Used to be, the only ones you saw with a handheld computer or other portable wireless internet device were Silicon Valley-type executives, whose status as very important people was confirmed by their need to stay connected 24-7.

Not any more. Cellular phones have become as ubiquitous as TVs, and handheld computers are slowly joining them in popularity.

Technology has improved to the point where these wireless devices can send and receive eMail and download small clippings from the internet in real time, and experts predict the two will converge within a few years. In fact, some experts say these cheaper wireless devices may soon overtake the personal computer as the No. 1 way for consumers to get online.

The future of wireless may already be on display in Japan, where a phone called the NTT DoCoMo is wildly popular.

DoCoMo is the world’s first so-called third-generation, or 3G, cell phone. Users cannot only call each other, they can go on the internet and send and receive eMail, make travel reservations, go shopping, and pay their bills.

The 3G phones will feature higher-speed internet connections. Today’s cell phones typically connect to the web at 9,600 kilobytes per second—essentially the speed of dial-up internet connections nearly a decade ago. But 3G phones will be nearly as fast as today’s broadband service for wired computers using DSL, digital subscriber line, or cable modem. They’ll also look different, with bigger screens, some in color.

Other 3G phones are expected to hit the market in Europe next year and the United States by 2003, analysts say.

For now, educators are discovering that today’s generation of wireless communications systems is a good fit for schools. The administrative value of such devices is a no-brainer, given the need for increased security. But schools also are beginning to discover their value in the classroom as inexpensive instructional tools that can download and upload data from a classroom computer.

Schoolpalms at Smithtown

When Assistant Principal Fran Banyon comes across one of her 2,450 students wandering the halls, she instantly knows what class he’s supposed to be in, whether he showed up in that class at all, and what classes he’s missed during the rest of the day. If appropriate, she can insert a disciplinary note into his file without trekking up to the office.

That’s because Banyon, like the rest of the staff at Long Island’s Smithtown High School, is using a Schoolpalm handheld computer manufactured by Symbol Technologies and loaded with administrative software developed by Schoolpalm.com.

Besides tracking student attendance automatically period by period, the handhelds allow Smithtown staff to send real-time messages and exchange data with the school’s main computer network from within a half-mile range.

Teachers, administrators, and school resource officers on Smithtown’s two-building campus have customized units with different capabilities. Teachers, for instance, are able to access attendance and contact information on their own students through the handhelds, while administrators have access to information on all students.

Smithtown’s feedback will help determine what goes into future versions. “We’re in contact with the companies on a regular basis,” Banyon said, “and they’ve been wonderful about responding to our suggestions.” Though Smithtown paid full price to install the network used by the Schoolpalm units and full price for the software the units run, the school probably will get a reduced rate on the handhelds themselves, according to Jay Landau, instructional technology coordinator at Smithtown.

An example of a change influenced by Smithtown’s feedback is the addition of bar code scanners, said Stefani Snyder, senior business development manager at Symbol. “Originally, the units had no scanners,” Snyder said. “Scanners were added at the request of teachers, who find it much easier and faster to scan student IDs than to type in ID numbers.”

“More and more is asked of teachers all the time, including integrating technology into the classroom,” said Snyder. “We want to design technology that makes things easier for teachers, not technology that becomes a chore.”

“Our next step is moving into grading using the Schoolpalm,” said Banyon. “Currently, the process of keeping a gradebook and submitting grades requires several steps and a lot of paperwork. The Schoolpalm will streamline the procedure and make it easier.” Banyon also hopes to make more applications available for teachers to use at home.

Symbol and Schoolpalm

Symbol Technologies first created the handheld computers several years ago using Palm III technology licensed from 3Com Corp. Two different models are used for Smithtown’s Schoolpalms. One is about three-quarters of an inch thicker than the Palm III, due to its built-in bar code scanner for reading student IDs. The other “ruggedized” unit is a little heftier and typically is used by school resource officers or coaches, whose handhelds receive more abuse from weather, drops, and dirt.

As a hardware manufacturer, Symbol partners with companies that provide software to run on its wireless devices. To develop the Schoolpalm handhelds, Symbol partnered with Schoolpalm.com, a California-based company launched in December 1999.

Smithtown is one of several pilot test sites throughout the country, said John Palyok, school project manager at Schoolpalm.com. The Schoolpalm unit used by administrators at Smithtown is available for sale, but teachers will have to wait for their electronic gradebooks. “We have some more adjustments to make,” Palyok said.

The Schoolpalm units can exchange data with many different kinds of administrative software, according to Schoolpalm.com President John Weldon, so compatibility with existing systems should not be too much of a concern for schools.

The Schoolpalm price per unit depends on specific features of the units, Weldon said. At the low end, schools might pay about $500 apiece for the devices and software. For top-of-the-line wireless units with real-time messaging, the cost could be as much as $1,300 per unit.

In the future, Palyok said, the company would like to push school administrative data onto the web. “Imagine a parent who knows their child had a big test or who’s worried about their child’s attendance,” Polyok said. “If it was stored securely on the web, attendance or grade information collected during the day would be accessible not only to staff members, but to parents, who could check on their children’s progress from work or their home PCs by logging onto the school’s site and typing in a password to see their child’s records.”

Symbol is one of the few companies developing mobile computing devices specifically for the education market. That’s because the education market is often perceived as less lucrative and slower to embrace technology than the corporate market.

“Frankly, it’s a low-margin business,” said Schoolpalm.com’s Weldon. “And a lot of times in the education market, people don’t like leading-edge technology.”

Where technology will have its greatest impact on education is in the curriculum, Weldon believes, and he said that Schoolpalm is moving beyond purely administrative software development and into developing instructional technology for handhelds.

Using handhelds for instruction

Bob Tinker would be glad to hear that. Handheld computers are the perfect tool for schools— better than PCs, says Tinker, president of the nonprofit Concord Consortium. Tinker advocates using handhelds for classroom instruction, noting that the lower-end models are far less expensive than desktop computers and can support spreadsheets, word processing, graphics, and probeware. A classroom that could afford a half-dozen desktop units might spend the same amount of money buying one desktop and a handheld for every student instead.

Few schools use handhelds, in part because of the lack of educational software designed for handheld units, according to Tinker. “It’s a chicken-and-egg issue,” Tinker said. “Educators don’t use handhelds because there’s no software to use on them, and companies don’t develop software for handhelds because educators don’t use them.”

The Center for Innovative Learning Technologies (CILT), an affiliate of the Concord Consortium, has developed several initiatives to explore and increase the use of handheld computers for instruction.

In one project described in the Concord Consortium’s newsletter, CILT conducted a pilot study to see if children in younger grades could benefit from using Palm handhelds. A class of second graders and a class of fifth graders in Massachusetts were given Palm computers, trained in their use, then asked to conduct experiments using the computers and attached temperature probes.

Children in both grades were able to use the computers successfully, and researcher Carolyn Staudt noted that the units’ portability and capabilities allowed children to collect data and analyze it immediately, which encouraged them to be creative and active in their field experiments.

A pair of second graders, for instance, used their probe to measure the temperature of the air on the playground, then looked for areas they expected to be different in temperature: a shady spot, a drainage hole, the blacktop, their shoes. The children took notes on the Palm, discussed their findings, and quickly devised additional experiments to test the reasons they thought accounted for the differences in temperature.

The probeware used by the children is developed by ImagiWorks, a California-based company that develops technologies that integrate sensors with handheld computers for education, business, and home use. The ImagiProbes and associated software used in CILT’s experiment allows data such as temperature, PH, and salinity to be collected via the probes and displayed graphically on the Palm screens. Students can add sketches and notes by using a stylus, or they can type in additional information using a tiny on-screen keyboard. Data can be transferred later to a desktop computer and further manipulated.

This year, CILT held a contest to encourage the development of more educational software to run on Palm handhelds. The center awarded prizes in five categories: assessment tools, collaboration tools, edutainment and games, science and math applications, and “eight and under.” (A sixth category, on sensors and controls, drew no entries.)

Winning entries included a software program intended to teach genetics, a homework assignment organizer, and a graphing program. The center is not aware of any plans to market these software programs, according to Tinker.

What’s out there in PDAs

The leader in handheld computers (often called personal digital assistants, or PDAs) is still Palm Computing, which in 1999 had 70 percent of the market share in handhelds, according to International Data Corp. Though the Palms are not designed with educators in mind, they can be as useful for teachers and administrators as for any other busy professionals.

Palms come in many models, with different combinations of capabilities. At the low end of the line is the Palm IIIe, which retails for around $150. The Palm IIIe has a standard slate of Palm applications: datebook, to-do list, memo pad, eMail, and data transfer (or “hot sync”) capabilities. Users of the Palm IIIe can compose and read eMail massages on the PDA, but they must hook up to a modem in order to send and receive messages. The unit has 2 MB of RAM and is not upgradeable.

At the top of the Palm line is the Palm VII, which retails for about $450. Along with the same applications as the Palm IIIe, this PDA has an integrated wireless modem which allows users to log onto the web without hooking up to another device. This means that users can compose and send eMail messages at any time; they can also get data from web sites—including ABCNews.com, ESPN.com, and MapQuest—which have signed up with Palm to produce information in a simplified “web clipping” format.

Teachers and administrators might keep track of meetings and athletic events with the datebook, store student contact information in the address book, and write notes to parents using the eMail function.

The bad news: Internet service for the Palm VII requires a subscription to Palm.net, which costs $9.95 per month for basic service (50k of traffic) or $24.99 for expanded service (150k). To stay within the basic service range, users would have to limit their transactions to about five or six per school day. And access to the web is purely through the clipping service, so users cannot browse freely or access sites that have not signed up with Palm.

In addition, web access is available only within a certain service area, which, though extensive, has holes. Finally, several product reviews have accused the application-heavy Palm VII of being a battery hog.

PDA users soon will have a wider range of choices, as developments in technology and in the high-tech industry are challenging Palm’s supremacy. The first such development is a proliferation of companies jockeying for position in the red-hot PDA arena. The second is the technological advancement that’s eroding the distinctions between PDAs and cell phones.

In March, Palm spun off from its parent company, 3Com, which promptly announced its own plan to launch a new internet appliance that will be something like the Palm.

The Canadian company Research in Motion (RIM), maker of Blackberry messaging devices, unveiled the RIM 957 Wireless Handheld in April. The RIM 957 offers a a small keyboard, a screen, an Intel 386 processor, 5 MB of flash memory, a built-in wireless modem, an organizer, and BlackBerry eMail software.

April also saw the retail launch of handheld computer start-up Handspring’s Visor, which previously had been sold only through the company’s web site. According to PC Data, a Virginia-based research firm, the Visor Deluxe model outsold all competing models from Palm Computing in its first week on the shelves.

Handspring was formed by Palm co-founders Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins after they left Palm Computing. The Visor and Visor Deluxe run on Palm’s operating system.

Also in April, Microsoft rejoined the PDA fray with its launch of the Pocket PC, a new operating system for handheld devices. A previous Microsoft operating system—Windows CE—was unpopular with users. This time, Microsoft says, it has taken steps to develop a simpler and more user-friendly interface.

Despite the increased simplicity, Pocket PC is still more complex than the Palm. Palm has had a “less is more” philosophy, write Bruce and Marge Brown in PC Magazine, whereas Microsoft “has followed a ‘more is more’ model.”

Pocket PC, which runs on Casio Cassiopeia and Hewlett-Packard Jornada hardware, has multimedia capabilities (including microphone, speaker, headphone jack, and audio player), high-resolution color screens, a slew of Microsoft applications (including Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, and Pocket Money), faster processors, and more memory than Palm PDAs.

Pocket PC has several other advantages, including a screen which looks familiarly like a Windows desktop and an arrangement with America Online that allows users to access their AOL mail through the software.

The new wave of cell phones

In additional to traditional voice transmission, a growing number of cell phones offer data transmission.

Leading the way is Sprint’s Wireless Web service, followed by a pack of other manufacturers and partnerships. For an additional fee on top of mobile phone service fees, Sprint customers using phones equipped with small screens can access the web, send and receive eMail, and make telephone calls. The attraction is obvious, and industry analysts agree that such multi-capability devices one day will become staples. But that day isn’t here quite yet.

There are several downsides to the current technology. The web access offered is quite minimal. As is the case with PDAs, cell phone internet devices can only use information which has been modified for the format, so free and easy web surfing is out of the question. Screens are even smaller and more rudimentary than PDA screens, in some cases offering as little as four lines of 12 characters each, sans graphics. Testers agree that it’s a strain to do much reading under these conditions—and even more trying to compose eMail messages.

In addition, the web connection achievable through a cell phone is like the voice connection achievable through a cell phone: slow and unsteady. The details of eMail service are still limiting as well. Depending on the service provider and handset, users may not be able to access their regular eMail accounts.

Another drawback is price. The cell phone units range from about $100 to $400, and both voice and data transmission minutes must be purchased on top of that.

Lower-tech options

For plain vanilla voice communication between staff members, many schools choose the old standby walkie talkie.

“They’re faster than cell phones, have a two-mile range, and once you buy it, it’s yours—no monthly fees,” said Pat Gamage, business manager at Rockville High School in Rockville, Md. Rockville uses two-way radios manufactured by Motorola for communication between staff members.

A lower-tech instructional option is the Learning Analyzer, sold by Columbia Information Systems. Originally developed for use in corporate settings, particularly in market research, the Learning Analyzer enables people listening to a presentation to give instant feedback to the presenter.

In a classroom setting, for instance, a teacher can administer a multiple-choice quiz, ask the students to answer the questions using their handheld units, and immediately see on a desktop computer screen the number of correct answers to each question and which students gave which answers.

To use the handheld dial units, students turn a dial until the number they want is displayed. The number then is transmitted to the teacher’s computer. Since the system is strictly numeric, all questions administered must have answers which can be expressed as numbers, whether they are arithmetic questions, multiple choice questions, or some other format devised by the teacher.

The advantage, says the company, is that students can answer without fear of embarrassment (since their responses are visible only to the instructor), and teachers can get instant feedback as to whether their instruction has been absorbed, rather than having to wait to collect and review quiz results on paper.

The Learning Analyzer system comes in wired and wireless versions and consists of a console, software, and as many individual dial units as group sizes require. In order to use the Learning Analyzer, a classroom must have a PC. The cost for a wireless system—including software, 30 units, a console, and four days of onsite training—is about $18,000.

Technology that tanked

In the fast-paced world of wireless, new developments often are announced almost before they are fully conceived—and, in some cases, these developments are never born at all. That’s what happened at 3Com this year.

In May 1999, 3Com announced plans to make its Transcend network management applications available on the Palm computing platform, which would have enabled network administrators to monitor and control network systems remotely. This would have been a great boon to always-on-the-go network admins, freeing them up to travel around the school or district without sacrificing the ability to keep an eye on their networks.

But according to 3Com spokesman Charles Malkiel, these plans have been put on hold indefinitely. “We did announce that Transcend would be put on the Palm, but 3Com has recently reorganized,” Malkiel said. “Network management software on the Palm will not be coming from 3Com.”