Maryland students use handheld computers to boost their productivity

For the past few years, laptop computers have been touted as a way of getting technology into the hands of all students, making “anytime, anywhere learning” possible. But laptops are expensive, their batteries die quickly, and they’re not always easy to lug around. That’s why some school technology experts are predicting that handheld computers, or personal digital assistants (PDAs), may be a more viable solution.

To be sure, PDAs come with their own set of problems: So far, they’ve lacked a convenient input device and software that would make them useful in the classroom. But a Baltimore-based company called MindSurf aims to change all that with a pilot program at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md.

Through this program, MindSurf has seamlessly linked a group of select ninth-grade students with their teacher via PDAs and integrated its wireless platform with the school’s educational applications. The program’s goal: improved communication between the students and their teacher and increased productivity in the classroom.

The pilot program, which launched Oct. 3, is expected to be duplicated in additional schools throughout the year.

MindSurf, a $70 million joint venture between Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., Owings Mills, Md.-based Aether Systems Inc. and San Francisco-based Critical Path, has created an educational tool out of the Palm Pilot, with general internet access with web browsing, a searchable dictionary and encyclopedia, a graphing calculator, games, and financial applications.

The company has equipped a ninth-grade River Hill High School English class of 15 students with Palm Pilot Vx devices. The devices come with cellular modems that enable students to connect to the internet and to each other wirelessly from anywhere—much like the connectivity that a cellular phone provides.

“The kids generally search the internet for text-driven sites. Actually, any site on the web can be accessed, but the graphics on multimedia sites don’t display well,” said Scott Pfeifer, principal of River Hill High School.

“The kids usually go to a site called OmniSky that features a search engine for text-only web sites,” Pfeifer added. “There’s actually a button on the Palm that takes them to OmniSky. There is a growing market for writing text-only web pages for these handheld devices. Web designers are now often writing dual sites, one for broadband computing and one for text-only cellular technology.”

Students also were given collapsible keyboards from Palm that fold down to about 4 inches by 6 inches by 1 inch. The folding keyboards, which can be used to input information into the handheld computers, “make this program so much more powerful than just using the stylus to input information,” said David Long, vice president of product development for MindSurf.

The Palm computers’ capability for wireless communication allows students to use eMail and instant messaging wherever they go. They can check eMail and work on assignments on the bus ride home from school, for example, thereby extending their productivity.

“We’ve also put instant synchronization capability on the devices,” said Long. “That way, if a teacher hands out an assignment, the due dates get automatically updated on each child’s Palm calendar.”

The Palm Pilots also are updated automatically with daily announcements. “One of my goals is to eliminate the intercom,” Long said.

MindSurf and River Hill High School are working together to explore ways the technology can be used to enhance student learning as well as productivity.

“We are in a developmental phase of exploring new curriculum goals. We are really trying to create a culture of technology in the classroom,” said Rick Robb, the English teacher involved with MindSurf pilot program.

Robb was recruited to come to River Hill and teach the MindSurf pilot class in part because of his extensive technology background.

“[Robb] worked at Honeywell for a decade, so understanding the technology was not a challenge for him. We could then focus immediately on the curriculum. But we know that different people will need different levels of training,” Long said.

One thing Robb has discovered is that PDAs facilitate collaboration in his classroom. A recent activity in his class involved drafting a letter to the school newspaper. Students created their own responses and then combined them into a single letter by “beaming” each other’s writing back and forth.

“They did in about an hour what would have taken much longer otherwise, if I had run off copies for everyone,” Robb said.

Assessment features are also on the horizon, according to Long. “We also will [include] a test administration feature, where teachers can give quizzes and tests that can be graded automatically so that kids get immediate feedback,” he said.

But the assessment feature is not yet fully operational, Robb said. “We are currently researching ways of doing assessment. It’s hard to do electronic testing for an English class, because you have to grade writing,” he explained.

The response to the pilot has been tremendous so far, Long said. In January, the program is expanding to other subjects in the ninth grade at River Hill, including math, science, social studies, and one foreign language class.

“The administrators here are very eager. The goal was not to get a device into the hands of children, but to enable learning at the curriculum level,” Pfeifer said. “We want kids to use the Palm Pilots as a productivity tool, just like adults do. The question, literally, is how do we help kids become better learners.”

The learning curve is not as daunting with PDAs as with other types of technology, those involved with the pilot say.

“Anytime you introduce a new technology, there will be some resistance, but as far as learning to use the device, it is far less complicated than a laptop. With a laptop, you have to learn a whole complicated operating system, but with a Palm [everything] is literally one or two clicks away,” said Robb.

MindSurf plans to add a teacher training segment to the program, Long added. “We will provide on-site training for the pilots we will be doing around the country, and we are putting together a training protocol for when we begin connecting whole schools,” he said.

The final product, when rolled out nationally in September 2001, also will contain security measures to protect student information and ensure that students are staying on task, according to Long.

Pfeifer acknowledges there are certainly costs involved that schools will have to deal with. “Right now, we are not paying for the cell time, and that will be a major cost to schools,” he said.

Prices for the final product have yet to be determined, according to MindSurf. “We are still trying to manage down the cost. After the first set of pilot programs, we will begin to deal with it,” said Long, who added there most likely would be an installation charge to put transceivers throughout the schools.

“But on a cost basis, it is really favorable. The devices cost around $200, maybe $300 with the keyboards. Compare that to a $2,000 laptop. Also, it is far cheaper to put in a wireless network than [it is] to wire a school,” Long said.

Despite expenses to schools, the educators involved with the MindSurf pilot remain enthusiastic about the product.



River Hill High School

Palm Inc.


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