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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 the technology.

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 tasks.

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.

Course Scheduling
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.

Document Formats
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 and files.

Application Areas
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.

Tracking Assignments
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.

Custom Applications
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.

Technology Evaluation
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.


Flach, J. M. & Dominguez, C. O. (1995). Use-centered design: Integrating the user, instrument, and goal. Ergonomics in Design, 3, 3, 19-24.

4.0Student available from (license required)

iSilo is available at

NearSpace information available from

QuizApp Available at (free)

Quizzler Pro available at (free)

WCABuild (to create PQA files) is available at

XTND Connect is a product of Extended Systems (

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