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Handhelds: Getting Mobile

Handheld computers bring K12 classrooms into the 21st century.

How can children lead productive and satisfying lives in the 21st century if in school we are having them use technology from the 20th century? The hallmark of the 21st century global workplace is the computer. According to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project study, "The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools," students spend 27 hours a week online at home and an average of 15 minutes a week at school. Students are not using computers to any appreciable degree in school because district leaders are not providing computers to students to any appreciable degree.

While some schools have embarked on one-to-one laptop programs, it has become increasingly clear that scaling one-to-one laptop programs to all grades and sustaining such programs year after year is not something all district budgets are prepared to support. As documented in The New York Times in May 2007, some districts are terminating one-to-one laptop initiatives because the total cost of laptop ownership goes beyond what districts can afford.


Properties of a Mobile Device

However, a new category of computing devices called "mobile learning devices" is emerging that might well be the answer to schools' needs for a scalable and sustainable computing solution. Four properties define a mobile learning device:

Personal. If 30 children in a classroom needed to share three pencils, learning to write would be exceedingly more difficult. For a technology to be truly useful, each child must have his or her own. The cost of notebook-sized mobile computers such as Fourier's NOVA5000 or Intel's Classmate (about $500), or palm-sized mobile computers such as HP's 110 iPAQ and Asus's 626 ($250-$300) are more affordable.

Portable. Laptop computers, which can be six or seven pounds, are portable in the same sense that a brick is portable. Truly portable devices weigh less than three pounds, have five- to eight-hour batteries, and can take a beating. Like a cell phone, instant on/instant off is another important property of a truly mobile device; a learning device needs to be available in the blink of an eye-always ready to take a picture of a cricket in a fi eld, accept a beamed fi le from another student, or display a streamed video.

Multimodal. Mobile devices need to be able to handle media such as sound and video, and a broad range of representations such as text, spreadsheet, concept map, and animation. Indeed, manipulating multimodal data is even easier on a mobile device than it is on a desktop computer. For example, to make a podcast on a desktop requires plugging in a speaker and a microphone and hoping the system sees the devices. But the ability to record sounds or voices and take pictures and video is built right into mobile devices.

Constructive. Learning is not about watching or about delivering information. Children need to create, design, and build. A key component of a mobile device as a learning device is its ability to readily accept keyboard input. All children need to be able to read and to write text-and writing requires a keyboard these days.

Mobile Modifications Mobile devices need educational software to turn them into mobile learning environments. Here's an analogy: The textbook has been modified over the years to include features that address the unique needs of K12 education, such as incorporating questions at the end of chapters, providing answers to every other problem, and including a teacher's guide and tests. Similarly, a mobile learning environment is a mobile computer that has been "modified"-via software-to address the unique needs of K12 education. For example, a mobile learning environment needs software that enables teachers to create lessons, software that supports students as they engage in enacting those lessons, and software that supports teachers and students in managing the broad range of artifacts that are generated during lesson creation and enactment.

Teachers need ongoing professional development support to understand how to integrate such mobile computing devices into their classrooms. One reason cited for the failure of one-to-one laptop initiatives is the lack of professional development for teachers as they rework existing curricula and instructional practices to take advantage of what the mobile learning environment can offer. Teachers often wonder why they need to integrate technology since their lessons have been honed over years and already work effectively with their students.

But professional development is needed to help teachers mobilize their existing curricula. This means transforming teachers' existing pencil-and-paper-based curricula into lessons that take advantage of the mobile learning environment-and in so doing making the lessons even more effective. For example, in a lesson on the water cycle, a student would have multiple sheets of paper that correspond to different learning activities, such as defining key terms of the water cycle, drawing a concept map that represents the process, and collecting rainwater data in a spreadsheet. Seeing the relationshipsin the multiple sheets of paper and keeping track of the paper in a binder is difficult.

"If Alvin was going to prepare its children for the 21st century, I had to find a way to provide each child with a computer." -Beverly Walker, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Alvin (Texas) Intermediate School District

In contrast, in a mobile learning environment, the teacher creates a coherent lesson with multiple learning activities in which the relationships among the activities-and resulting documents-are explicit. The lesson is represented in one window on the device, and the student moves back and forth between the lesson definition and various learning activities. "I don't have to hunt for pieces of paper anymore," says one fourth-grader from Kealakehe Elementary School, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, who learned with mobile devices this past school year. "Everything is in one place."

Teacher participants in Apple's Classroom of Tomorrow network from 1985 to 1998 were given access to new technologies and support-and it took three to five years for them to become effective in using immobile computers. Based on working with hundreds of teachers worldwide as they use mobile devices, we've found that it takes half that amount of time to become effective at using mobile computing devices. Mobile devices are simpler and less intimidating to use. They are appropriate to the learning tasks in K12 classrooms. And mobile devices are not saddled with the excess functionality that comes standard on high-powered computers and productivity software suites.

Success Stories

While mobile computing technologies are still in their early days, some districts and schools have successfully explored their use. In 2004, the Alvin (Texas) Intermediate School District passed a multimillion- dollar bond that called for the purchase of handheld computers for all

students. Beverly Walker, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, was the visionary behind the bond request. "If Alvin was going to prepare its children for the 21st century, I had to find a way to provide each child with a computer," she says. "I didn't see the laptop costs would come down enough to accomplish the goal. But handheld computers seemed to have the right price-performance ratio."

"I found that the handhelds were motivating to the children and that by the end of the semester their writing skills had dramatically improved." -Ann Buffington, third-grade teacher, Kealakehe Elementary School, Hawaii Department of Education

Walker, along with Kerri Neubauer, instructional technology coordinator, bought 300 Dell Axim PocketPC computers for the district's seventh-graders in 2006. The Alvin district tapped GoKnow!, a company that develops K12 resources for mobile computing devices, to provide the educational software and professional development. GoKnow!'s Handheld Learning Environment turned the Axim, a business-oriented device, into a mobile learning environment by providing software that enabled teachers to create lessons and that supported students.

In the past school year, the Alvin district purchased 1,800 Fourier's NOVA5000 mobile computers to expand the one-to-one eff ort. Th e NOVA5000's, with their bigger 7-inch screen, also ran GoKnow's Handheld Learning Environment software, and thus Alvin's teachers didn't miss a beat moving from one device to another; the instructional strategies remained the same across devices.

"We have come a long way in just two years," Neubauer says. "Alvin's teachers are adapting our curriculum for the mobile devices. And we see that the use of the devices defi nitely results in increased student motivation. We are seeing significantly fewer behavior problems in classes where the mobile computers are being used."

Monique Shorr, sixth-grade science and social studies teacher at Hartland Farms Intermediate Schools in Michigan, has been using handheld computers for six years in her classroom. Handheld technology is but one of the technologies that are integrated into the daily fabric of her classroom. From textbooks to an overhead transparency projector, she and her students learn how to effectively use all the available resources. The HP iPAQ handhelds used in her classes keep the students' work stored, and they are synchronized to a server for easy lesson distribution and grading of student documents. "Over the semester my students become autonomous learners who can take charge of their own learning," Shorr says.

In a demonstration project to show administrators and teachers in Kona in particular (and Hawaii in general) what is possible on handhelds, Kathy Ishii, Kealakehe Complex School Renewal specialist, secured a grant under the No Child Left Behind law, which helped provide 200 handhelds for third- through fifthgraders. "Even the lower primary students were very capable in utilizing handheld computers eff ectively to enhance their learning opportunities," Ishii says.

Cari Kojima's third-grade class used handhelds in studying Anchialine ponds, an endangered ecosystem in Hawaii. And third-grade teacher Ann Buffi ngton used them to focus on literacy: "I found that the handhelds were motivating to the children and that by the end of the semester their writing skills had dramatically improved," Buffington says.

While the grant ended in June, Jessica Yamasawa, principal of Kahakai Elementary, plans to expand the program with school funds given the benefi ts to the children. "I believe that these devices are the future," she says, "and I am working to provide handhelds to more of my children in the next school year."


Next Steps

Now is the time that schools should purchase mobile computers. But in the near future, students will bring their own mobile computers to school-smart cell phones. Cell phones or cell phone use is banned from many school districts now, but savvy administrators will realize they can avoid buying computers since the students' own devices will be suffi cient for most learning tasks.

Schools will need to buy educational software to turn those phones into mobile learning environments, but the cost will be a fraction of the cost of laptops. Mobile computing devices are not a fad; indeed, Ilya Bukshteyn, director of Windows Embedded marketing at Microsoft, says the company estimates that between 2006 and 2010 the market for smart cell phones is to grow 50 percent per year. Cell phones will make one-to-one very scalable and sustainable in K12 schools.

Leaders in every district need to start a one-to-one mobile computing project. Besides providing students with an exciting and relevant learning environment, districts need to learn how to deploy one-to-one mobile computing effectively.

Cathleen Norris is a Regents professor in the Department of Learning Technologies, College of Education, at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau professor at the University of Michigan. They are cofounders of GoKnow!, a company that develops K12 resources for mobile computing devices, and members of the LeapFrog SchoolHouse Educational Advisory Board.