A University of Michigan professor and a team of researchers are developing a suite of educational tools for handheld computers that will be available for downloading at no charge. The tools are expected to be ready by September.

“We’re designing and we’re building,” said Elliot Soloway, professor of education and computer science. “We call it the ‘cool dozen’ that you’ve got to have.”

Many ed-tech advocates believe that, with their low cost and portability, handheld computers—also called personal digital assistants, or PDAs—hold great promise for schools. But a lack of educational software for handhelds has hampered their deployment in classrooms until now. Soloway and his team aim to change that.

They’re creating small software programs for the Palm operating system that will allow students and teachers to do essential tasks, such as word processing, sketching, manipulating images, creating timelines and family histories, graphing equations, and printing directly from their PDAs.

Palm Inc. and other companies are helping Soloway and his team develop the software package, though funding comes from the National Science Foundation through an umbrella organization of the University of Michigan, called Highly Interactive Computing in Education.

The business model for selling software doesn’t work for schools, Soloway said. Most Palm OS applications have a registration fee, and paying that fee for a classroom full of students for each program can be costly.

Add this cost to software incompatibility problems and the difficulty of loading the software onto a classroom of PDAs, and the concept of handheld computers in schools isn’t worth it, he explained.

Soloway and his team of researchers foresee the danger this new technology presents—where schools eagerly purchase a handheld computer for every student and then scramble for software. Such a process would, in fact, mirror how computers entered education.

“We don’t want people to get burned again,” said Soloway.

But, Soloway believes, handheld computers have the potential to transform educational technology in schools. For as little as $150 each, students can have more computational power in the palms of their hands than ever, he said.

Handheld devices function not only as computers, but also as textbooks, notebooks, and pencils. Students can use the devices to edit and revise their work. Handhelds also hold advantages over traditional computers, with their ability to beam data from one device to another. Students can beam questions to teachers, for example, or send parts of an assignment from their own handheld to that of a colleague.

Soloway goes so far as to argue that implementing computers in schools hasn’t been successful to date.

“The PC route is a disaster,” Soloway said. “You can’t keep them running, the settings never stay the same. They’re used by different sets of students five times a day. They’re anything but ‘personal’ computers.”

Most computers are housed in labs that students visit only a few hours a week, and the majority of students will never receive their own laptop computers from school, Soloway said. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average ratio of students to computers was 6 to 1 in 1999.

“Computers haven’t impacted kids in education, because they haven’t been used in education,” Soloway said. For technology to transform education, it must be ubiquitous—and, according to Soloway, handhelds offer this promise.

“When the kids use it all day long in all of their classes and then take it home, it becomes a more integral tool,” Soloway said.

Soloway and his team of researchers have piloted a number of handheld programs in local schools.

PiCoMap lets students create concept maps on their handheld computers to help them organize, visualize, and expand their thoughts. The maps can be beamed, printed, synched to a desktop computer, or posted on the web. Another program, called Cooties, simulates the transfer of a virus. As a class activity, teachers can introduce beaming, and how disease spreads.

PalmSheets allow teachers to create worksheets to beam to students. And Go’nTell allows students to manage the pictures they have taken with a Kodak digital camera that plugs into the Palm. Students can use the pictures to create scrapbooks or upload photos to a web page.

Students can use a program called Fling-It when they are surfing the internet on a desktop computer. When a student finds a web page he wants to read, he clicks on the Fling-It button on his browser, and the program strips images and formatting from the page and places the text onto the Palm computer.

Soloway’s goal is to create small, intuitive programs that offer a lot of functionality.

“We try to think about what really goes on in schools and how teachers would use them, and then we create productivity tools to be used over and over,” Soloway said. “Right now, we are trying to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.”

Hartland Farms Intermediate School in Hartland, Mich., is one of the schools piloting the new applications. Monique Shorr, a sixth-grade science and social studies teacher, said her students use Handspring Visors for taking notes in the library, beaming questions, and pulling information off the internet.

“It motivates [students] to want to learn,” Shorr said of the technology.

The costs for the Handspring Visors, a classroom printer, and software add up quickly, Shorr said, which makes her grateful that she is able to pilot the technology for free.

She said she’s “very excited” about the new software Soloway and his team are developing, and she agrees that handhelds hold great promise for schools.

“I can use [them] all the time in class, rather than saying, ‘We can’t do this today because we can’t get into the lab,'” Shorr said.

As for the technology’s fragility, Shorr said, “We’ve not had any students lose or break a Visor. We’ve had students who’ve forgotten them at home, but [the students] brought them back the next day.”

Also, the University of Michigan has provided protective bags for students to use when transporting their PDAs. The bags have a shoulder strap and a clear plastic front, so students can use the units while they are protected.

The “cool dozen” will be available on CD-ROM and for downloading from the web. The package will come with curriculum materials and materials that demonstrate how to use its various tools.

Links:

Palm OS: Computers in Education
http://hi-ce.org/palm