Course to Go: The Handspring Visor Neo

Students generally take the World Wide Web for granted today, but even the most experienced Internet users are relative newcomers to the realm of mobile computing. To help further demystify and examine pervasive computing, students in "Ethics and the Internet," a course I've taught for six years at Duke University, used Handspring's Visor Deluxe personal digital assistants in the past academic year.
The use of the PDAs, supported by a grant from Duke University's Center for Instructional Technology, has helped students gain a sense of the growing fusion between the online and off-line worlds, has sparked discussion of that phenomenon, and in general has helped extend the classroom experience.
I use a Visor Prism—Handspring's high-end, color model—but the monochrome Visor Neo is the company's newer, faster, flashier model. (I assume the product's name was borrowed from the protagonist of the 1999 film The Matrix, a high-tech favorite of college students.) I am an advocate of lightweight handheld computers, particularly since baggage restrictions for traveling have gotten more stringent. Although equally praised and denigrated as executive toys, PDAs are much more than expensive address books.
Paradoxically, though, it is the friendly, toy-like quality of Handspring's devices that is appealing. The flexibility of its Springboard expansion slot enables users to slide in various modules—from presentation to wireless modem applications—to suit their needs. Because more than 55 modules are available, the design is ideal for experiencing the range of pervasive computing applications and their impact on daily academic life.
The Neo is a tight package at 4.8 inches by 3 inches by 0.7 inch, and it weighs a mere 5.4 ounces. It retails for $169, uses the Palm Inc. 3.5 operating system, and is controlled by a 33 MHz Dragonball processor from Motorola Inc. that is 50 percent faster than that of the Deluxe. Unlike the Prism, the Neo d'es not recharge while HotSyncing and instead runs on two AAA batteries, which some students prefer over having to carry a recharging cradle. According to Handspring, the battery life is six to eight weeks with average use.
Other features include 8M of memory, a 4-bit grayscale, backlit display, USB connectivity, enhanced address and date book, calculator, clock, Macintosh compatibility, built-in microphone, and infrared synchronization for "beaming" files to other PDA users.
This spring, two of my students, Scott Manson and Ted Rosenwasser, helped assess the Neo and several test modules. PDA neophyte Scott liked being able to enter information into his primary computer and load it quickly through the Neo's USB connection, which, as Ted pointed out, is 12 times faster than through the serial port he uses with his three-year-old Palm V.
Both students admired the sleek styling of the Neo and appreciated its expandability. Scott, who enjoyed playing Scrabble on the PDA and also used the device for taking notes in class, found the Franklin's Merriam-Webster dictionary module helpful.
Ted enjoyed trying out the eyemodule2 VGA camera and modest camcorder, although he quickly reached its limitations. Yet, being able to quickly take black-and-white photographs and beam them to another user is a cutting-edge application.
With a few caveats, I'm pleased with the Presenter-to-Go module from Margi Systems Inc., which enabled me to carry Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentations and run them from the PDA. The cable, however, is quite short and useless if the projector is ceiling mounted. And because I often make graphics-heavy presentations, I sometimes tax the memory limits of my PDA.
I often use the 802.11b-compatible Xircom Wireless Ethernet module to send instant messages, read e-mail, and surf the Web in a rudimentary way while holding office hours or while at work in the library. Because I play books on tape and CD, I also appreciate the Audible Advisor, a module that comes with earbuds for listening to recordings downloaded from Audible Inc.'s Web site (www.audible.com).
The fact that the students and I prefer different features and modules and used the Neo in different ways speaks to the adaptability of the Handspring line. Pedagogically, the Neo has provided a relatively low-cost and attractive way of encouraging students to think outside the deskbound or address-book box.
For classes with fieldwork, the GPS Companion module might be appropriate, and for writing-intensive purposes, one of the lightweight or collapsible keyboards can be a useful addition that will not break the budget. They are all easy to use—just slide or snap in place, turn on the Visor and go.
Together with wireless phones, MP3 players, pagers, and other portable devices, the Handspring models we've used have helped open the experience of the course and deepened the students' involvement with today's digital culture. Indeed, students become attached to the devices, and letting go can be, as Scott said, a bittersweet experience.

Wendy Robinson is an adjunct instructor at Duke University. She can be reached at grobin@duke.edu. The syllabus for "Ethics and the Internet" can be found at www.duke.edu/~wgrobin/ethics.

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