Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs):
Always a Productivity Tool but Now an Instructional  Support Tool for Classroom Teachers
Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

What is a PDA? Some words or terms creep into daily use and PDA is a good example - - Personal Digital Assistant.  According to The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia,

"A Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is an handheld computer that serves as an organizer for personal information. It generally includes at least a name and address database, to-do list and note taker. PDAs are pen based and use a stylus to tap selections on menus and to enter printed characters. The unit may also include a small on-screen keyboard which is tapped with the pen. Data is synchronized between the PDA and desktop computer via cable or wireless transmission. A PDA is like a palmtop computer except that the PDA typically uses a pen whereas the palmtop uses a small keyboard. Apple's MessagePad, more commonly known as the "Newton," was the first to popularize the concept."
What are examples of PDAs? There are several types or brands of PDAs, including Handspring Visor (http://www.handspring.com), Palm (http://www.palm.com), and Rim Blackberry (http://www.blackberry.com).  The most popular is the Palm and offers several advantages.  The Palm has the following features without any additional software: Aren't PDAs, then, JUST productivity tools and not really an aid for instruction?  Many principals report having a Palm or other PDA to keep functions such as calendar, address book, notes, To Do List, etc., but, until just recently, these were not considered to be serious instructional supports.  However, as the prices have begun to drop on PDAs and the power and capacity increase on these hand-sized devices, teachers have surprised a lot of people by embracing PDAs at a rate that, in some instances, exceeds their use of laptop computers!  Teachers have begun requesting Palms as classroom tools!  This puts Palms or any PDAs in a whole new category for educators. Principals need to be aware of this trend, including what is happening, why, and how this could enrich a classroom.


What is happening? Teachers are using a tether to attach and carry the Palm around their necks or they are using a belt clip case.  As they grade work, they input the grade right into the PDA.  When they observe students, they can input the observations immediately 'on the fly'. These tools are about the size of a calculator, lightweight, and highly portable, a plus for busy teachers.  Teachers who, previously, had students turn in papers and essays printed out as hard copy and demonstrated no interest in having students turn in those files electronically are NOW, because of the PDA, asking students to do just that.  They have students either give them a disk with the document on it or, especially in upper elementary and middle school, attach the assignment to email.  From there the teachers are downloading students' work through 'hot synching' from the desktop to the PDA.  Then, teachers can actually grade and edit documents on the PDA while sitting in traffic, riding in the car pool, waiting for the soccer game to finish and sitting in boring meetings!


Why is this happening?   It's unclear why teachers so readily adopt a PDA over a desktop or laptop computer for classroom use. There is research underway to determine why teachers appear to be more interested in using the Palm for classroom use, but at this point, there are only speculations as to the reasons.  However, though the reason isn't obvious,  it does appears that teachers take on more "ownership" of these PDAs.  Many have also reported that they believe it takes less technology support to use them.

Other plausible reasons for their recent and growing acceptance by teachers is that PDAs, Palms in particular, are now affordable, often within the range of classroom technology budgets or even within the personal budgets of teachers.  They range in price from $149 to $499.  Another possible reason for the dramatic acceptance of the Palm or other PDAs by teachers is the rapidly growing range of peripherals and enhancement tools available. For example, it is possible to get a small, portable keyboard (about 3.6 x 5.1 x 0.79 closed) that allows teachers to actually type in information and edit documents.  It folds into thirds, down to about the size of the Palm itself, for less than $100.  Another enhancement is the modem for the Palm that allows the teacher to get email AND access the Internet.

What are the implications for the principal?  The major implication for the principal is that this might be the "hook" to get teachers interested in integrating technology into the classroom, even the technophobes and hesitant teachers.  This relatively inexpensive, highly portable device could become the centerpiece of a technology initiative focused on the classroom teachers' daily routine.  It does not appear 'high tech' or 'disruptive'.  In several schools where Palms were offered to teachers who turned in a proposal for their use in teaching, the demand was overwhelming and surprising.  Teachers do need to  learn to "sync" or move data form the Palm to the desktop/latpop and back to the Palm, which takes minimal training; teachers who had NOT used their desktop computers much prior to the Palm, suddenly were using them BECAUSE of the Palm.  Once the teachers feel comfortable with this activity, they tend to be less hesitant in using a desktop computer.

Part II will be discussion of Palm software for personal and classroom use that includes free products and inexpensive materials less than $40 dollars.  Part III will include sample classroom activities and inservice ideas for teachers with Palms.

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PRODUCT LIST PRICE MANUFACTURER
Handspring Visor Deluxe $499 Handspring, Inc.  http://www.handspring.com
Rim Blackberry 957 $499 Research In Motion Ltd. 
http://www.blackberry.net
Palm IIIc $399 Palm Inc. 
http://www.palm.com
Palm m100 $149 Palm Inc. 
http://www.palm.com