The Viable Alternative: Handhelds

Why the personal computer of choice in K-12 ought to fit in a student’s palm by CATHLEEN A. NORRIS AND ELLIOT M. SOLOWAY
Ample empirical data from the past 25 years suggest that when certain conditions are met, computing technology has a positive impact on learning and teaching in the primary and secondary grades.

In fact, we see a range of impacts—increased time on task, higher test scores, lower cost and increased motivation. Based on the research literature, the six conditions that must be met are these: sufficient access to technology; adequate teacher preparation; effective curriculum; relevant assessment; supportive school/district administration; and supportive family/community.

There are no surprises here. These conditions are needed for any educational innovation to be successful.

That said, clearly K-12 schools in the United States have not enjoyed the expected positive impact of technology. The trade newspaper eSchoolNews, for example, reports on an international study that found American schools have more technology than any other country’s schools, yet student achievement ranks in the middle of the pack.

Better Access
For the most part, our schools have not achieved the six conditions. On the issue of access, our online survey of educators found 42 percent of teachers reported their students use a computer less than 15 minutes a week, while 65 percent reported they have their students use the Internet less than 15 minutes a week.

We analyzed the demographic information we collected and found the reason for this low use has precious little to do with the teachers per se. It is not true, for instance, that older teachers use technology less—but everything to do with access. Nearly 60 percent of the teachers reported they have either one or no computers in their classroom. Furthermore, 65 percent reported they and their students have either no access to a computer lab, access less than once a week to a computer lab or access at most once a week.

In terms of teacher preparation, a one-day in-service program is simply not sufficient to prepare teachers to deal with the significant challenges of using technology in the classroom. Curriculum has been ill-served by technology. Innovation in educational software pales in comparison to the wildly successful and plentiful entertainment technologies.

Thus, it’s not the case that the lack of impact of technology on teaching and learning is due to the technology. Rather, the conditions that support the use of the technology have simply not been in place. In most students have not gained from using technology, not because technology is ineffective but because they haven’t used the technology in any coherent, substantive way.

Access is the baseline enabling condition. Until the technology is pervasive in K-12 schools, textbook publishers are not going to invest the considerable sums it takes to develop top-quality software. Teachers won’t be interested in spending precious in-service training time to learn about using technology as long as their access to it is so limited. Assessments that tap into the types of learning that technology fosters won’t come into being until the technology is widely and routinely used. We must solve the access problem first.

Opportunity Knocks
Over the past three years, handheld computer technologies have emerged as a viable alternative to desktop and laptop computers in elementary and secondary education. The advantages may be measured in terms of cost and appropriateness.

An entry-level handheld computer, such as the Palm M105, can be purchased for about $100. America is simply not going to spend $1,000 to purchase a desktop/laptop for each of the 55 million school-age children. While former Maine Gov. Angus King championed providing a laptop computer for each 7th grade child in his state, were he to start that program now rather than in 2000, he would most certainly have selected handhelds instead of laptops. Had they gone with handhelds, Maine could have equipped almost 10 times the number of students for the same dollars.

In terms of appropriateness, while desktop/laptops will have a place in school for the foreseeable future, as personal computing devices they are not particularly appropriate for K-12. They take up too much space, they need electricity on a regular basis, and they are overly complex, burdened with excess functionality. A low-power device that fits readily into the palm of a child’s hand can go everywhere and be used everywhere. While handhelds are auxiliary devices for those in the business world, they are going to be the primary computing device for K-12 students.

If we had the will, we could solve the access problem for K-12 school children tomorrow by issuing every child a handheld computer. The country recently spent $4 billion to replace the voting machines in this country. Providing every child with a handheld computer would have cost only marginally more and would certainly have had more of an impact.

A 1:1 Ratio
The data from our survey make clear that use is directly correlated to access. Those teachers who had ready access to computers had their children use the computers. Use leads to gains in effectiveness and gains in achievement. Time on task is a cornerstone condition for effective learning.

If all students had their own personal computer—much as white-collar professionals do—then each child could spend significant amounts of time engaged in technology-supported learning.

Consider how technology is typically used in classrooms today, given the minimal access children actually have.

Our Center for Highly-Interactive Computing in Education, in cooperation with educators in the Detroit Public Schools, has developed an 8-week, 7th-grade science unit, used now in approximately 20 middle schools. Students address driving questions such as “What is the quality of the water that I drink?” In that unit, children may use the Internet for 1-2 days to search for relevant articles. They may spend 1-2 days running computer-based simulations of water quality. Of the 40 days then, children might spend four days using technology. And during those four days, the teachers and children must put up with myriad interferences from fire drills to system crashes, from network outages to impromptu assemblies.

Typically, 2-3 children share a single computer. In contrast, consider this scenario in which each of the 30 children in a 5th-grade classroom in Lewisville, Texas, had a personal handheld computer (in this case, a Palm IIIc) to use during a five-week lesson where each child picked an inventor about whom to do a report.

First, students used one class period on the Internet to find web pages about an inventor and then, using software called Fling-It, download those web pages to their handheld computers. While the children don’t have enough time in one period to find and analyze the web material, they can examine the material off-line, in class, at home or even on the school bus.

Next, students used PicoMap, a concept mapping program for the handheld computer, to create a “mind map” of the key issues that they gleaned from reading the web material.

Then, based on the collected material and their PicoMap, the children created a draft of their inventor report using FreeWrite, a vanilla text editor on their handheld. Of course, in the writing process, the child could easily refer back to the web pages and his or her concept maps.

Next, each child, using the handheld’s built-in infrared personal area network, beamed the draft article to a class peer for comments and copy editing help. The peer beamed the edited version back to the creator for final editing.

Then, using Sketchy, a drawing and animation program for the handheld, each child constructed an animation of the invention created by his or her inventor.

Finally, each child gave a presentation to the class, displaying different elements of their concept map, document and animation using a document camera connected to a TV set. In the second scenario, because each child had his or her own personal handheld computer, each child was able to use it for every step of the learning process. Indeed, at each step, the child produced some artifact that reflected his or her evolving understanding. Moreover, in using the various pieces of handheld software, learning was enhanced through moving amongst the multiple representations (e.g., concept maps, text documents, pictures and animations) of the content.

Upwards of 80 percent of the time spent on the inventor project was supported by software on the child’s handheld computer. Note how this scenario has a great deal in common with a scenario in a business setting, where co-workers, using computers appropriate to their context, interact to produce a report, proposal or conference program.

Instructional Effects
What evidence exists that a 1:1 ratio of students to handheld computers can make a difference in the classroom? While it’s still too early to expect standardized test scores to be affected, we still find provocative effects on teaching and learning.

Briefly, here are some results we have seen in working for the past two years in schools in Michigan and Texas, from 3rd grade to 9th grade, where students used their own personal, handheld computers:

* Students are productive. In looking at what children had on their handheld computer after using it for the school year (September to June), we found students typically had produced more than 100 documents during the 180 class days.

* Students revise their work. Inasmuch as the documents (concept maps, text documents, drawings and animations) were easily accessible, students actually revised their documents, often multiple times, based on teacher and peer feedback and based on their evolving understanding.

* Students revisit their notes. Inasmuch as their class notes were readily accessible—vastly different from trying to find a specific sheet of paper in their binder three weeks after it was written—we observed students actually reviewed their notes in studying for tests.

* Students collaborate. The personal area network, facilitated by a handheld computer’s infrared beaming, makes it easy for children to share work, by, for example, beaming notes to a child who was absent from class or beaming artifacts for peer comments.

Next Steps
We believe that the handheld computer will have more of an impact on teaching and learning in K-12 education than the Internet has had. While there might well be wonderful material on the Internet, the access to that material in school is severely limited. However, having their own computers, ready-at-hand, enables students to be productive by generating artifacts, around which substantive collaboration can take place.

That said, careful research is needed to document the strengths and weaknesses, the affordances and the challenges of this emerging class of technologies. Moreover, in order to move these technologies beyond the early-adopter classrooms into mainstream classrooms, curricular materials are needed along with professional development and assessment materials. It will take considerable effort and resources if handhelds are to realize their potential.

Cathleen Norris is a professor of technology and cognition at University of North Texas, Matthews Hall, Denton, TX 76203. E-mail: Norris@unt.edu. Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Center for Highly-Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan.