It’s easy to be dazzled by the promised capabilities of the new generation of handhelds and cell phones, and selecting just the right system for your school or district can be difficult, especially given the wide and ever-changing array of products on the market.

Some things to consider when buying personal communications products include:

• What’s your budget for initial costs and ongoing costs?

Besides start-up costs involved in the initial purchase of equipment, consider ongoing costs such as maintenance and monthly service. Is technical assistance included in the purchase price, or will you be billed extra for every question that you have? Can expensive monthly cell phone or net access service be discontinued in the summer months, or will you have to pay a fortune to get it turned back on again? Are the units you’re buying upgradeable, or will they become obsolete and have to be replaced in two years? How long do batteries last, and how much do batteries cost?

• Across what range do you need to communicate?

For staff communications on a single campus, simple devices such as two-way radios might be your best bet. They might not be glamorous, but they’re cheap, easy, and durable.

If network access is your goal, consider devices such as the Schoolpalm from Symbol Technologies, which lets you share data while on campus instantly and in real time via wireless radio signals.

Other circumstances might call for something with a longer range, perhaps cell phones. For district administrators on the go across the county, cell phones can increase productivity by turning time previously wasted driving in the car into time for a telephone meeting with a staff member. (Be sure to get a hands-free model if you plan to do this.)

Communication with parents also can be facilitated by cell phones. A coach might take a cell phone to the practice field or away games so that parents can reach him in case of emergency, and he could notify the school of schedule changes.

Be sure to ask about holes in the service area, however, especially if your school is in a rural area.

Buying systems for students

There are many fewer options for wireless communications products in the instructional technology arena, and here your choice should depend on what you’re looking to accomplish.

Some of the devices on the market, such as Columbia Information System’s Learning Analyzer, are primarily for assessment purposes. They help teachers to determine quickly who has learned what.

Other devices, like the probeware developed for Palms by ImagiWorks, are designed to be employed directly in the learning process. By using them, students learn about science topics while also learning to use a handheld computer.

In a few schools, PDAs are used by students just as professionals use them—as organizers. A donation from 3Com provided Palm VII units to seniors and many teachers at the Castilleja School, a private girls’ school in Palo Alto.

The donation was a fortunate circumstance, said Castilleja Academic Technology Coordinator Andy Tuttle, and the school was pleased to receive it. But would buying the handhelds have been a good use of school money? “I don’t know that we would have done it if we had had to spend fifty or sixty thousand dollars buying the Palms,” Tuttle said.

—G.B.