A private school near Winston-Salem, N.C., reportedly is the first K-12 school in the country to require the use of Palm handheld computers in its high school and to pilot their use by all students, starting in first grade.

Palm Inc., a leading provider of handheld computers, and Forsyth Country Day School (K-12, enr. 755) made the announcement June 25 at the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago.

According to Eric Peterson, assistant headmaster at the school, ninth through 12th grade students returning to school in late August will find something extra in their registration packets—a Palm IIIc handheld, a portable keyboard, and a suite of software applications.

The school is working with Palm and several third-party developers to select an appropriate set of software applications to be used by students and faculty across the curriculum.

“We are a relatively small school with a very big idea, one that will have tremendous benefits to our 850 students and faculty,” said Peterson. In addition to issuing Palm handhelds to the high school students, classroom sets of Palm handhelds will be used in science and math classes in both the middle and elementary grades.

The school also plans to integrate the devices into its brand-new, multimillion-dollar science, math, and academic support centers.

“We see Palm handhelds as a ‘transforming technology’ for our students and for schools in general. For the first time, we have access to a device that can deliver on the fundamental promises of technology in the classroom,” Peterson said.

“This is the first time a K-12 school in the United States has mandated the use of handheld technology in its school and made the commitment to use it in a range of academic and administrative areas,” said Mike Lorion, vice president of education markets at Palm.

“These areas include math, science, English, foreign language, grading, and test assessment. Forsyth Country Day School will be a showcase—a place that other schools can use as a model,” he said.

The school’s long-range plans include integrating Palm handhelds into its intranet to use for sending eMail messages, synching assignments, and connecting to school and individual class web sites.

In addition, students will use wireless services to get online material via web-clipping applications for use in classes.

In the future, the school plans to distribute eTextbooks and course materials on Secure Digital (SD) cards. SD cards are about the size of a postage stamp and can be inserted into the expansion slot of Palm m500 series handhelds for instant access to applications, content, data storage and backup, images, and video clips.

This year, students will pay a fee to acquire the handhelds, but thereafter the school’s regular tuition and fees will cover the costs for the Palms in the same manner they cover the costs of desktop computers and other electronic resources.

Hank Battle, Forsyth Country Day School headmaster, says his school has invested close to $500,000 in technology initiatives over the last few years but decided the next logical step was to jump into using handheld devices rather than laptops.

“The problem with laptops is that by the time you get a class together and fire up laptops, it is 10 minutes before you have everyone going,” he explained. “That is a loss of class time every day.”

School leaders started experimenting with using devices equipped with the Palm operating system and, according to Battle, the educators were “just amazed with the number of applications available.”

“As we got into this, we realized there was just so much school-related software available, everything from gradebooks to graphing calculator-emulators,” he said. “Kids are able to edit, write, take quizzes, and we were able to communicate to one another.”

Other features that sold the school on using Palms were the portability of the devices and the ability to download electronic texts.

“The eBook downloads really mitigated the need to carry some weighty textbooks,” said Battle.

Finally, Battle said the low cost of personal digital assistants—at least when compared to the cost of laptops—was a factor in the decision. The Palm IIIc retails for $299, and the required portable keyboards cost an additional $99. That’s compared to about $2,000 for a single laptop.

Battle said the district is not requiring Palm brand computers per se, just devices with a Palm operating system, to ensure that the machines are compatible for synching.

Peterson, who also is an English teacher and football coach, launched a pilot program during the past school year that reportedly met with widespread enthusiasm from the teachers and students who participated.

He used Palm handhelds extensively in his British Literature classes. In addition to the basic organizational functions the handhelds provided, his 25 students took vocabulary and reading quizzes on the Palm handhelds after Peterson distributed the quizzes via infrared beaming.

They also took notes, wrote papers, and viewed electronic texts of literary works downloaded from the Palm Digital Media web site.

Peterson himself used his Palm handheld to record student grades, attendance, and various class notes.

“Last year, we piloted this with seniors, and they were very excited about it,” said Battle. “Then, at the end of the term they were asked to vote on whether we should make these required. It was 98 percent in favor of requiring the handhelds.”

In coaching, Peterson uses the handheld to scout and analyze opponents’ football game films to better prepare for a given week’s game.

“During a game, the Palm handhelds let us chart opponents’ tendencies and play-calling patterns in real time, allowing us to make better adjustments during the game itself,” he said.

During the summer, teachers at Forsyth Country Day School will participate in staff development sessions, led by Peterson, who has been certified as a Palm Education Training Coordinator (PETC).

Palm’s PETC program certifies local educators to deliver consistent and up-to-date staff development curriculum on the use of Palm handhelds in education.

The summer sessions will provide skills training for the faculty in the basic operation of Palm handhelds and the variety of curricular possibilities for implementing them in education.

“We thought doing this would be taking the next leap forward in technology, and we wanted to be ahead of the curve,” said Battle. “As with anything, we are looking for ways to become more efficient and ways to improve ourselves as educators.”

While other schools are beginning to consider handheld devices, not everyone agrees that Palms make an effective tool for classroom use. Last year, officials at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md., had announced they would equip one English class of 15 students with Palm Pilot Vx devices through a partnership with Mindsurf Networks.

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, had created an educational tool out of the Palm handheld computer, with general internet access and web browsing, a searchable dictionary and encyclopedia, a graphing calculator, games, and financial applications.

But Mindsurf soon began getting feedback from the teacher, Rick Robb, saying the handheld devices were not adequate for the class’s needs. As a result, River Hill officials recently decided to switch the Mindsurf pilot program from Palm computers to the iPaq Pocket PC from Compaq Computer Corp., a device running on Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system that combines the portability of a handheld device and some of the additional power (206 MHz Intel processor and up to 64 megabytes of memory) of a laptop.

“Within a week we had tapped out of it. We were looking for a lot more power and functionality than [the Palm computers] had,” said Robb.

Links:

Forsyth Country Day School
http://www.fcds.org

Palm Inc.
http://www.palm.com

Palm Digital Media web site
http://www.palm.com/ebooks

River Hill High School
http://www.howard.k12.md.us/rhhs

Mindsurf Networks
http://www.mindsurfnetworks.com

Compaq Computer Corp.
http://www.compaq.com