Despite their small size and more limited computing power, handheld computers can improve classroom teaching practices and aid in student learning, according to more than 100 teachers who were given the devices through a $2.3 million grant program from Palm Inc.

In a study of the Palm Education Pioneer (PEP) program’s effectiveness, independent research firm SRI International surveyed participating teachers and students, made a small number of site visits, and looked at data collected from 86 grant projects in all. The results from the study were released March 6 at the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando.

Ninety-six percent of the teachers surveyed said they believe handheld computers are an effective instructional tool, and 93 percent agreed that “having a classroom set of handheld devices will have a positive effect on my teaching practice.” Seventy-three percent agreed that handhelds “are more easily used in the flow of classroom activity than desktop computers.”

Researchers cautioned against reading too much into the study’s findings, and most experts agreed that further research is necessary. Still, in what Palm called the first major, systemic evaluation of handheld computers in education, the results were encouraging to advocates of classroom technology.

Through its PEP program, administered by SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning, Palm has donated a handheld computer for every student in 175 K-12 classrooms across the country so far, but the company said little research has been done until now on the effective uses of handheld technology in the classroom.

“This research provides us with invaluable feedback that will help Palm and its developers create the right solutions for education. We expect these findings to foreshadow the broader, year-end results to be released later this summer,” said Mike Lorion, vice president of education at Palm.

The teachers who received handhelds for their classrooms had to submit an application as part of a competitive grant program and therefore “tend to be highly motivated technology users,” the report said.

“We can’t say the PEP awardees are very representative of all teachers by and large,” said Valerie Crawford, lead project evaluator for the report. But “this research is still important, because we’re investigating the issues that need to be addressed before the typical teacher can adopt the technology.”

Of the 102 classrooms studied, 15 had classroom sets of handhelds for two complete semesters, and 87 had them for just one semester. The study took place in the fall of 2001.

Teachers praised the portability of handhelds and said they promoted student autonomy and responsibility, according to the study.

Teachers also reported that the devices have created some new problems in the classroom, such as game playing and inappropriate beaming, difficulties in synchronizing information, and easily damaged screens.

When teachers were asked to compare handhelds to laptop or desktop computers, the majority said handhelds are easier to integrate into class, are more portable, and facilitate the sharing of information between students. On the down side, teachers said handhelds lack the durability and power of laptop or desktop computers.

A school’s rules regarding whether students could take the handhelds home or not affected the way students used them, the report found.

Seventy-seven percent of teachers who permitted students to take handhelds home said their students spontaneously used them for learning tasks without being asked. Only 34 percent of teachers whose students did no take them home said students spontaneously used handhelds for learning tasks.

“It appears that students who can take the handhelds home find more integral use then those who leave the handhelds at school,” the report said.

All students surveyed said they use the memo pad, calculator, hot sync, and beaming features of the handhelds the most. Students who were permitted to take the handhelds home frequently used the date book, to-do list, address book, and downloading features as well.

When researchers asked teachers to describe in their own words the main benefit of handhelds in education, 39 percent cited portability and ready-at-hand, and 16 percent said they help motivate or organize students.

Researchers identified text entry as the main drawback for using handheld computers for extended writing assignments. Ninety percent of teachers surveyed whose students used keyboards to enter text gave positive evaluations, whereas 80 percent of teachers whose students didn’t have keyboards gave negative evaluations and reported difficulties. None of the PEP grants included keyboards.

There are a few different styles of portable keyboards on the market, ranging from $60 to $100. But the use of these keyboards could affect the handheld computer’s portability, one of its strongest features.

The report also states, “Handheld computers are probably best not viewed as a replacement for desktop computers, but as a supplement to them.” To make the best use of handheld computers, teachers should plan to integrate them with other technologies, the report says—such as beaming an assignment to an infrared port on a printer, or collecting data outside using handheld computers and sensors, then transferring the data to another computer for analysis.

Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who is an advocate of handheld computing in schools (see Viewpoint, above), said this research is the first step in showing that handhelds have a place in the classroom.

“We needed this first-level evidence from the field,” he said. “Now, we can proceed with the next types of research—more in-depth interviews with students and teachers, more designed experiments, et cetera.”

Soloway added, “I think educators will find this first-level data as relevant and valid; they will still be skeptical of the impact on learning, as well they might.”

Chris Dede, Timothy Wirth professor of learning technology at Harvard University, agreed that the research is “important.”

“These types of learning technologies are potentially very important for equity, because their cost is so much less than [that of] desktop or laptop machines,” Dede said. “Personal digital assistants today have the computational power and memory of mid-range computers a few years ago—plus these devices are portable, so they can be used to accomplish many things.”

The report’s findings suggest “that these devices have promise, that they may be a good investment by educators, and that further research is needed,” Dede said.

Related links:
Palm Education Pioneers Program: March 2002 Evaluation Report