Life With a Handheld Computer: Confessions of a School Administrator

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The leading edge of technology is not the best place to be if you are running a school. Administrators need to be efficient if they wish to be effective. Once a technology has begun to mature, however, they should consider how it can help them. In this article, I make a case for handheld computer technology, also known as personal digital assistants or Palms after the original model.

As a former district computer director and programming teacher, I have been riding the technology treadmill since the 1970s. Several years ago, I was given a handheld computer to help with my work as an elementary principal. After giving it a try, I decided that its features were not worth the trouble.

Then in March 2003, I attended a New York Talks Conference sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was aimed at helping administrators make better use of technology. As part of the deal for attending the conference, I was given a new Palm Tungsten T handheld. After a year and a half, I find that handheld technology has advanced to the point where it now has a place in my life at work and beyond.

Before I go on, I must mention that the Tungsten T is no longer available, and Palm (now known as palmOne) currently offers newer alternatives with additional features and/or lower prices. Handhelds from competing companies like Hewlett-Packard and Dell have also continued to improve.

Key Features
The foremost reason that I gave my current handheld a serious look is its sharp, backlit color screen — it is attractive and easy to read, even in the dark. This makes a huge difference as the older screens were dull and dim. The other key feature is that the built-in batteries recharge whenever you place the device in the docking unit connected to your computer. This is the same unit the computer and the handheld use to synchronize (or sync) databases, applications and files. With readability and recharging convenience taken care of, I looked further for features that might make my new friend worth the trouble.

Chief among these features is Novell GroupWise, which handles my calendar and e-mail. Although handhelds come with calendar software, you should try to connect to the system supported by your district. At sync time, calendar and e-mail changes made on either device transfer, so I can read and respond to e-mail without being at my desk. I can also make appointments while I am somewhere else without carrying a date book. School secretaries, or anyone else I give access, can also add or edit appointments from their computers. In addition, reminders let me know when events are scheduled. Unless you hide in your office, life as an administrator is likely to be hectic to the point that you often feel as if you suffer from attention deficit disorder. I now find that I am much more likely to be on time, which reduces apologies and improves my image.

Handheld Office
Most computer users do word processing, and most administrators use spreadsheets and presentation software. My handheld came with Documents To Go from DataViz, which contains Microsoft Office-compatible versions of all three types of software. To make the most of these applications, I recommend an external keyboard, which allows for data entry and editing in a manner similar to that of your computer. While handhelds allow for data entry without add-on keyboards, the devices’ built-in capabilities are best for short notes or memos.

With handheld and keyboard in hand, you can take notes at meetings, record classroom observations, or keep up with correspondence while away from your desk. Due to the screen size, I find that spreadsheets are less useful on the handheld as you cannot see many rows and columns at once. I do, however, download commonly used spreadsheets such as budget and enrollment data for reference on the run.

PowerPoint is no doubt one of the most used and abused applications in the field of education. Tufte (2003) has an excellent article with details on potential abuse. Tuffte advises that presentations use little text and low-resolution pictures that you can take with your handheld. If you follow this advice your presentations will work on your handheld. With Presenter-to-Go from Margi, you can also project them from your handheld, allowing you to do ad hoc presentations if there is a projector available.

You can also take notes that include freehand writing and sketches with the Note Pad application. In the past, I would grab loose pieces of paper to jot down reminders, telephone numbers, Web sites or ideas. Without organization, such notes are easily lost. With Note Pad, I tap my way from one to another and delete those I no longer need. I had fun with Note Pad at a recent presentation by former astronaut Scott Carpenter, America’s fourth man in space. When I asked for his autograph on my handheld he remarked that my Palm was far more powerful than the computers that guided his spacecraft.

Evidence and Photo Ops
While some handhelds feature built-in cameras, mine required an add-on for picture taking. For about $75, I purchased a handheld camera from Veo that slides into the memory slot of my handheld. As a mobile administrator, there are many times each week when photo opportunities present themselves — some are joyous, while others are problematic. My Veo Palm camera is small enough to wear on the lanyard that holds my ID. It also allows me to capture pictures with little fuss. While the resolution of the pictures is only 640 x 480, it has made my Palm even more useful.

The happier pictures I give to teachers or students as presents and incentives. Not so happy pictures go into my “evidence” folder. This is where I store pictures of vandalism, graffiti and students engaging in less-than desirable behavior. It is one thing to tell a parent that their child fell asleep in my office or hid under a desk. But when I show them a picture, there is little that needs to be said. I also take pictures of situations that need attention from the maintenance department. Within minutes of spotting a problem, I can e-mail a picture to the people who can fix it. This increases the likelihood that help will come soon with the right materials, making the school safer, which should be every administrator’s first priority.

Another surprisingly useful feature is the built-in audio recorder. I record messages to myself while driving or just after a home visit. It is often important that I record details of observations, and now I can do so on the run. I also record students who make inappropriate comments. Sometimes I share them with parents, while other times I play them back so students can hear themselves. When they hear how badly they sound, they usually stop.

Always Something to Read
One of my mottos is “never go anywhere without something to read.” With my handheld, I am always prepared at a doctor’s office, while waiting for a meeting or anywhere else I may find myself with extra time. While I can always read and edit documents, my main reading sources are Adobe PDF files and e-books. The Internet is full of useful reading material for professionals in PDF format, and Adobe has a free application that converts and downloads them. Keep in mind that some PDF files — usually the ones full of graphs and diagrams — will not convert well. Straight text, however, works just fine.

While I don’t like reading much more on my computer than a screen or two — perhaps a sign of my age — I find that reading on the handheld is enjoyable and convenient. I have purchased several e-books from eReader.com and have enjoyed them a great deal. I like the ability to select and copy text, as well as electronic books’ marking feature. You also can have multiple e-books open at once without losing your place in any of them.

Contacts and Schedules
With the handheld’s contacts database, I no longer have a Rolodex cluttering my desk; instead, I have telephone numbers and addresses when I am away from my desk. I enter new contacts when I first have the chance in order to avoid losing information and handling it twice. I have a database of student information that includes parent names and contact information. When called to a classroom to deal with an unruly student, I can call a parent once I understand the problem. After I brief the parent, I hand my cell phone to the unsuspecting student with a simple comment, “It’s for you.” Cooperation usually follows.

Memory and Music
My memory card holds all PDF files, many photos, applications not in use, and even music. This is great, as handhelds have limited internal memory compared to computers. Mine has a meager 16 MB, which means I must pay attention to cleaning out unnecessary files. I have a 512 MB card that was about $100, although a 64 MB card costs about $40 and can be just as useful if you avoid large files.

RealAudio offers a free music player for MP3 files that can be placed on your memory card. You can also download a free copy of iTunes software from Apple.com, which can convert files on audio CDs to the compressed MP3 format. On average, you can store about 25 songs in 100 MB of space. My memory card from SanDisk came with their Cruzer device, which mounts the card as a removable disk via a computer’s USB port. This makes it easy to drag files from computer to card or vice versa.

I also have a Cannon digital camera that uses the same memory card. This means I can take the card from my Palm, put it in the camera, take pictures, and then use the Cruzer to transfer them directly to my desktop for future processing, printing and presentation. In short, the handheld’s memory card lets you copy files from one device to another, which also is a great form of backup. Think of it as a small high-capacity floppy drive.

While music may not make me a better administrator, I enjoy listening on occasion as I work, and I share tunes with students as well. In one case, a girl was wearing a T-shirt from the rock band KISS. I asked if she liked their music and she told me the shirt was a gift. She had never heard their music and as luck would have it, I had a few KISS songs on my Palm. When I played one for the girl and her friends they thought they had a seriously cool principal.

Just in Time
My Palm didn’t include a clock with a second hand or stopwatch capabilities, so when it came time for a fire drill I realized I needed new software. After a quick Internet search, I found an application called EZ-Clock that included a stopwatch, a timer and a clock with a second hand. I have found many other situations where I use the program — from timing playground races to letting students watch the countdown for time-out situations.

Not Done Yet
There are other features I use less often such as its thesaurus and games. I also have not yet started surfing the Web with my Palm, and I would not be surprised if my next handheld includes a movie camera and serves as a cell phone with a built-in GPS.

One thing is certain though, since my handheld has become part of my daily routine at work and away, I am more efficient and innovative. This has not come without effort on my part, but the payback has been significant. While handheld technology will continue to mature and evolve, it is clearly at the point where a modern administrator should give it a serious look.

Reference
Tufte, E. 2003. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

About the Author
Douglas W. Green is the principal of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Binghamton, N.Y. He earned his doctorate in educational theory and practice from Binghamton University and also has degrees in administration, science teaching and chemistry. Green has taught computer programming and was Binghamton’s first Director of Computer Services in 1982. He was a contributing editor for InfoWorld and has published more than 300 articles in a variety of journals on educational and computer-related topics. E-mail: GreenD@bcsdgw.stier.org

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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