Experience with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) at one middle school has varied in its trials and successes this year. A group of teachers at Westlawn Middle School Math Science and Technology Academy (http://www.wms.tusc.k12.al.us) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama is experimenting with Palm Pilot IIIXxe handheld computers and various software programs to assist them in keeping up with paperwork and student assignments. A wide range of sophisticated applications have been developed including various electronic forms and grade books for these small computers that are also known as PDAs.
Teachers use the PDAs to take notes, track students’ work and record grades, and to share work information with one another. Because of its compact size, teachers are able to keep the PDA with them at all times and record appointments and notes. They also are able to take care of administrative paperwork such as letters and forms for principals, parents, and students anywhere, any time. In fact, a couple of teachers use the PDAs during lunch and in the hallways between bells to write up disruptive students before they forget the details. Several of the teachers who coach athletics use the PDAs to store game and player statistics.
In addition to the Palm handheld devices, teachers have a Hot Sync cradle that allows them to synchronize data with their classroom and home computers. Most of the teachers prefer to sync their Palms at home. The PDAs are so easy to use that all the teachers have been able to quickly master beaming and hot syncing. Several are now comfortable installing their own software on the PDAs and several frequently beam information or applications to one another.
Each Palm Pilot features several productivity tools that the teachers find useful (e.g., the Address Book, the To Do List, a Memo Pad, and a Calculator). Teachers find the Memo Pad particularly useful as it allows them to write quick notes which can later be revised in a word processor. Memos can also be beamed to other teachers or administrators with PDAs.
Shareware and other Educational Software and Add-Ons
In addition to the software that comes with the Palm Pilot, many educational applications are now available. Most are available for free or for a small price at web sites such as Palm.com, PDAed.com, or PalmStreet.com. Teachers at Westlawn are using Documents to Go (www.dataviz.com), Diddlebug (www.palmgear.com/palm/product.cfm?prodID=3457) a post-it note program, and Avantgo (www.avantgo.com), a program that allows users to download web clipping (sites) to be read offline, among others. Additional hardware in use at Westlawn includes one Kodak Palm Pix camera and two GoType keyboards.
The Future of PDAs in Education
The next logical step may be to expand the use of PDAs to students. Students too can benefit from using PDAs and at the same time cut down on the amount of clutter and weight in their backpacks. Using PDAs allows students to take greater responsibility for their assignments. It also allows them to visualize what is due so that they can organize their work, plan, and study schedules more effectively. Knowing the details of an assignment, including its weight and due date, can help students set priorities. While numerous add-on software packages are available to assist students in organizing their assignments, students can effectively use the Palm’s existing software for greater organization.
In laboratory settings where each student or several groups of students have access to their own PDAs, students can conduct experiments, test hypothesis, and quickly record results in their PDAs. A variety of probes are available as attachments. These probes expand the investigative potential of the traditional laboratory setting. Software associated with these probes allows students to record and analysis data from probes both in the field and on a stationary classroom computer. Students can also conduct scientific research in the field. For example, students can graph temperature changes over time in ponds or test and record CO2 levels. These records can be taken at different times of day or on different days or at different ponds. However the experiment is designed, students can beam their data to the teachers PDA or stationary computer.
While scientific and other types of calculators are ubiquitous items in secondary and middle students' backpacks, the use a calculator on a PDA is an efficient way for students to reduce the amount of "stuff" they must carry around in their backpacks. The variety of calculators allows them the flexibility to have more than one calculator or to download programs that serve specific functions, all on one device The use of a calculator on the PDA consolidates one or more calculators into one efficient device that has a variety of purposes. If the onboard calculator does not meet students' needs, more complex calculator software programs can be downloaded for classroom use. Most are inexpensive and many are free.
The goal this year at Westlawn was to experiment with ways to use technology to make the teachers’ workloads more manageable. The PDAs were very successful. They may, in fact, be more efficient devices for teachers than laptops because of their portability. They certainly are more inexpensive and easier to set up than laptops. As the technology allowing teachers to beam from the PDA to the stationary computer improves, these devices will become seamlessly integrated into the classroom and become an integral part of the teaching and learning process.
Beverly Ray, Ph.D. Consultant, Technology Integration, Federally Funded Project, City Schools, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Adjunct, Instructional Technology, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Fall, 2001, Faculty, Instructional Technology, Idaho State University.
Susan Patterson. Consultant, Technology Integration, Federally Funded Project, City Schools, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Graduate Research Assistant, Instructional Technology, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
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REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
Westlawn Middle School Math, Science and Technology Academy, Tuscaloosa,
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