Ninth-grade teachers and students at a Maryland high school are piloting a handheld computer that offers the same functionality of a laptop–including playing movies, recording sound, and surfing the internet in color–for half the size and price of a laptop.

River Hill High School, in Clarksville, Md., is a development site for Mindsurf Networks, a software company that is creating educational applications for Compaq’s iPaq Pocket PC.

Together, the two companies are working to develop a “one-to-one” computing solution for education that is affordable enough to allow each student to have his or her own computer and functional enough to allow both teachers and students to integrate the device into the classroom fully.

“We’re able to do everything we want to do on the iPaq,” said Rick Robb, an English teacher at River Hill High School.

Mindsurf Networks originally began to develop educational applications for the Palm operating system and piloted the applications using Palm Pilots in a few schools, including River Hill, as eSchool News reported last December.

“Within a week, we had tapped out of it. We were looking for a lot more power and functionality than [the Palm OS] had,” Robb said. Based on feedback from teachers at River Hill High School, Mindsurf Networks decided to switch development to the iPaq.

“The Palm operating system was not going to allow us to do what we wanted to be doing,” said Dean Kephart, vice president of marketing at Mindsurf Networks. “We wanted the school experience to be like a [true] computing experience, rather than a PDA experience.”

The iPaq Pocket PC is a solid-state device with no spinning hard drive. It operates on the Microsoft Pocket PC platform, a scaled-down version of Windows, and comes pre-loaded with a suite of applications that include Pocket Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Windows Media Player.

Weighing in at 6.3 ounces, the iPaq uses the 802.11 industry standard wireless networking protocol and features 32 MB or 64 MB of RAM and a 206 MHz processor.

“It’s a light version of a notebook,” said George Warren, director of K-12 marketing in Compaq’s Education Division. “It’s very robust, and it’s designed around an Intel processor.”

The iPaq can play MP3 files, store and play up to 10 full-length movies, and features instant on and off. With software developed by Mindsurf, teachers and students can use the iPaq to send video and images and download from web pages.

They can also program the school’s wireless network to take attendance by checking for the presence of each device, then eMailing a report to the office automatically.

Warren said Compaq’s designers asked, “What can we pull out of a notebook but operate in this environment with the most functionality?” For example, applications like Pocket Word allow only basic inputting and are missing elaborate layouts and footnoting features.

“This won’t replace the desktop computer, but it’ll come close,” Warren said. “Here, you can really justify the cost savings and feel like you’re getting a lot for your $500.”

The Compaq iPaq Pocket PC retails for $477. Because River Hill High School is a development site, Mindsurf Networks and Compaq absorbed the cost of the handhelds, printers, and keyboards.

When students complete an assignment for a foreign language class using their iPaq, they simply attach the keyboard to the device, open up Pocket Word, and write their composition. Then, they press a button on the side of the iPaq and record the oral version. Not only can students play back the recording to hear how they sound, they can also eMail the written and oral parts of the assignment to the teacher.

As with all computers, the teachers said the educational applications developed for the iPaq Pocket PC truly make it useful in the classroom. “Without the Mindsurf tools, it would just be a lot of word processing and a lot of internet surfing,” Robb said.

Robb said he uses the iPaq handheld to communicate with every student at the same time during a lesson. “I can ask a question, like who is Rosa Parks, and I know immediately who knows and who doesn’t know,” he said. “For the first time, teachers really know what every kid is thinking.”

This ability comes from Mindsurf’s recent acquisition of Discourse Technologies, a developer of groupware applications for the school market. The Discourse software, which allows for the assessment of individual students in real time, has been added to the Mindsurf suite of applications for the iPaq.

When teaching a lesson about art or the Holocaust, Robb said he eMails each student four or five pictures, and he can control their iPaqs to move through the pictures in pace with his lesson as they discuss themes and significance. Robb said he can do this with video and audio as well.

“Having the capability to do this and see what the kids are doing really helps me out,” Robb said.

Using the wireless network, Robb and his students can talk to each other privately.

“I can have five chats going on at the same time, and no one has to know I’m doing it,” Robb said. “It gives me a lot of power to talk to every single student and know what’s happening with each of them.”

Linda Storey, instructional leader at River Hill High School, said, “The audio features are wonderful. I actually put Huckleberry Finn on trial, and the students took their notes and did interviews using the iPaq. The students could replay [their interviews] for the judge, and it was great.”

She also downloaded video clips from the two versions of the Huckleberry Finn movies onto the iPaqs for the students to compare.

“I eMailed assignments all the time,” Storey said. “It was a very efficient way of starting a class. Students just had to log in to [the eMail program] to get their assignments.”

Compared to a laptop, Robb said, the iPaq Pocket PC is more compact, less costly, and doesn’t take as much time to boot up at the beginning of a class. “As soon as you turn it on, it’s on,” Robb said of the device.

Storey said even though the iPaq is small, it has the capacity to hold several electronic texts, or eBooks, and that makes a big difference when it comes to student book bags.

“The portability of this [device] is so important. Even with the lightest laptop, you’re not going to have the same portability, and students really needed to put them in their backpacks,” Storey said.

Of course, the iPaq screen is much smaller than a laptop, but Storey said it’s only an issue when surfing the internet.

“Some web sites are more effective than others, and sometimes you have to scroll left and right, but you get used to it,” Storey said.

Starting in September, River Hill teachers will use the iPaq and the wireless network to take attendance as determined by who is logged on to the school’s network.

Also, each student will have space on a central server in the school, referred to as a Virtual Locker, where they can store their work and assignments. Students will access the Virtual Locker at school using their iPaqs or at home by logging on through the internet. Teachers can add assignments and messages to each student’s locker, and parents can also access it to see what the student is doing.

Links:

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

Compaq Education
http://www.compaq.com/education

Mindsurf Networks
http://www.mindsurfnetworks.com