Ready or Not—PDAs in the Classroom

And so it seems that regular old mobile computing isn’t mobile enough. Now we have an explosion of devices that promise to be even more mobile than our mobile computers—they promise to be supermobile. The business world has seen the evolution of small, special-purpose computing, from personal information managers (PIMs) to personal digital assistants (PDAs), which have now grown into the nearly full-featured PocketPC. This evolution of mobile technology from organizers to supermobile computers has led many educators to begin thinking about how to put them to use in the classroom.

As with any new technology there are advantages and disadvantages to using small, inexpensive computers in the classroom. Through a number of fairly extensive pilot projects using wirelessly connected PocketPC devices at Wake Forest University, we’ve noted a few of both. And while the jury is still out regarding the educational use of these technologies, they are already appearing widely across our campuses, just begging for problems to solve. Ready or not, here they come.

What Are They?

We are all familiar with the PDAs from Palm, Handspring and to a certain extent from other manufacturers like Casio, Franklin and HP. These devices generally run a specialty operating system, require connectivity to a mother ship PC for downloading data, and are characteristically priced under $400. The small size, ultra-light weight and long battery life require that screen sizes are small and that input is limited to tapping on the screen or writing in a special character set (grafitti). These incredibly popular devices make life easier by managing our calendars, address books and in some cases providing us with a way to run special purpose applications that help while we are traveling. Unlike traditional mobile computers, these devices are disposable, rarely connected to a network, and rarely supported by the central IT organization. They are personal devices in a way that personal computers never managed to be.

The newer devices that are competing with the Palm genre run the Windows CE/PocketPC operating system. This operating system, an evolution of the Windows CE operating system, is a close cousin of our loved or hated desktop operating system from Microsoft. Because they have operating systems that take their lineage from the desktop, these devices try to behave like regular PCs. They have the familiar “Start” menu, Microsoft Word and Excel, and in many cases support color, sound, and networking. Unlike the traditional PDA or PIM, the PocketPC is capable of running a number of tasks simultaneously. With splashy color screens, sleek styling and bundled software, they are generally more expensive than the PDA—often costing $500—$650.

In both cases, the devices can be accessorized with a blizzard of interesting options.

Ranging from cases to keyboards that fold up, to scanners, magnetic stripe readers, and cell phones, virtually everything that you can imagine can be snapped on to a PDA. As you do, the cost g'es up, of course. Adding more memory, a keyboard, wireless connection and a case can produce a PDA that nearly rivals a low-end laptop in terms of price.

What Do They Do?

The low price and high mobility have made the PDAs and now PocketPCs an interesting option in many classroom settings. The ability to have an affordable device that can be given to students to use in the classroom is an attractive option. The question is what can one do with a PDA in the classroom? Is there any pedagogical benefit to having such a device in the hands of a student, or is it just another gadget?

The potential classroom uses that make the most sense are the ones that most depend on the key attributes of the PDA class device: small size and simple interface. Whether they are connected to a network or not, PDAs make very interesting data capture devices. They can be used to record experimental data in the field or in the classroom and can be programmed to do calculations, graphs, etc. Much as the graphing calculator still has a place in many classrooms, PDAs are useful in specialized data manipulation scenarios. With a keyboard, PDAs are quite useful for taking notes even in a full lecture hall - places where laptops can be cumbersome. In many ways, they are better than a laptop for taking notes, in fact. The limited functionality of the current generation of PDA makes it difficult for them to be used for non-classroom activities like downloading songs or using instant messaging (IM).

When these devices are connected to a network they become useful in a number of new ways. With the appropriate software on them, these devices become supermobile computers. Supermobile computers can be used to provide feedback to instructors, take quizzes and in general facilitate classroom interaction. In our case at Wake Forest, an HP/Compaq iPAQ computer functions as a student response device, with the results being tabulated and presented on the instructor’s iPAQ. In these cases, the “instant on” feature of the supermobile computer and the small size make these devices ideal for quick, interactive exercises in the classroom. This inherent flexibility makes it easier to use the technology spontaneously in the classroom, as well. An instructor can download files to his or her device before class and then make them available for students to download wirelessly during the class period. All of these capabilities, of course, can be used with a traditional laptop. The supermobile computer simply makes it easier to use the technology in situations requiring a smaller and more mobile device.

These small devices are not a panacea, however. Many of the features that make them attractive are also significant liabilities. Perhaps the most significant liability for the PDA is the constrained input/output capability. The screens are tiny! This isn’t such a problem if applications are developed specifically for that size screen, but tools that we are comfortable using on full-size computers are just more difficult with a smaller screen. Browsing the Web with one of these devices is a bit like looking at your television through a straw. Similarly, using a word processor or spreadsheet on a small display is a discomforting and somewhat alien experience. Printing directly from these devices is almost impossible. It generally requires synchronization to another computer and then printing from that device. There are infrared and wireless printing solutions, but they require extra software. Word for PocketPC d'esn’t even have a print option. These limitations aren’t impossible to overcome, but they require thought, time and effort.

Even more of a challenge than the output is the input. While some have mastered the graffiti language of the Palm, it remains a difficult interface for most people. To do any significant text input you have to have a keyboard. Keyboards are not particularly expensive (usually under $100) but they are yet another cost and something else to carry.

Another limitation that we have found that causes some concern is the volatile nature of the storage on these devices. When the PDA runs out of battery, it loses everything but that which is saved in special Read Only Memory—generally just the operating system. Your files are stored in memory that requires power to be maintained. When the battery runs down on your laptops, you don’t lose anything that you have saved. When your PDA loses power—you lose files. This comes as a surprise to people that are used to the permanent storage of their traditional computers. It can be a real problem in the classroom.

Outside the Classroom

Quite frankly, these devices are developed with the mobile professional in mind, not students. The functionality provided is quite useful to people who value being highly organized—a group that d'es not universally include college students. They are also well suited for use outside the classroom among populations that are both mobile and in need of calendars, address books, to-do lists, etc. For some students, those features are simply not that important. As a consequence, it is unlikely that we will see a majority of our students purchasing these devices on their own. Any initiative using supermobile computing in the classroom is probably going to be institutionally driven. For those educational institutions that serve students that value mobility, organization and even constant connectivity, the devices might prove a significant benefit both inside and outside the classroom.

What’s Next?

The need for computing in support of education continues to escalate. This new class of devices is interesting because it continues the seemingly inevitable march to less expensive and more personal computing. While limited in functionality at this point, they offer tantalizing peeks at a future of pervasive computing. Connectivity for these devices will soon be the norm rather than the exception. As they become more functional and more connected, the possibility for completely new and unforeseen application increases. The key to their ultimate utility is whether or not software develops that can leverage the unique physical characteristics of the devices in ways that support positive classroom interaction. The software available for supermobile computers—be they Palms or PocketPCs—will determine whether or not they are worthy of investment. The frenetic pace of innovation characteristic of this industry insures only that they will continue to get smaller, cheaper and better. Ready or not, here they come.

Faculty PDAs

Wake Forest has been experimenting with HP iPAQs in the classroom. In a university where every student has a computer, the focus has been on putting extra mobility in the hands of the instructors. The PocketClassroom software developed at Wake Forest turns a HP iPAQ into a powerful classroom management device. The instructor can remotely control a PowerPoint Presentation on a PC and with the help of a built-in Web server can publish quick quizzes, receive text feedback and even chart real time response.

For more information on this free software, visit: http://pocketclassroom.wfu.edu.

The WILD Side

Researchers Jeremy Roschelle and Roy at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International have done much to describe a range of pedagogical uses for Wireless Internet Learning Devices (WILD), Roschelle & Pea, 2002. In their paper, "A Walk on the Wild Side: How Wireless Handhelds May Change CSCL," they discuss several innovative applications for WILD devices. They also focus on the innovative uses of these devices in distributed peer-to-peer networks.

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