Reprinted with permission from The New York Times.

August 23, 2001

The Latest Gear; Turning Hand-Helds Into Handouts

By Lisa Guernsey

WHENEVER school boards start swooning over the potential of new educational technology, skeptics often make a deflating point: In a few years, they warn, some gadget will come along that will make this one seem dated.

This year, that new gadget is the hand-held computer. Palm organizers and Pocket PC devices are being tested in a small but growing number of schools.

The largest proving ground may be Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill. There, more than 1,700 Palms will be distributed this fall in the program's second year. Another large deployment -- one device for each of 850 high school students -- is occurring this month at Forsyth Country Day, a private school in Winston-Salem, N.C. Dozens of other schools, public and private, are experimenting with hand-held devices among select grades and classrooms and for specific assignments.

The pilot programs are early signs of another technology debate that may soon hit school districts: Which is the smarter investment, a fleet of laptops or a pack of palmtops?

To Rick Martinez, director of instructional and information technology for the Alamo Heights Independent School District in Texas, affordable portability is the selling point for hand-held devices.

"We cannot afford to purchase computers for every student in the classroom, but we can afford these devices for our students," said Mr. Martinez, who equipped a high school biology classroom last spring with iPaq hand-held computers and specialized software from MindSurf Networks, an educational technology company. For every laptop he might have purchased, Mr. Martinez said, he can buy three or four iPaqs.

At River Hill High School, a public charter school in Clarksville, Md., iPaq computers are being distributed to ninth graders. Lin Storey, a literature teacher who coordinates the program, said she appreciated how easily the devices could be toted. "For what we do in an active, vibrant classroom, we need the kids to move around a lot," she said.

Students with laptops are more likely to be glued to their seats -- a drawback for teachers who want to engage children in shared projects in the classroom or on a field trip, she said.

Educators who have tried the hand-held devices in class also praise their calendar functions, which can alert students to due dates, and their beaming abilities, which encourage students to share and critique one another's work.

But not everyone is convinced that hand-helds are the next must-have machines. Some schools have banned Game Boys because they create distractions. Why worsen the situation, some educators ask, by giving students a device that needs only a few downloaded programs to become another game machine?

It is the small screen size that worries Trevor Shaw, a technology coordinator at the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, N.J., who writes for eSchool News, a monthly newspaper about school technology. In an article last fall, Mr. Shaw said he liked the devices' portability, but did not envision students' using them for in-depth research or writing.

"I think asking my students to compose their term papers on one,'' he wrote, ''would amount to cruel and unusual punishment."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.