Will Handheld Computers Work in the Classroom?

Will handheld computing devices—personal digital assistants or PDAs—ever take off as the hardware of choice on college campuses? Do their portability and low cost outweigh the tradeoffs in power and functionality? What can these devices do for a student that a laptop or desktop computer cannot?

A group of researchers at Western Carolina University set out to answer these questions in controlled experiments last year. WCU lets students bring any equipment they choose to campus as long as it allows them to connect to the network, use e-mail, access the Internet, and run certain software packages. Most students at WCU rely on desktop PCs rather than notebook computers. While the desktops offer students compelling advantages, such as lower costs, more durability, and a guarantee against theft, the obvious disadvantage remains—students can’t bring the desktops to class.

Valorie Nybo, assistant professor of health education, and Robert Orr, campus computer consultant and current Web manager, were members of a faculty group who wanted to find out whether the use of wireless PDAs could promote active classroom learning.

PDAs seemed to offer an attractive solution for ubiquitous classroom computing because of their smaller size, ease of transport, silence of use, and lower likelihood of breakage and theft than for laptops. WCU obtained funding to perform two pilot tests, then found nine freshmen volunteers willing to try Palm IIIx PDAs for a semester.

All nine students were registered for the same three courses—health, law, and English. The PDAs were loaded with several applications in addition to those that were built-in. These included Review Master, software for constructing quizzes; Documents to Go, software that converts Microsoft Word and Excel files for use on the Palm; and powerViewer, which converts PowerPoint files for use on the Palm. Also loaded was AvantGo, which converts and regularly updates Web sites for viewing on the Palm. Students were given the devices for use with class assignments and told to use them as much as possible in their coursework and personal organizing.

Despite the attractive technology provided, there were problems with student adoption of the devices. Though the students who participated in the experiment were volunteers, they showed little enthusiasm. Although individual training sessions were available to them, none of the students requested help for any aspect of the technology not directly related to classroom activities.

Second, there were technological hurdles. Students weren’t able to download powerViewer, and then it turned out that the size of files created by powerViewer was too much for the Palm IIIx devices. A typical 30-slide presentation could use up 2Mb, half of the PDA’s available memory. This limitation prevented the team from using AvantGo, since using it alongside powerViewer would consume all of the Palm’s memory.

Students also showed little interest in using any of the course-specific software functions. Instead, when they did occasionally use the PDAs, they tended to use the personal applications, such as the calendar, calculator, to-do list, and games on a limited basis. Only one of the nine students used the PDA daily.

The initial group of students was then given new PDAs-iPAQs from Compaq. The switch to iPAQ offered a color screen, 32Mb of memory, and such features as instant messaging. Students were enthusiastic about the instant messaging and wireless e-mail functions, using the Internet capability in class assignments as well as for personal applications. However, there were new technical problems. All nine students were accessing the Web in class through a single wireless hub, which slowed access to a crawl. Some Web sites weren’t designed to be viewed on a PDA, and the text was unreadable. In addition, there were problems hot-syncing the iPAQs, system crashes, and short battery life.

In a second experiment, four students were recruited, using Palm IIIc PDAs. These students were allowed to use the systems as they wished, with no class assignments. They were far more successful at finding daily uses for the new technology.

Although the experiments were fraught with problems, Nybo and Orr see them as learning experiences. Says Orr, “any time you’re using technology, you have to make sure you have a good infrastructure, support structure, and a solid training program.” Nybo adds that it’s helpful to start with a positive attitude. “With the second group of students, we went into it with the attitude that we would make them successful users of the technology. We used our experience with the first group to solve some problems in advance, preload some materials, and avoid some of the technology problems we had the first time.”

Another lesson: freshman students, who are already overwhelmed with the transition into college life, may not be eager to add new technology to their learning curve. Orr notes that upper division students who were also given PDAs were considerably more interested in the new technology. Also, WCU instructors were more enthusiastic about using PDAs than were the freshman students.

Still, WCU is convinced that handhelds hold vast classroom potential. To prove it, they plan to run further experiments, using student volunteers in upper-division courses. They’ve already determined some methods that should help the new volunteers to succeed, including using progressive skill building with early “no fail” activities, and making it easier to use the PDAs for coursework—for instance, beaming class deadlines to students so that their PDAs are immediately useful.

For more information on the project, contact Valorie Nybo (nybo@email.wcu.edu) or Robert Orr (orr@email.wcu.edu).

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