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Handhelds motivate teachers and students in Oklahoma schools: two districts take different paths to similar outcomes as handhelds fulfill the promise of one-to-one computing.

HANDHELDS vs. LAPTOPS present an interesting choice for some Oklahoma K-12 educators, often with unanticipated results.

One example is the Shawnee Public School District's (Shawnee, OK) decision last year to go with the handheld option. "I [assumed] we were going to hop on the laptop bandwagon," recalls Lynda Nichol, Director of Technology, but when the district compared the cost of a laptop implementation for its freshman class to the cost for distributing palmOne handheld computers, palmOne easily bested the competition. "For the amount of money available to us, handhelds were the better choice."

Freshmen take handhelds to class

Still, the money issue was only a piece of the decision puzzle. With a federal grant for $211,000, Shawnee High School trained its ninth-grade teachers in handheld usage and classroom integration. It then purchased enough palmOne handhelds, printers, and software licenses for its 400-plus freshman class in fall 2003. "Our teachers bought into it," says Nichol, adding that it was their enthusiasm that was key to the program's success.

Just ask the students. They take their "ownership" of the handhelds seriously and are even more motivated to come to school and tackle assignments more efficiently, according to Nichol. She reports better attendance, a higher rate of assignments turned in, and a general improvement in the quality of the work since integrating the handhelds. There is an overall improved attitude among many ninth-grade students, she notes, that she largely attributes to the distribution of the palmOne handhelds.

And, not surprisingly, this improved and renewed enthusiasm for class work is driving many students to places where their teachers have yet to go--at least in terms of technology. One enterprising student programmed his unit to serve as his personal Debate Team Manager, for example. He buys philosophy eBooks, uses conceptmapping in PicoMap to create connections between the ideas in the books, uses FlingIt to link to Web sites that can further support and illuminate his ideas, and then he can type things out on Documents To Go and have it all right there so when he's preparing for a debate, he doesn't have to dig through his notebook. "The students figure out things to do on their handhelds that we hadn't thought of," says Nichol. Handhelds thus serve to reverse the roles a bit, as students show their teachers how to accomplish things with the tool.

Though the units come with a large amount of built-in memory, many students purchase extra storage for their units in order to load in more books and utilities and increase their ability to save class work and graphics. They use inexpensive and compatible SD and MMC cards to save all of their school work to a portable format that they can use with any palmOne handheld.

Surprising many parents--and, perhaps, some administrators--students rarely lose the handhelds. When the parents were informed of the school's decision to pursue handheld-based education, some voiced concerned about potential loss of damage and that the attendant cost of replacement would be too high. For example, one parent complained that his child had already lost two cellphones. "The kids did a good job," says Nichol. "And these are freshman. We are real proud of them." The reason: The handhelds stayed put--of the 400 units handed out, only seven were lost the first year.

Central to the success of the project, says Nichol, is the Palm Artifact and Assessment Manager (PAAM), an application from software manufacturer GoKnow (, designed to help K-12 teachers disseminate, receive, and manage students' assignments and class work done on handhelds. At Shawnee High, whenever a student performs a HotSync operation with their handheld to a school computer, its information is downloaded onto the PAAM server and becomes available online. Parents can log in through a password-protected Web page and review their child's class work. Teachers tend to use the access for a quick review of a student's progress or to make sure the assignment was completed. Students, Nichol has learned, will log on sometimes to measure their progress against older work.

School-security issues--for example, plagiarism or cheating--are also addressed by the PAAM configuration and built-in safeguards: Since students' handhelds get synchronized to the school's or district's file server, their contents are regarded as public rather than private which makes them accessible to teachers and administrators. Students are far less motivated to try to find shortcuts using their handhelds since they know everything on them will be uploaded to the server and available for scrutiny.

This year the federal funds were spent on purchasing units for sophomore-class teachers (who now teach the previous year's handheld-savvy freshmen), additional training, and extra units for loaning. Most crucial for ongoing success, however, the grant also funded an onsite handheld technician for 2.5 days per week to provide technical support and training. "It's so important to have the maintenance and general support, even part-time," says Nichol. "It is so worth the money."

Next year, the hope and plan is that there will be enough money to catch up with the original proposal and distribute sets of palmOne handhelds to fully equip both the freshman and sophomore classes. In fact, the freshman teachers were allowed to keep their units from last year. "We couldn't get [the handhelds] away from them," laughs Nichol, noting that, "for this [program] to work, the teachers had to have enthusiasm. We're lucky to have such a great group of people."

Handhelds go 24/7 in Putnam

Putnam City Schools (OK) took a slightly different approach to getting palmOne handheld computers into its schools. It launched a technology-focused program called Personal Access = Learning Success (PALS). Funded by federal grants totaling more than a million dollars over four years, Putnam's ambitious goal for PALS was to give every high school student access to technology 24/7. "We didn't want them to have to go down the hall to the library of the lab," says Terri Boswell, Instructional Technologist for the district. "We wanted to put it all in their hands." Even more ambitiously, Putnam "wanted to create a model for schools nationwide--regardless of the technology already in place," says Boswell.

To that end, the ninth- and tenth-graders at Putnam City West High School checked out their own palmOne m505 handhelds in 2002, and the eighth-graders at Mayfield Middle School and Western Oaks Middle School were provided with units that stayed in the classrooms. In 2003, eleventh- and twelfth-graders at Putnam City West received their own keyboard-equipped palmOne m130. The budget for 2004 was spent on Zire71 palmOne models for faculty members and for filling the gaps in the pool of available handhelds.

Like other schools nationwide, Putnam reports a very low loss rate for handhelds--3.7 percent for handhelds vs. 5.0 percent for textbook loss. Putnam schools also utilize Palm Archive and Application Manager to manage class work and to make the students' data available over the Internet. PAAM permits teachers and administrators to quickly install software applications and e-books on all handhelds, view every application on every handheld and easily delete any unapproved software. As an early adopter of handhelds, the district has also worked closely with software developers. With their input, for instance, Grant Street Software ( developed 8D cards that handle a K-12 school's software loading needs. The application, SD Deploy!, creates an image of every piece of software and data that a school wants each handheld to have. To get a handheld up and running for a new student, all a teacher or technician need do is plug in the SD card, and the handheld is immediately configured. This saves an enormous amount of time, says Boswell.

Special education spotlight

Handhelds are now woven into activities and instruction across all classes at Putnam's middle and high school levels. Pinpointing specific educational outcomes is difficult, but students are certainly writing more with their handhelds as well as performing analytical tasks more frequently, notes Boswell.

But at least one area has already demonstrated significant academic improvement through handheld use. "I had a parent [of a special-education student] come to me and she told me homework used to be the cause of nightly arguments with her son," Boswell explains. "She would ask him, 'How can I help you with your homework if I can't read your notes about what you're supposed to be doing?'" With the handheld, however, the student learned to type in his notes so his hard-to-read handwriting was no longer an issue. Also, the young man became motivated just by using the handheld, excitedly showing his parents the latest thing he could do with it. "His mother told me, 'This handheld project has been great for him.'"

Boswell, who formerly taught special education, recalls another young man who just couldn't seem to focus on his schoolwork. Then the handhelds arrived and he focused like a laser beam with his palmOne. "His mom was ecstatic," she recalls, "and that's when I really got the impact this project was having, not just on an individual student but on their whole families."

Putnam focuses on middle schools

Putnam's administration has made the decision to concentrate its handheld initiative on its middle schools. It has proved much easier to work a project of this size in a middle-school setting, explains Boswell, for a number of practical reasons. In middle school, the students have a team of handheld-proficient teachers and it is far easier to manage such a project at smaller schools. Putnam's middle schools averages 860 students vs. nearly 2,000 students at each high school.

Under the new focus, adds Bob Melton, Science Curriculum Specialist for Putnam Schools, the district targets the most enthusiastic teachers, ensuring that the palmOne units go to students who will use them both in and out of class. "If you get a group of 10 willing teachers, you can do a lot more and you need less support," Melton explains. If helps, he says, that the Palm OS interface is so easy to use. Handheld users need little training and no re-learning. "A palmOne can do 80 percent of what a desktop computer can do at a fraction of the cost."

Significantly, the success rate for students using handhelds transcends socio-economic boundaries. Within the Putnam district, both Mayfield and Western Oaks middle schools qualify as over 50 percent free lunch and Boswell describes the student populations as transient, largely minority, and at high risk for dropping out. While no hard data yet exists on how the handhelds are helping these students academically, says Melton, "there are hints." For instance, on the eighth-grade statewide test, these two middle schools performed as well as more affluent middle schools across the state. "The students who showed the greatest gains," adds Boswell, "were from the high-risk-for-falling-through-the-cracks segment."

Boswell believes that getting handheld computers into the hands of students who don't have access to technology at home builds up both their confidence and their competence, and that positive outcomes will soon be reflected in their work at school.

Melton credits the palmOne project with sparking an increase in the quality of teaching in the schools as well. For instance, math teachers can more easily use the power of writing in a math class by integrating handhelds, he says. This facilitates students describing to others what they know as well as how they know it, which begins to demonstrate a real understanding of a subject.

Handheld computers are "keyed to personal interaction with content," explains Melton. This fosters "high-yield methods of teaching" and promotes "classroom practices that simply work," he says. Thus handhelds motivate both teachers and students to better master their school work and tasks. "Handhelds enable quality teaching," Melton summarizes. "They've really helped us to deliver better and richer teaching and learning experiences."

The author is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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Title Annotation:Case History
Author:Crane, Elizabeth
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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