June 19, 2001
Newsday   Medill School of Journalism 

Handheld Devices Create Order From Chaos: Electronic Notebooks Make Schoolwork Fun

By Beth Musgrave. Beth Musgrave writes for the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C.

CLARKSVILLE, Md. - IT'S EASY to pick out the freshman at River Hills High School.

They're the students who aren't lugging bulging backpacks filled with notebooks and folders. Their assignments and notes are in one place-a small handheld computer equipped with word processing, spreadsheet and e-mail capabilities.

"It's easy to keep organized," freshman Emilie Cobb said. "You can go through notes we took in class and find exactly what you need. It's so much easier." In April, River Hills gave all 500 freshmen the handheld devices, commonly called personal digital assistants, or PDAs, making this high school 30 miles southwest of Baltimore one of the largest wireless education communities in the country. It is being funded with seed money from software and hardware companies.

It is estimated that hundreds of smaller pilot projects like that at River Hills are going on across the country, but it is unclear how effective the devices are in helping students learn.

The Center for Children and Technology, part of the Education Development Center, a Manhattan-based research group, says that preliminary research for Mindsurf, which provides the electronic network for the project, shows that handheld computers can be beneficial for students with learning disabilities, create order for the most disorganized students and offer students more learning options than a traditional textbook. With the handheld devices teachers can break down tasks and assignments into smaller, more easily manageable parts.

"This also offers portability," said Cornellia Brunner, a center director.

"Before, students had to actually go to a computer lab. This makes it easier for students to access information right then." Most of the handheld computers have word processing and spreadsheet software, Web access, e-mail and even a Spanish-language translator. Students can type in a word in English and have the word translated into Spanish, like a traditional English- Spanish dictionary.

Students can also e-mail their teachers class assignments or e-mail each other about group assignments.

The freshmen figured out how to use the devices in less than a week and say schoolwork is more interesting and faster. "We can take notes in class and then take this home and download into our computer for papers and homework and stuff," Emilie said.

A portable keyboard connects to the small handheld device. Each student has a stylus for selecting files and scrolling on the screen.

Robyn Bishop's only complaint about her handheld device is that the screen is small. And then there are the usual technical difficulties, such as when the Internet server is down or other programs aren't working, she said.

But it also has its benefits. "We can e-mail our teacher our homework and talk to him when we're not in class," said Robyn, referring to Rick Robb, an English teacher who coordinates the school project. Student Jackie Stromberg said she likes how the wireless system makes it easier to get instantaneous feedback from her teachers.

Recently, students in an English class used the devices to write instant responses to questions about "The Cask of Amontillado," an Edgar Allan Poe short story. In his freshmen English class, Robb also had the students use their computers to edit each other's final term paper-they were able to make corrections seconds after hearing or reading another student's feedback.

"Usually, the research paper takes 10 weeks to do," Robb said. "With Internet access and with the computers, we were able to cut that down to two weeks." Science teachers use the devices to teach students to use spreadsheets for class projects.

The biggest hurdle to providing handheld computers in all schools, however, is the cost. Mindsurf Networks, a newly formed wireless education company, provided software and the infrastructure remodeling at River Hills to accommodate the wireless Internet. Compaq provided the handheld devices and portable keyboards, which cost about $200-$300 retail, to the school for $40 per student. It was the only way that River Hills could afford to provide the service to all of its freshmen, Robb said. E-cheating and instant messaging when a student is supposed to be doing class work are a problem but these problems are still manageable, Robb said.

"We take it away for a week if we catch them e-mailing or playing games," Robb said. "We found that if we take it away for a day, it doesn't really do anything, but a week is a long time." In the future, Robb envisions bringing more of the outside world into River Hills by using the handheld computers for online bulletin boards, chat rooms and audio and video feeds. The program will continue in the fall.