High schoolers in Provo, Utah, will be among the first in the country to take a history class designed specifically for a personal digital assistant. Developers say the course might signal the start of a new definition for “anytime, anywhere learning.”

“Five years ago, there were people [who] thought the idea of taking a course online, period, was silly,” said Corey Spencer, the Brigham Young University (BYU) programmer who adapted the lessons to work with palmtops from an existing independent study course. “But since then we’ve seen huge growth in eLearning.”

Provo-based BYU is offering a history course formatted for high school-age students who want to do their studying with a personal digital assistant, or palmtop computer.

Developers said they believe it’s the nation’s first complete distance-education course designed for the 4-inch screens. Students may also do the coursework using laptops or desktop computers.

“As far as we know, we’re the first to deliver an entire course over a portable device,” said Spencer.

The course, “American Government, Part 1,” is intended for high school students seeking a little summer or after-school enrichment.

Wireless access to the internet will revolutionize education, Spencer predicted.

“It’s a proactive way for people to educate themselves while they are sitting on the train or just killing time during lunch,” he said.

All students need to take the course is $92 and their own handheld computer with a wireless modem, said Spencer.

“They’ll be able to download course work, submit assignments and correspondence, and get their grades from almost anywhere—on vacation in the mountains, around the campfire,” he said.

Students can take as long as one year to finish the course. Most of the assignments are graded immediately after being submitted via computer.

“Within seconds, you get your grades along with a feedback statement for every question missed,” he said.

The university, operated by the Mormon Church, wants to “make the quest for academic intelligence as accessible as possible,” he said. Handheld computers seemed like the next logical step, given their recent explosion in popularity.

The challenge in developing the course came with the fact that Spencer had to worry about adapting the course for both Microsoft Pocket PC and Palm devices.

“We picked them because they are the two most popular [handheld platforms],” Spencer said. But the platforms handle the internet very differently, he explained.

“We also wanted to allow students without modems or wireless internet [access] to at least be able to read the content of the course, even if they can’t submit papers,” he said.

To adapt the course for use with Pocket PC devices, Spencer and his team stripped the original online course of all unneeded information—such as graphics—and converted the pages into new web pages that were then zipped together into “some very plain-looking web pages.”

Adapting the course for the Palm platform was more difficult, because Spencer wanted to develop the program in a way that would not make students have to download each page individually.

“It’s just very slow to do it that way,” he said. But the Palm platform has a “web-clipping” application that lets it view web pages from a cached reserve on the device.

“That application means a lot of content can rest on the Palm and only connect to the internet when it needs to,” he said. “We turned the course into a web-clipping application, and now the whole course rests right on the Palm itself.”

When students want to submit an assignment or see a grade, only then does the Palm device go online.

Spencer did not use any specific software but created the web pages using a generic HTML program.

“To deal with the Palms, we used a free application called WCABuild, which we got off the Palm web site,” he said.

Dwight Laws, BYU’s independent study director, said if the course proves popular he would adapt others to the portable format. But he’s prepared for the possibility the experiment will fail.

BYU reaches 50,000 students annually with its 600 independent study courses—240 of which are available over the internet. About 75 percent of BYU’s independent study course-takers still opt for the old paper and pencil approach, Laws said.

“We’re just watching the technology and trying to stay abreast of it,” he said. “Our focus is always the student. These are just vehicles and tools to deliver education to them.”

Laws says he is prepared for the possibility that the Palmtop class may not take off right away, but he says the program has some significant strengths as well as restrictions.

“The small screen size is a minus, but the size [of the total computing unit] is the primary benefit of the class, because you don’t have to take along a big text or a laptop,” said Laws. “Its weakness is also its strength.”

Another strength compared to more traditional distance education methods is that using Palmtops enables students to conduct classroom activities anywhere they can receive a satellite signal, at any time of the day or night. This could be done using wireless laptops, but not with the same ease of transport.

There are some restrictions inherent when using a handheld device, however.

Monitor size restricts some of the things educators can enter, and the Palm device does not allow students to use CD-ROM technology, a problem when some classes use CDs for virtual labs and the like.

“But as soon as streaming gets strong enough, we’ll just send the video, audio, and virtual labs directly to the Palm Pilots, no problem,” Laws said.

Laws explained that the developers at BYU were interested in developing the course because of “the intrigue factor of asking ‘what can be done with a Palm Pilot?'”

The class, which opened to the public July 16, is “open entry/open exit,” meaning students can sign up at any time. The course of study lasts for a year from when they sign up, and if they want, students can buy a three-month extension.

“We are hoping to test the market and see if there is any interest,” added Laws.

Links:

Brigham Young University (BYU) Independent Study
http://ce.byu.edu/is

Brigham Young University (BYU) Independent Study
http://ce.byu.edu/is

Microsoft Pocket PC
http://www.microsoft.com/mobile/pocketpc/default.a sp

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