Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/school/0,1383,56297,00.html
02:00 AM Nov. 12, 2002 PT
Handheld devices, once solely the province of CEOs needing a small electronic organizational device, are another step closer to being accepted as teaching aids in public schools.
Classroom technology proponents, always desperate for institutional proof that new gadgets can improve the learning process, can thank a study by nonprofit research and development firm SRI International.
The study showed PDAs not only help organize calendars and phone numbers, but are also useful to students. PDAs can help in collecting data, writing papers, checking facts, synching data with desktops and laptops, and collaborating on projects.
It may not seem like much at face value, but a study like the one released Monday can have a domino effect.
"I think it's great," said Elliot Soloway, a University of Michiganprofessor who has developed educational software for the Palm. "This data will enable us to go forward with the next step in the agenda -- studying the impact of these handhelds on student learning."
The study observed that 89 percent of teachers found the handhelds to be an effective instructional tool for teachers, 93 percent believe the PDAs can have a positive effect on students' learning, and 90 percent plan to continue using the devices post-study.
Out of 1,200 applications, about 100 teachers in a variety of different subjects and grade levels across the country received Palm Education Pioneer technology grants for the 2001-2002 school year. Palm donated more than $2.3 million in equipment to participating schools.
Teachers themselves proposed ideas for how the Palms would be used in their classrooms.
"We were looking for truly innovative uses of the handhelds," said Phil Vahey, the principal investigator of the Palm program. "In general, we didn't tend to support projects where they would use them as organizational tools."
Study leaders used teacher evaluation surveys at the end of each semester as their main form of data collection. Researchers also surveyed students, asked teachers to fill out monthly status reports and popped in for site visits to get a clearer picture of how the PDAs were used.
"Because we examined handhelds across so many learning contexts and types of schools, our findings are robust," SRI research scientist Valerie Crawford said. "These findings speak to many different types of schools and classrooms."
The study also gave researchers practical information on best practices for implementing the handhelds in class, she said.
Rick Ayers received 30 Palms to use with Berkeley High School students on the production of their school newspaper, the Jacket.
"It was helpful because it allowed for more efficient information gathering, fact checking -- and for interfacing with the production computer," said Ayers, an English teacher and last year's adviser to the paper. "They could compare information with each other, compare quotes and use the dictionary."
Senior Gabriel Hurley-Ramstad is an editor at the Jacket and said that the PDAs were "definitely helpful to us."
Still, "in terms of general use, a public high school is not the best place for these devices," Hurley-Ramstad said. "Petty theft is the No. 1 problem at Berkeley High."
None of the Palms was stolen, but graphing calculators and CD players are often swiped from students' backpacks, he said.
Researchers also discovered that sometimes a Palm is not enough on its own.
According to the study, nearly all teachers reported that additional applications were essential to maximize the benefits of the handhelds. Using handhelds and scientific probes for data collection, like measuring water quality, turned out to be a successful use of the technology, Vahey said.
"Handhelds actually make the operational aspects such as collecting data much easier," Crawford said. "It's easier for students to focus on the data itself."
Researchers were surprised to find that teachers liked using the handhelds for writing assignments, provided that students could use a keyboard attachment. Students who struggle with their handwriting weren't as frustrated or discouraged.
Soloway said the devices support evolutionary change in the classroom.
"In previous technologies such as Logo (a programming language) and the Internet, we said to teachers, first you have to change, then you can use the technology," he said. "With handheld technologies, we say do what you're doing now, but you can get a little more."
"With these data, we get to first base. It's not the home run yet, but at least we're on first base."