids Palm computers so they can get organized. We immediately try to dissuade educators that it's about organization."
"We've seen a huge evolution in the last 12 months even," says former teacher Karen Fasimpaur, president of Long Beach, Calif.-based K12 Handhelds, which works with schools to implement handheld solutions. "With all the new software that's coming out, 90 percent of what you can do with a desktop computer, you can do on a handheld," she says.
Many vendors have learned that handhelds aren't just mini versions of desktops, so the software has to be different. " 'Honey, I Shrunk the Computer' is the wrong model," Soloway says. "One has to start from the ground up and say, 'What is this good for?' "
"I think the best solutions are the ones that take advantage of the smaller display and rethink the ways that people have traditionally done things," says Elia Freedman, CEO of Beaverton, Oreg.-based Infinity SoftWorks, creators of powerOne Graph software. "The whole industry is moving in that direction." The smaller display size, Freedman says, benefits users because companies have to really think about development. "Our main focus is on getting emphasis away from keystrokes and back to the concepts of math and science education."
Some vendors, such as Trivantis Corp., publish on multiple platforms. Lectora Publisher, its flagship product that helps educators create courses and collaborate with colleagues, was first created for HTML and CD-ROM, and later for the Pocket PC and Palm. Founder and President Tim Loudermilk explains that, because developing for multiple platforms was the strategy all along, plans were in place to make sure the handheld version of Lectora would work well for users.
Vendors are, of course, concerned about what educators want in handheld software. Because students are so comfortable with technology, Thornburg says-adding that it's no accident that Palms are the same size as the original Gameboys-handhelds "shift the control of power into the hands of students." Schools typically implement handhelds, however, by having administrators and teachers adopt the technology first, Fasimpaur says. She believes this is because they're starving for products that can save them time.
Also driving the handheld revolution is education law. Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, which created the mClass assessment platform, says that states are interested in the mClass:Reading tool. According to the new federal legislation, they must enhance their ability to assess K-3 reading. "They're finding that doing it the old paper-and-pencil way is an enormous new expense for them that they haven't been prepared for," he says. Now teachers can track performance-such as reading fluency and accuracy, phonics and phonemic awareness-on a handheld as students are reading. Because teachers like the ease and efficiency of the process, data is more easily collected at the broader school, district and state levels.
Bring It On
"It's really hard to train a group of people that don't want to be there," says Fasimpaur. With handhelds, this isn't an issue. Compared to other technology, she has found that the initial comfort level and enthusiasm of teachers
and administrators is much higher. "Because the technology is simpler, we can get into classroom integration more quickly," she says.
That integration is what makes handheld software a time saver for educators. Desktop software has added a task for teachers, Berger explains. "They don't have a lot to do about how teachers live their lives. ...They're looking for something to make their lives easier."
Handhelds fit into existing work practices of the classroom, Soloway says. Students can beam each other notes from the day before or build a report together. "You can not do that with paper. ...With the Palm-sized computers, you have almost all the good points about paper and the good parts about digital media and this collaboration and sharing. And it's $100. ...What more could anybody want?"
Some companies are making the investment to ensure their software is truly easy for educators to use. Wireless Generation, for example, has teachers try out their products on site. In exchange for a new Palm, teachers with different levels of technology training and experience are videotaped as they work with the mClass. "We watch them do certain tasks and [they] say whether they're confused about doing them. Then we adapt our software or training to make these things more clear," says Berger. "You have to have the courage to tear it up and do it right."
When considering software, Berger advises administrators to ask the developer what kind of usability research they've done or plan to do. "For each marketing claim they'll make about a product, ask them how you'll know that claim is being fulfilled." For example, if a product claims it can be learned by a teacher in half an hour, ask the vendor to do a half-hour training session.
Anytime, Anywhere Leading
Harry Ibach, an assistant principal at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., has experienced the multiplying uses for handheld software firsthand. The school started out with six Handspring computers containing the Palm Student Identification Application Tracker from San Diego-based True Image Management Systems. The administrators and security dean first began using the software "to identify students who were wandering the campus out of class," which reduced habitual class absentees.
Now the software is also used during testing to locate students, as a portable student information system for guidance counselors, as an address locator for the attendance counselor and as a tool for identifying students and guardians during school safety drills. Yearbook photos of the school's 3,000 students are reduced by the staff software developer to fit on the devices, as well.
Teacher evaluation software is also of interest to administrators now. Media-X's mVal software reduces paperwork associated with evaluations. Principal Bryan Thygeson of Marshall County (Minn.) Central High School says that observations and the associated meetings and paperwork used to take about four to five hours over several days for a single teacher.
With mVal, he has created custom appraisal sets from a template. Using a portable keyboard during observations, he can get the notes onto his desktop as soon as he returns to his office. "Immediacy is so much better," he says. In meetings with other principals using mVal in his region, Thygeson says he has heard colleagues remark, "I almost feel guilty that it takes me that much less time to do my observations."
"You've really short-circuited the time between the time the evaluation was done and the time you can give teachers feedback about the process," says Chris Richardson, superintendent of Osseo Area Schools, who along with Thygeson and others recently participated in the Minnesota Administrators Leadership Forum. "I see some positive benefits about being able to work with staff this way."
Richardson also sees the potential of a related product, which will evaluate principals and central office personnel. He and other superintendents at the forum got together to discuss how mVal might be modified for these district-level needs.
The power of portable is also evident in administrators' use of productivity tools. For Thygeson, this can mean converting a PowerPoint presentation to his handheld so he can go to meetings without stacks of papers to distribute. If someone at a meeting requests a copy of that presentation, he can beam it over in a few seconds, as opposed to having to spend time on the task after the meeting.
Richardson, too, has found productivity tools invaluable. "I still carry a pad to take notes on," he says, but the notes he used to carry around in his Franklin Planner are now on his Palm. Another benefit is on-the-go e-mail. While his handheld doesn't have wireless capabilities, he downloads the several hundred emails from a typical day while at home in the morning. The next day, he'll sync his replies and send them off. "It has been a powerful piece for me," he says.
Teachers, Leave the Desk Behind
Handheld software can also boost teacher productivity. "Teachers should be able to move around class," Berger says. When they want to make a note about a student's understanding or behavior, they can call up the student's progress on the handheld. "Those kinds of records aren't as helpful in a desktop or laptop computer. Teachers don't really sit at a desk or have a lap," he says. With mClass, teachers can link assessment reports to a central database, which is then accessible on the Web for teachers, administrators or parents.
Assessment tools are a big area of interest for teachers, perhaps as an extension of the popular Gradebook tools, which Fasimpaur says almost every major gradebook software company has released in a handheld version. From auto-grading and item analysis to rubrics, assessment tools offer real-time data, she says.
Media-X's eTeacher, which has been used in Canada for about five years now, is "revolutionizing the way teachers evaluate students," Shuster says. The software's capabilities include building units and accompanying rubrics for students, as well as graphing each student's progress as compared to state standards. "Basically this software makes teachers accountable," he says. For a child who is failing, a teacher could give parents specific information about what standards are not being met. "You can do all of this without a handheld, but it's a tremendous amount of paperwork," he adds.
Handheld Lessons in Learning
The way students use handhelds is an interesting change from how they use desktops and laptops, Fasimpaur says. Because the devices are portable and instant-on, students tend to work on them "when they have little pockets of time"-such as during their bus ride or when waiting in line. Handhelds "let any student learn anything, anytime, anywhere. That's something most educators have failed to grasp," Thornburg says.
What kinds of software are best for classroom learning? The free kind, says Soloway. "Students aren't going to spend $100 to $200 on a Palm-sized computer and then spend another $100 on software." Instead, teachers and students are downloading freeware from sites such as www.handheld.hice-dev.org, which includes some programs that Soloway has created himself.
One educator introducing freeware to students for unique classroom projects is Paul Vachon, who teaches seventh grade science at Royal Palm Middle School in Phoenix. He visits Avantgo.com frequently to download Web pages onto handhelds for use in class.
For instance, Vachon downloaded a lesson on frog dissection onto the classroom's 15 Handspring Visors. Pairs of students worked together, one reading instructions from the Visor and showing the pictures of the dissection to the other. "Combining clear instructions with actual pictures was the key to the students' success. They did a great job with minimal input from me," he says.
Another project in Vachon's classroom made possible by freeware relates to the school's desert wildlife habitat, which students are designing and constructing. Using a program called Cybertracker (www.cybertracker.co.za), Vachon wrote software that allows students to collect data on weather and various bird species on locations throughout the campus, including the habitat. The data is then uploaded to a database on the classroom desktop computer, which will be used for a student research study.
Tools and projects such as these that allow students to interface between handheld and desktop have really caught on in the past six months, Fasimpaur says.
On the Horizon
Tomorrow and beyond, Soloway says educators are going to be seeing better, more powerful handheld computer screens-and that software will in turn improve, offering simpler designs with less menus.
Loudermilk says wireless "is going to explode," transforming how handhelds are used. Rather than a few computers at the back of the classroom, Shuster says schools could have 20 computers in the hands of students for the same cost. Teachers can give an assignment, which students will work on at home and submit wirelessly. Steve Morelli, president of Media-X, adds that "wireless will make the communication between teachers and students as seamless and easy as possible."
The merger of handhelds and phones is also inevitable in the near future, Loudermilk says. This, says Shuster, will mean voice recognition capabilities on handhelds.
"eBooks is another area we're watching," Fasimpaur says. She hopes that some of the major textbook companies will get into the eBook area with handhelds. There have been a few pilot programs through publishers, she says. "It's something we hear a lot of demand [for] from schools."
Handheld companies and tech-savvy administrators envision a day where handhelds replace textbooks. Students come to class and download what they need for the day. There's no need for backpacks, as assignments are transported home via the handheld. "For the most part, kids show up with pencils anyway. I think that day is coming [where kids will show up with handhelds]," Berger says. "We love the idea of every teacher having a teaching companion and every student having a learning companion."
For educators, handhelds can provide a much greater level of individualized teaching. "People begin seeing it not as gee-whiz kind of stuff," Richardson says, but as a storage device with information on every student's learning level, speed and style.
At what cost are these visions? Soloway points out that you can purchase up to 10 handhelds for the cost of a single desktop. Plus, the ratio of students per computer is not going to decrease dramatically. He says, "Whether or not we can take advantage of that opportunity is anybody's guess. The teachers want it, the kids want it and I think the administrators are starting to see that the PC simply will not scale."
Melissa Ezarik, firstname.lastname@example.org, is features editor.