The New Computers in School.
This fall, some of the computers at school will be arriving every day in the backpacks of the noisy crowd exiting the buses. The Palm and Handspring handheld computers already have found a place on college campuses, and now they are finding the doors of secondary and even elementary schools. Competitive pricing has moved them into the same territory occupied by pricey wardrobe and footware, and college students already have discovered that the basic handhelds aren't much more expensive than a couple of textbooks.
On the plus side of this migration of computers out of the labs and into pockets, there are a number of significant benefits. Perhaps most important, it has removed us even further from the "gee whiz!" mind-set that dominated our first reactions to computing--a frame of mind that made us so appreciative of the wondrous complexity of those putty-colored boxes that we became vulnerable to the half-baked, the beta, and even the well-marketed cheeseware. The usually unstated truism of the hardware and software manufacturers, "But you don't understand how difficult this really is," became a defense for blue screens, incompatibilities, and outrageous prices. Today, we're less likely to buy this excuse, and our familiarity with the machines is partly responsible.
Remember Apple's Newton handheld? One of the truly great gee-whiz products of the past, it's a part of the past because it didn't work very well. And there wasn't much sympathy elicited when users were told how difficult it was to program a device to read handwriting. Gee whiz quickly became Cheez Whiz[R]. Palms and Visors, on the other hand, work--hence their acceptance and success.
The greatest lesson of the Palm devices in school won't be taught by their flashcard programs, dictionaries, or skill drills. The lesson is the device itself--the medium is the message. And the message is, "If it works, give me two. If it doesn't, forget the whining about complexity; just get your hand out of my pocket." This is a lesson that hasn't been learned in every quarter of the economy and society. Sometimes the more expensive, second-best technology wins.
So how do students use the handhelds on campus? In colleges, the utilities most often mentioned are the same as those on the list for business people--e-mail, scheduling, contact and memo information. In elementary and high schools, the lists are a little more varied.
An interesting pilot study was conducted in two Massachusetts schools last year. Called the Probe right Project, a second grade and a fifth grade were given Palm computers that had temperature probes attached. Outside, the groups collected data on temperatures in the air, in ponds, piles of leaves, playground blacktops, even their shoes, and then they were asked to compare their work with others and to come up with theories to explain the changes over time and the differences in such things as the water temperatures at different levels of the pond.
The adults, meanwhile, were making their observations on how the children in the two age groups adapted to the technology. Neither group had any trouble with the devices or the notepad memos collected and shared by infrared transmission.
Obviously, the success of handheld computers in schools will depend on the software available for the devices. To get a cross section of some of the better programs being written for the Palm OS, we can look at the winners in this year's Handheld Design Awards for Education sponsored by the Center for Innovative Learning Technologies (kn.cilt.org/palm99/categories.html).
The grand prize winner was Geney, a program designed to teach genetics in grade and middle schools. The second prize winner was Due Yesterday, a program that manages homework assignments and documents students' progress and grades in courses. Other winners include: Four.Zero, which also tracks classes and homework; iGraph, a graphing tool that teaches the concept of functions for middle and high school students; Jesus Tracks, which provides a virtual tour of the Holy Land; and CopyWrite, the winner in the Eight and Under category. This Australian program teaches letter formation by replaying letters drawn by the teacher and then the student, so both can see the stroke order and direction used.
The number of general programs available for the Palm OS has been reported to be more than 5,000. Measure that against the age of the device, and the future of development in the public and educational sector looks bright. The fact that many of the programs are low-cost or even free won't hurt.
As schools open this year, there will be administrators carrying in their pockets a live link to the database of the entire school population, records and schedules, as they roam their buildings; some teachers will be doing their grade-book records on their Palms with Think DB, a relational database for handhelds; and if a senior somewhere forgot to get a copy of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for the summer reading test on Monday, he or she will be able to download a free copy to his Palm or Handspring from www.memoware.com. Reading the play and taking the test will have to be done the old-fashioned way.