March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 11.04

A Tale of Two Tungstens

In two innovative schools, PDAs are going hand-in-hand with increased learning.
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By Lamont Wood




In the average sixth grade classroom, about one-third of the students do not turn in the previous night’s homework. That changed in four Phoenix classrooms last spring when Tungsten C handheld devices by palmOne were handed out to students. After that, every student turned in his or her homework every night.

“It was staggering to the teachers,” recalls Jeff Billings, director of information technology at the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix.

In Costa Mesa, Calif., the Newport-Mesa Unified School District took the idea one step further, equipping two entire grades—the sixth grade at one middle school and the seventh grade at another, for a total of 1,100 students—with Tungsten E models. The idea, explains Steven Glyer, director of educational technology at the school district, was to gauge the impact the devices had on the kids’ learning skills. The most obvious result was that many did not want to give up the devices when they advanced to the next grade and bought their own, Glyer says.

Both school districts chose Palm systems from palmOne: the Tungsten C with integrated Wi-Fi connectivity and a thumb keyboard (which lists for $399), and the Tungsten E with an infrared port and pen input (which lists for $199.) The 320 x 320 screens aren’t small to the eyes of 13-year-olds, and their fingers are nimble enough for thumb keypads (although, in this case, both models are typically used with detachable keyboards).

It’s widely accepted that devices with more computing power (i.e., laptops) are more appropriate for higher grades, but middle school students are making the transition from elementary school and can benefit from the organizational tools offered by handhelds.

In Phoenix, the Paradise Valley schools chose the Wi-Fi model because the district’s leaders are sold on the mobility available through wireless connectivity, explains Billings. All 45 campuses and offices in the district are covered by Wi-Fi networks, though they also have cable connections.

“Wi-Fi frees the teacher from the desktop and allows mobility in the classroom,” says Billings. “It enables collaborative learning for students, with online resources and file sharing, and we don’t have to set up separate computer labs. Education is changing so rapidly that being wired would just mean having to constantly rewire.”

Whether the students are allowed to take the devices home is a matter of the teacher’s comfort level, he adds. At school, the teachers rely on WAP-enabled Web sites, which are formatted for small screens. Instructional materials are posted on the district’s intranet and commercial filter software blocks access to objectionable sites. The teachers can quickly compose an online test from a database of existing test questions during class. The students can then log in and take the test. However, the kids are not expected to go online with the devices when they take them home—they download homework before leaving school, Billings adds.

In Costa Mesa, each of the sixth and seventh graders was given a Tungsten E and a keyboard that connects via infrared. Using the less expensive unit without Wi-Fi allowed the school district to equip more students on the same budget, Glyer notes. The students can submit homework or print assignments and download material by syncing to a desktop.

“We wanted to look at the impact that these devices would have on the kids’ writing skills,” says Glyer. “If they had the device more of the time they could do more writing, and the key to being a good writer is to write a lot. So far we see it as a success. We set up a system,” he continues, “so that after students sync to the school network, the material is sent to a Web site that the teachers can access from school or from home. The teacher sends it back with comments, and the students receive them the next time they sync.”

As for hardware casualties, four of the 120 in use in Phoenix suffered broken screens last year—but breakages stopped after the students started carrying the devices in hard plastic crayon cases available for a dollar at local hardware stores, notes Billings. In Costa Mesa, administrators correctly figured on a casualty rate between 5 and 10 percent, says Glyer. Most of the casualties were units that simply had been lost, although, as in Phoenix, a few suffered broken screens. The parents, however, are expected to pay for lost or damaged devices, just as they are expected to pay for lost or damaged textbooks, Glyer adds.

In Costa Mesa, there were a few initial quirks to work out concerning networking. Initially the units could be synced only by connecting them to specific machines. The district’s desktop machines are all Apples, and at the end of the school year the operating system on every machine was upgraded to OS X 10.3. Thanks to the upgrade, students can now sync from any Mac at school.

In Phoenix, there are several recharging stations in each Tungsten-equipped class, and the students can take chargers home with them. A lot of work has gone into configuring the Wi-Fi coverage so that there are no dead spots, and each class has a separate access point segregated from the other classes around it, Billings says. Despite having 30 users per room, overloaded Wi-Fi access points haven’t been an issue.

“For Web surfing and taking tests, it has not been a problem,” says Billings. “But if you are pumping through a lot of audio-visual material, you might need to limit use to 10 users per access point.”

As for the students, “They thought it was great,” Glyer says. “They are growing up digital, and this is just one of a suite of tools they’re seeing. Their learning curve was short—I think the teachers had the most difficulty—and it is a good way to keep the kids engaged.” •

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer based in Texas.
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