Implementing PDAs in a College Course: One Professor's Perspective
Personal digital assistants (PDAs) have been a mainstay in the business
world for several years, but their adoption in higher education is relatively
recent. In the fall of 2001, the University of South Dakota became one
of the first universities to implement a full-scale PDA program, giving
faculty an opportunity to study how the devices can be integrated into
college teaching and learning. Here, Doug Peterson shares his experience
from the past year.
Underlying any attempt at integrating new technology should be a basic
philosophy of the interplay between technology and education. When technology
is used to support a task for which it is not well suited, failure is
likely. The same is true when students are asked to use technology when
it's not needed. Fortunately, both of these mistakes can be avoided by
adopting the principles of "use-centered design" (Flach & Dominguez, 1995).
Use-centered design replaces the traditional focus on either user or product
with a concentration on the goals and tasks associated with the use of
There are two steps in applying a use-centered approach. First, learn
the user's tasks; and second, consider the technology's capabilities.
Ideally, the task analysis and technology reviews should remain independent
of each other so as to avoid finding a need simply because the capability
exists, or applying some capability just because you can. The purpose
of the use-centered approach is to set objectives and then determine if
they can be met by the technology. A study of PDA implementation at the
University of South Dakota was done to determine how the PDA could replace
traditional support materials and improve the completion of identified
Taking the PDA's Capabilities to Task
A student's primary objectives in most college courses are comprehending,
retaining, and evaluating course material. Secondary supporting tasks
include taking lecture notes, reading assigned materials, reviewing information
to improve retention and comprehension, and completing exams and assignments
properly and on time. A task analysis should identify the information
necessary to complete the task, and with respect to a college course,
most information comes in the form of paper or electronic text.
The PDA's strengths are flexible data handling, portability, and ease
of use. Flexibility in data use is advantageous because tasks can be matched
to the ideal data access format (e.g., information for the periodic table
of elements can be accessed via a graphical interface instead of a text-formatted
database). The portability of PDAs is an equally important attribute,
because it increases the availability of the material contained within
the PDA. (What instructor wouldn't want students to carry the syllabus
and class notes with them at all times?) The PDA's ease of use is aided
greatly by a consistent look and feel of applications.
One of the most important aspects of a course syllabus is the course schedule,
indicating topics for each class period, exams scheduled, and assignment
due dates. Support of this component corresponds perfectly to what PDAs
were originally designed to accomplish. The problem to overcome is not
how to put a course schedule in place (the calendar is the obvious solution),
but instead how to make sure that the students will all have the right
information on their handhelds. At USD this was done by creating a datebook
archive file (in Palm Desktop) that students could download and import
into their PDA. Once completed, the student's calendar contained all class
meeting times, including a note identifying the topic and readings for
each day. For exams and important events, alarms were pre-set to sound
one or more days in advance.
Converting existing text-based course material (e.g., syllabi, laboratory
instructions, term-paper guidelines, and the like) is the easiest of all
PDA implementation problems for a course. The most difficult part is deciding
which of the various available text formats to use.
The Palm doc format (unrelated to the MS Word format) is a good choice,
because it is common, and PC and online document converters are freely
available. The doc format can be read by many third-party readers but
is not directly editable, making it desirable for materials that the student
needs to read but not alter. Text editors are ideal for note-taking outlines
or laboratory guides, where students may add additional information. Some
are compatible with word processor formats on personal computers.
Adobe Acrobat files can also be converted for use on the PDA and offer
better preservation of formatting as well as good image handling (including
larger images that can be magnified and scrolled for detail). Others such
as iSilo also preserve complex formatting and images and can be used to
capture HTML content. An alternative to reader-based documents is a format
called "Web clipping," or PQA, for the PalmOS (version 4.0 and higher).
PQA files are created from HTML (with WCAbuild, a free program available
from Palm) and function as a stand-alone application where the user taps
the icon from the main screen to launch the document. This format is ideal
for documents that students need access to without additional help, such
as a syllabus that explains how to use other course-related PDA applications
The ever-growing number of applications available for the Palm is also
an important consideration. However, finding the one education application
you need for your course, among more than 13,000 available, can be challenging.
Some courses may benefit from very specific applications such as a periodic
table of the elements for chemistry classes; financial calculators for
business; or even the game "Cooties" to teach the spread of disease. More
general educational applications are also available.
4.0Student (by Handmark) allows students to track assignments and due
dates, and can integrate course information into the PIM function of the
PDA. Instructors can set up course information in advance and beam it
to the students. Students can track their performance in individual classes
or overall GPA simply by recording their scores on graded work. They can
also use student management applications to estimate their grade based
on hypothetical scenarios (e.g., what will my overall grade be if I get
84 percent on the final paper?).
Test Preparation and Quizzing
Reviewing practice tests was identified early on in the task analysis
as something students do to prepare for exams. This task can also be supported
by the PDA in a number of ways, however, free applications make this very
easy. After the review of several available quizzing and trivia programs,
two applications emerged as the current leaders in the area of PDA-based
practice tests: QuizApp and Quizzler Pro. Both products can present multiple-choice
questions or flash cards in either a random or fixed order.
Each product has some unique features as well, such as a timed quiz (Quizzler
Pro), or a categorical breakdown of performance (QuizApp). Both are free
to students and have minimal costs associated with the creation of quizzes
(Quizzler uses a desktop application, while QuizApp uses an online converter—both
options cost under $20). Quizzler allows free quiz creation using the
notepad, which will appeal to students seeking practice tests for non-PDA
classes. The PDA-based practice tests have been well received by students,
and informal assessment suggests that this has a beneficial effect on
test scores. The use of PDAs for actual in-class tests is also a possibility,
through these and other products currently available.
Course-specific custom applications also have potential as the ability
to develop them becomes easier and more affordable. An example of this
is a speech evaluation program that mimics a course rubric for grading
and allows students to beam their evaluations to the speaker for review.
A second emerging PDA component which will impact custom applications
in the future is wireless connectivity. Stanford already has a Bluetooth-equipped
classroom that allows students to ask questions and respond to in-class
surveys using their Bluetooth-enabled PDAs; faculty at USD are currently
working to develop a similar but portable system for the spring 2003 semester.
In the Classroom and Around the Campus
PDAs may also play a role in general campus life. Students at USD can
look up campus, faculty, or community information on a NearSpace powered
data system. For campus locations, students can also link to the integrated
campus map and find the building or room they are looking for.
The distribution of PDA material should also be considered. Sending individual
files d'es not take long when using a "viral beam" (each recipient passes
the file on to others). Downloading and installing from a PC is probably
the most common, but other approaches are also available. USD students
can access data and applications for their PDAs via two other options.
IR Ports connected to an XTNDConnect server allow students to sync to
the server and receive data placed in course folders by instructors. A
PDA Kiosk is also available to install applications selected on the kiosk
screen and beamed to the PDA via an IR port.
The overall assessment of PDA applications in a large class reveals a
few simple conclusions. PDAs appear to have a much larger role outside
of the classroom than inside the classroom. This is an added advantage,
because it implies that the technology d'es not supplant classroom education,
but supports it. Obviously, this may change as wireless connectivity increases.
There is also variability in the multiple PDA applications students liked
and used. This variability suggests that with the proper evaluation of
student needs, PDA-based support for a wide variety of courses can be
implemented. Like all technologies, a PDA is only a tool; if used inappropriately
it can be a source of frustration, but if used correctly it can be a tremendous
asset. PDAs are likely to become an integral part of the educational landscape,
so course instructors can either invest in utilizing them properly or
hope that their students will.