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The sixth grade steps up big with handhelds in Newport-Mesa: 'for the cost of 110 desktop or laptop computers we bought 1,100 powerful handhelds for the entire sixth grade'.

THE NEWPORT-MESA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, a southern California school district that spreads across 58 square miles towards the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean, doesn't do things by half.

TAKE ITS LARGE-SCALE handheld implementation in the 2003-04 school year when Newport-Mesa administrators purchased 1,100 palmOne Tungsten E handhelds for teachers and students at two middle schools. "We believe ours is the largest single deployment of handheld computers for public schools in California," says Steve Glyer, Director of Education Technology for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

He may be right but in truth, it will take a lot more handhelds to satisfy the demand of the sprawling district. With the second largest in population in the state, the district is home to 22,000 K-12 students and employs some 2,300 staff members with 1,100 teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools.

The district has long been a leader in technology innovation. Internet access reaches into more than 90 percent of the classrooms and all schools are linked by the district's network infrastructure, which encompasses more than 3,500 computers used for both instruction and administration.

Always on the lookout for opportunities, Glyer and his team believed the district's two middle schools--Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach and TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa--would meet the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant criteria that assist and promote technology integration and technology literacy in schools. After completing the application, they received funding (

Initially, the team explored using the funds to put more desktop computers in classrooms, but soon they were attracted to the wider reach offered by handheld computers. They knew these pocket-sized devices had become powerful tools that could do much of what desktop and laptop computers could do, at far less cost.

The district decided to focus its efforts on the entry-level grades of each school rather than distribute them in a non-comprehensive way throughout the school. For Ensign Intermediate, this would be the seventh-graders, and for TeWinkle Middle, the sixth-graders. This way, they could provide handhelds for all teachers and all students in these grades. English Language Development students and those in Special Day Classes would be fully included as well.

"We chose middle school because students are starting their transition from the elementary school environment to the secondary school environment, where organization becomes an important life skill," says Glyer. "If we don't provide life-learning skills at key shift points, it's difficult for students to change old patterns down the road. The handheld is a perfect tool. Digital devices are part of their world, and they are very motivated to use them."

The first year with the handhelds, teachers concentrated on cross-curricular writing in language arts and social studies, says Glyer. More math and science applications have been emphasized during the second year.

Another benefit of the program is to boost home-school communications and community involvement. Glyer says that having a personal handheld that students can take home allows parents to be more closely involved with their child's work. For example, parents are encouraged to add feedback to a "comments" area. When students come to class, they beam the parent's note to their teachers.

K-12 Handhelds--a PETP offering professional development, consulting, and handheld hardware and software--helped design the district's program, and now delivers both training and support services for implementation and curriculum integration.

Rolling out the program

"We've learned a lot about the steps districts need to take when integrating handheld computers into a school's technology infrastructure," says Glyer. "We feel that by sharing these lessons learned, we can help other districts who are about to go down this road."

By the time the EETT funding arrived last year, it was the middle of the fall semester. So on Halloween, the district handed out a treat to its 102 sixth- and seventh-grade teachers: a Tungsten E handheld and a wireless keyboard. It also provided a full day of training. Teachers then spent a couple of months using the handhelds personally. In January 2004, the district began conducting two training sessions per month at each school, on curriculum uses of handhelds and new software applications for teaching and learning in the classroom.

By the second semester, Newport-Mesa was ready to roll out its student implementation. First, an Acceptable Use Policy was developed and both students and parents signed a contract covering use and care of the handhelds. The team decided to treat handhelds as they did textbooks, having students check them out at the beginning of the semester, and check them back in at the end.

Once students got their handhelds, it took no time at all for them to learn the basics and to begin using the units on a daily basis, notes Glyer. Last year, students shared class sets of wireless keyboards. This year they each have their own keyboard, along with an AC charger so they can recharge their Tungsten E at home or school. Students now routinely use their handhelds to read electronic books, write assignments, take tests and quizzes, access a variety of learning resources, keep track of their homework, and share their work with parents.

Exploring an array of software

Teachers and students at both schools employ the handhelds for a range of reading and writing activities. Many students and staff are using Documents To Go for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, for example ( Notably, everyone has found the Handheld Learning Environment (HLE) from GoKnow, Inc. ( to be especially useful, says Glyer. HLE includes the programs FreeWrite, PicoMap, Sketchy, and FlingIt, all developed for K-12 use on Palm OS handhelds.

"With the GoKnow environment, the applications are integrated," says Mark Wagner, Education Technology Coordinator for the district's secondary schools and leader of the handheld project. "So if a student creates a concept map in PicoMap, for example, they can include hyperlinks to other maps or documents in Freewrite, or to a Sketchy illustration or animation." This makes for a powerful toolkit that can be implemented quickly and easily into lesson plans.

"Although we've been exploring the use of specific content applications, especially now that we're moving into science and math this year," explains Wagner, "we've found that the open-ended solutions for word processing, drawing, animation, and concept mapping can be tuned to any curriculum. They provide students new ways to manipulate and process information for all their subjects."

Teachers and students are just beginning to use eBooks, with some students reading "Tom Sawyer," "The Wizard of Oz," and other classics on their handhelds. Teachers have created custom eBooks with eBook Studio to share with students. And both schools have put their student handbooks into eBook format for easy reference.

"By focusing on reading and writing, we're helping students to write often and to write well," says Wagner. "Research shows that both quantity and quality increase when students use word processing tools. And we've found that to be true with our handhelds." Further, he adds, by providing a way for students to write anytime and anywhere, they've freed up the schools' computer labs for more complex multimedia and networking projects.

Another hit program for the handhelds is Quizzler from Pocket Mobility ( Teachers report they find it easy to create quizzes that they beam to students, who answer the questions and beam their work back directly to the teacher. Everyone gets valuable, immediate feedback. Many teachers also use Margi System's Presenter-to-Go ( and a projector to display content from their Tungsten E; others hook up through TVs. The district is exploring additional ways to allow teachers and students to project a handheld's screen on a large display in classrooms.

Lessons learned

"Throughout this implementation, we discovered that we needed to make adjustments to different areas of our technology program," says Wagner. "We've made some changes to our network infrastructure, technical support, and training." Currently, the district is looking at its network connectivity to find ways to make synchronizing handhelds more reliable. This summer they updated both of the schools' Macintosh instructional networks to the OS X operating system, for example.

Significantly, Glyer's experience shows that handhelds require just one-third of the technical support that laptop or desktop computers need, he says, but they still needed focused IT help. "Implementing 1,100 handhelds is like setting up support for 300 desktop computers, so you probably need another one or two technicians [to help with implementation]," says Wagner.

One issue that arose quickly involved games. Even though students weren't taught how to beam, they figured it out themselves within the first week and were beaming each other games, which concerned parents and teachers. Wagner was reluctant to limit or remove games, however, because he discovered the middle school students were getting educational value out of them. "I don't have the ultimate solution for games, but it's a good idea to think about it upfront," says Wagner. "Getting teachers to share ideas on a regular basis helps them to discuss classroom-management issues [like games] and agree on how best to handle them."

The biggest benefits

"The absolute biggest benefit of the program so far is providing a one-to-one ratio of handhelds to students," says Wagner. "It gives them 24/7 access to a powerful computer, everywhere they go."

Wagner has observed these middle school students use their handhelds as organizers, diligently inputting homework assignments, due dates, and reminders. So the original goal of help mg these students develop crucial organizational skills is being met, he says.

"We also realize that we bought 1,100 powerful handhelds, when we'd only have been able to buy around 110 desktop of laptop computers with the same amount of money," notes Wagner. "So we're really able to provide more access. Our sixth-grade students have a chance to become very familiar and comfortable with a tool that they can use in the real world. And there has been a spin-off effect with parents buying handhelds so their children will have them when they move into the next grade."

Did the district meet any resistance from teachers? Not much. But in no time, hesitant teachers embraced the new handheld technology too. And as with parents, there's been a spin-off effect among teachers--more interest in all kinds of technology-based staff development.

Although language arts and social studies were the focus during the spring of 2003, math and science teachers were eager to get on board. They incorporated the handhelds as soon as they could. For a unit on volcanoes, for example, some students drew concept maps with links to animations to demonstrate magna flow. They also created animations so show tectonic plates and how the layers move.

Creating animations area step towards using more multimedia for projects. The district looks forward to encouraging more use of the Tungsten E's multimedia capabilities as another way to help students learn--visually. Future plans, for example, include downloading digital movies created by students and making targeted curriculum video clips.

"We plan to remain on the cutting edge," emphasizes Glyer. "We're excited about the possibilities that handheld computers will bring in the future."

Launching a Large Implementation of Handhelds?

* Look at the big picture. Think about how handhelds will impact your overall technology infrastructure and program. Include technical support, staff training, and HR considerations.

* Plan the implementation in terms of scope, grade levels, timing, and professional expertise needed.

* Develop training that includes handheld basics as well as curricular and administrative uses.

* Encourage collaboration among teachers for ideas on curriculum integration and classroom management.

* Create guidelines for proper care and use of the devices, and contracts for parents and students.

* After teaching students the basics, monitor where their enthusiasm and creativity take them.

* Look to the future. It's never too early to ask strategic questions about next steps.

The author is a freelance writer focusing on education. She is based in Los Gatos, CA.
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Title Annotation:Cross-Curriculum Applications
Author:Palmer, Gina Adams
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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