Mindsurf Networks Inc. has provided free Palm computers to all 580 incoming freshman at River Hill (Md.) High School in one of the nation’s largest experiments with handheld computers in secondary education.

Teachers and students are showing early enthusiasm for the way the computers are transforming even basic classroom lectures and discussions. For example, one English teacher now has his students respond to some of his questions in class by typing their answers on the Palms. As a result, he says, shy students contribute to more of the discussion. Also, he has a much better idea about whether the majority of students are following the discussion, instead of assuming that all students are on track because the same few kids keep respond to his questions.

Teachers praise the software on the Palm computers for providing ancillary information that helps students in class, such as an extensive dictionary and thesaurus. Teachers also are having students link to web sites during class for additional information that adds perspective to discussion.

Some teachers are resisting the introduction of the handheld computers because they either lack computer skills or do not wish to revise their lesson plans. But even they acknowledge that some tiresome tasks, such as copying tests or handouts, are being eliminated as they become able to broadcast information to students electronically.