You’re out patrolling the hallways, and you receive an urgent eMail message on your handheld computer: A parent is on the phone, and she wants to meet with you as soon as possible about her son. She’s worried about his recent performance in school.
You are, too, so you check your schedule on the palmtop and discover you’re free to meet at two o’clock. You eMail the front office and have them schedule a meeting with the parent at that time.
Meanwhile, you hear laughter coming from the girls’ bathroom nearby. You poke your head in and surprise two sophomores, who produce scraps of paper containing scribbles that they claim are bathroom passes.
You scan their ID cards into your palmtop and discover they should be in math class right now–but they never showed up for class when the period began 20 minutes ago. Before you send them to class, you open their discipline files and enter the appropriate punishment, which is logged into the district’s system automatically before you even return to your office.
Sound far-fetched? It’s not. With the latest in wireless technologies, this type of scenario is not only possible; it will be happening in schools as early as this fall.
Unlike employees in other professions, school administrators and technology coordinators spend precious little time inside an office. They’re usually out roaming the halls or attending to one crisis or another within the building. The ability to communicate any time, anywhere via cell phone, pager, two-way radio, or even eMail is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the job.
“School administrators are having a harder and harder time because there’s more and more to manage,” said Jim Weldon, CEO of the California-based company SchoolSoft. “It’s like running a 2,000-employee company, except the employees are a little wilder.”
Here’s the good news: Today’s generation of personal communications systems not only opens the channels of communications–the new devices also let you manage data on the fly. Whether you’re tracking down student information, coordinating safety, or even managing a school’s computer network, you can have access to real-time data in the palm of your hand.
The new generation of handhelds
Leading the charge is 3Com’s Palm Computing division, which launched its Palm VII organizer at the end of May. The Palm VII is the first handheld computer that offers remote wireless internet access, letting you download web content and send and receive eMail messages instantly within 260 of the most populated areas in the United States.
The Palm VII is available for sale only in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for now, but 3Com said it will be available nationally later this year. The device is nearly identical to its predecessor, the Palm III, except for a tiny, built-in two-way radio and antenna that enable wireless connectivity.
Internet access for the Palm VII is provided through 3Com’s Palm.Net service, which uses BellSouth’s wireless infrastructure to give users pared-down internet content for the small screen. The internet application is called “web clipping” instead of browsing, and it allows access to web content providers who have signed on with 3Com to make specific information available in short bursts for Palm.Net users.
For example, United Parcel Services (UPS) will offer its package tracking application, and Yahoo! will offer its People Search function. Tapping the Yahoo! icon with your stylus brings you to the pared-down version of the People Search site, where you can locate the phone number or eMail address of someone you wish to contact.
So far, 22 content providers have signed on with 3Com to provide web clippings. Besides the package tracking and People Search functions, users can get news, stock quotes, directions, travel and meal reservations, weather reports, and other selected information from the web. As additional companies develop applications for the Palm VII, they can be downloaded from 3Com’s web site.
The Palm.Net service also offers wireless eMail through its iMessenger application. Outgoing messages are sent instantaneously via the device’s wireless radio. To check for incoming messages, you’d raise the antenna and tap an icon on the screen, and all messages waiting in the queue would appear.
The Palm VII is available for an estimated street price of $599, but its Palm.Net internet service costs extra. A $9.99-per-month plan enables you to send and receive 50 kilobytes of information per month–about 5-6 transactions per school day, according to 3Com. A $24.99-per-month plan lets you send and receive 150 kilobytes of information per month, or about 15-18 transactions per school day.
One feature of special interest to school network administrators is the ability to manage a network remotely through the Palm VII, provided you have the right software. Beginning this summer, users of 3Com’s Transcend network management software will be able to download network data to the Palm VII, view reports, and fix problems from anywhere that 3Com’s Palm.Net service operates.
With Transcend software installed on their Windows NT or Unix servers, school district technology directors could lead a teacher training workshop or repair a broken hard drive and still control the district’s network off-site, using devices that fit into their pockets.
A school-tailored solution
Although the Palm VII allows you to get wireless remote access to eMail and the internet, it’s limited in terms of its school applications and is useful primarily as a communications and organizational device. But the California company SchoolSoft has developed a handheld solution designed specifically for schools. Called PilotSoft, the device lets you track and keep grades, attendance, and other student information directly from the palm of your hand.
SchoolSoft teamed with Symbol Technologies of New York to develop the PilotSoft unit. Symbol licensed 3Com’s Palm III technology to create a handheld computer that is three-quarters of an inch thicker than the Palm III but contains a built-in bar code scanner for reading student IDs.
The unit also contains a special version of SchoolSoft’s RecordSoft administrative software, which allows teachers and administrators to store and access student information on the PilotSoft, then electronically transfer that information into the school’s main RecordSoft databases. Applications of the RecordSoft utility include an electronic gradebook, attendance profiles, homework assignments, progress reports, and class schedules.
Like the Palm VII, the latest version of the PilotSoft–set to debut this fall at Smithtown Central School District on Long Island–also contains a wireless two-way radio that will let you connect to your school’s network. With the new PilotSoft, you can “hot synch” with the network to send and receive digital messages or download and access information–all in real time.
The new PilotSoft takes advantage of Symbol’s Spectrum 24 wireless, Local Area Network (LAN) technology, the same technology used by brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to send and receive buy and sell orders via their handheld computers. Spectrum 24 acts as a cellular wireless LAN and supports open hardware and software standards, so it will work with any existing systems, Symbol Technologies said.
In addition to connecting to the network, the device lets you send and receive messages in real time. Principals instantly could send messages to their staff members via the handheld, for example, and the device could even be wired to send an emergency message when a special key is pressed.
Spectrum 24 has a range of about a half mile–so even coaches or physical education teachers who are outside on an athletic field will be able to use a PilotSoft to hot synch with the school network to send and receive information instantly.
Unlike the Palm VII, the PilotSoft won’t allow you to get onto the internet without special software, and if you take the device on a field trip, you won’t have access to real-time messaging. But there’s also no monthly usage fee, and you can still input information and upload it to the network when you return to the school building.
PilotSofts’ debut this fall will kick off when teachers at Smithtown High School use the devices to take period-by-
period attendance. By pressing the “hot synch” button on their palmtops, teachers will be able to transfer attendance information automatically to the central office, where it will be recorded on the school’s network in real time.
Smithtown administrators will be able to roam the high school’s two buildings and will be connected to the network at all times through the handheld devices. If school executives find students who aren’t where they belong, the administrators will be able to scan a student’s ID card and have his or schedule pop up on the screen to find out where the student is supposed to be. The administrator even will be able to tell if the reported to his or her last class or will be able to add information to the student’s discipline file without a trip down to the office first.
Stefani Snyder, the school’s assistant principal, said the
PilotSofts will form the basis of “unobtrusive security” within the buildings. Instead of relying on surveillance cameras and other more obtrusive security measures, Snyder said, the devices will allow school officials to make sure students are where they belong–always a challenge in a school of close to 2,400 students–by patrolling the buildings and maintaining a high degree of visibility.
“The mobility will be incredible,” she said. “Being anywhere in the building and being able to get information instantly is going to be a real plus for us. To me, it changes the parameters of accountability.”
Security guards will use the PilotSofts outside in the school’s parking lot, so if guards stop students, they’ll be able to tell instantly if the students belong on campus that day.
The devices also will be used during fire drills. Teachers can take their PilotSofts outside with them and take attendance to account for everybody in their classes by scanning students’ ID cards–so even if there’s a substitute teacher, there still can be an accurate accounting of all students.
Eventually, Smithtown would like to give PilotSofts to the bus drivers of its K-5 students as well. Though the handhelds would be out of range to hot synch wirelessly to the schools’ networks, they would contain pre-loaded information about each student’s bus stop.
Drivers would be able to scan kids’ IDs as they get on and off the bus, making sure all students are accounted for at the end of the day and are getting off at the correct stop. Parents would have to sign a release form to let their children get off at a different stop, and the signature would appear electronically on the palmtop so the driver would know it’s okay.
PilotSofts cost between $300 and $450 per unit, depending on the number of units and the type of applications you request, SchoolSoft CEO Jim Weldon said.
As a communications tool, PilotSofts are effective because they also let you manage data from the palm of your hand. But if you’re looking for straight communications devices, the Motorola Spirit GT two-way radio is a viable alternative. Unlike other personal communications devices such as cellular phones or pagers, the radios are available at a one-time cost and don’t incur monthly charges or service fees.
The latest Motorola Spirit radio is a sleeker version of the “walkie talkie” that lets several people talk to each other simultaneously at the push of a button. Developed to withstand the daily rigors of a school environment, the radios come with a built-in hands-free capability (a headset is optional) and professional-quality amplification to combat high noise levels.
The radios are available in one- or two-channel modes and operate on frequencies reserved exclusively for school or business use, Motorola said. Each radio has a built-in Interference Eliminator to block out unwanted channel chatter and has a talk range of up to 200,000 square feet indoors and up to four miles outdoors.
Motorola Spirit two-way radios can help you operate your schools more efficiently and enhance safety by providing immediate communication between all school personnel, including principals, administrators, security guards, teachers, nurses, coaches, and custodians. As a result, staff can better coordinate everyday or emergency activities, such as calling a nurse to the playground, resolving maintenance issues, communicating across an athletic field, or controlling a pep rally or other student function.
The radios are backed by a one-year limited replacement warranty and have a manufacturer’s suggested retail price starting at $189, Motorola said.
Cellular phones are being used in schools with increasing frequency as well. While most cell phone applications focus on coordinating student activities and improving safety, Chicago Public Schools have launched an innovative pilot program using the devices to reduce truancy.
This past January, teachers in seven Chicago high schools were given wireless phones from Sprint PCS programmed with the names and numbers of all the students in their classes. If a student was absent for a suspicious number of times, the teacher could press a button to call the student’s parent or guardian instantly, putting some heat on the kid to show up for class.
Giving the teachers wireless phones reduces the amount of class interruption necessary to make the calls, said Sprint PCS spokesman Mark McHale. “We wanted to ensure that students get the most out of their school experience–and they can’t do that unless they’re in class,” he said. “This program addresses a very real need in schools.”
Sprint PCS donated 170 wireless phones and 300 free minutes of air time per month for the project. School officials will meet this summer to evaluate the success of the program, and if it proved successful, they’ll consider expanding it to other Chicago schools this fall.
The main challenges of school administration will remain as always–helping teachers and students attain the maximum achievement. But with the rapidly expanding array of personal electronic solutions available to educators, the distances and scheduling complexities of local districts should soon recede as obstacles to effective management communications.