May 8, 2001
CLARKSVILLE, Md. - The novelty is still buzzing through the hallways of River Hill High School, where last month all 450 ninth-graders and 30 teachers were issued handheld computers.
In cafeterias and on buses, students pull them out to play games and do homework. In classrooms, portable keyboards spring out of pockets and onto desks and laps, where students first wirelessly check e-mail and then begin a worksheet on the gadgets.
For the next 90 minutes, 18 English students here will collaborate on a Julius Caesar project, beaming text from an e-book version of the Shakespearean play to one another to create a literary research paper.
The 12th-graders are envious.
"It's a quiet jealousy," says Matthew Smith, 15. "Once they got past it, they were asking to use ours."
Hundreds of pilot projects have started over the past year in public schools, now that personal digital assistants, or PDAs, are bubbling up in the education world. At the collegiate level, the University of South Dakota last week announced it will supply Palm PDAs to all freshmen.
PDAs can carry much of the load of a full-size PC - word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail and the Web - at far lighter weights and lower costs ($200-$300 each).
Manufacturers such as Palm, Compaq and Gateway, to help establish and study the market, hand them out to public schools such as River Hill for free. E-learning companies including MindSurf, eHomeroom and Classroom Connect provide content. Researchers are still gathering information to see whether fitting technology into a kid's hand is the best approach.
At River Hill, the experiment grew more quickly than expected - from a single English class in October to the entire ninth grade now. With a 15-minute lesson, nearly all students and teachers were able to master the device. Glitches were tamed early: Cloudy days often interfered with cellular reception, so they switched from Palms to Compaq iPaqs, whose wireless network system is unaffected by weather.
English teacher Rick Robb, who spearheaded the project, says communication is the primary use. "Teachers are able to e-mail homework assignments, students download worksheets from the server, and we're creating a paperless environment." Attachable keyboards, he says, are a crucial tool, and infrared beaming lets groups of students collaborate.
On Friday, Detroit middle schools found a unique use for the beaming capabilities of their Palms - as an object lesson in sexually transmitted diseases. One of every six PDAs was purposely infected with a software virus (appropriately called "cooties") to demonstrate how quickly infection can spread among the population.
But beaming technology introduces a new dilemma: e-cheating. River Hill students say some have sent homework and test answers to one another. Robb calls it a "classroom management" issue, and says that such students would cheat even without technology.
The most notable success has been in getting students organized. "Over and over, our surveys show these kids are more organized with this device," Robb says. "I don't care why - novelty, familiarity - but for the first time I'm seeing significant progress with freshmen, who are notoriously disorganized."
That need for organization surprised a team of researchers at SRI International, a Menlo Beach, Calif., research firm studying several projects nationwide. About one-fifth of schools are using handhelds for special education. "Teachers are really looking to these devices to help special-needs students get organized," says SRI's Phil Vahey. PDAs can be programmed to send alarms and reminders about due dates, tests and permission slips.
"I use it all the time to remind me that I have to do something," says Blake Johnson, 15, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and is among the most avid users at River Hill.
Overall, PDAs are used mostly in science classes, Vahey says, especially for environmental lessons. Kids attach probes to measure temperature and other environmental factors, then have the information automatically loaded into the device and analyzed.
"Students learn through direct experience, engaging in an activity and reflecting on it," says engineering professor Elliott Soloway at the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. "The immediacy is really important."
The portability and instant reinforcement give PDAs a huge advantage over traditional computer labs. "There's a lot of potential for bringing the magic of a one-to-one computer ratio in a way that's useful to education," Vahey says. Persuading schools to spend still more on technology could be "a leap of faith," Soloway concedes. But, he adds, "teachers are getting a sense that this is different."
Copyright 2001, USA TODAY. Reprinted with permission.