All Hands on Tech

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A district finds integrating handheld devices is the way to an effective and cost-effective expansion of its 1-to-1 computing program.

All Hands on TechWHEN THE TECHNOLOGY managers at Windsor C-1 School District in Missouri began looking for a viable way to expand their district's 1-to-1 computing program to every student in the district, their first idea proved to be their best.

"The first thought we had was, maybe we should be looking at a handheld solution," says the district's technology director, Jason Roussin. "We did a lot of research on the Palm device and the programs it supports, and it just seemed to be the right answer. We wanted to try something new and different and get technology into students' hands, literally."

It was going to take something new and different for Windsor to complete its effort to equip each of its 3,000 students with a computer, a goal it was attempting to carry out with laptops and desktops, but was finding hard to sustain amid increasingly tight budgetary constraints. Located in an unincorporated area of northern Jefferson County, roughly 25 miles south of St. Louis, Windsor is a bedroom community made up of several small towns and subdivisions. The district includes three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.

Working with technology supplier CDW-G, and consulting with a neighboring school district that already had a Palm-based classroom handheld program in place, Windsor decided on a solution that combined Palm TX handheld computing devices with mobile PolyVision interactive whiteboards. The handhelds link to the interactive whiteboards wirelessly. The district also purchased attachable, standard-sized keyboards that were designed specifally for the Palm.

"We saw that Jennings School District in north St. Louis was using Palms in its classrooms, and we built off of that idea and developed it into a 1-to-1 program," says Roussin. "CDW-G offered us great pricing and a quick turnaround, making the order-ship-receive process seamless."

"We wanted to try something new and different and get technology into students' hands, literally."

Windsor's technology department purchased the devices in the summer of 2007, but waited until about six months later to implement them. "We wanted to take the time to sort out our program and work out any bugs," says William Brooks, instructional technology specialist for the district.

The district has deployed 350 Palm TX units among 11 high school classrooms. Each device can access the internet wirelessly; all five of Windsor's school buildings are WiFienabled. When the devices are not in use, they're stored in a charging station cart. With the addition of the handhelds to its existing computing equipment, the district has now achieved a full 1-to-1 implementation: Every student in the district has use of a computer of one kind or another and internet access.

The cost savings were considerable. A single 24-unit laptop cart runs around $55,000, not including the cost of software and upgrades. For 350 Palm TXs, 11 charging carts, and attachable keyboards, the district paid less than $200,000. Another cost-saver: downloadable freeware educational programs aimed at Palm devices. Roussin says the district is currently using 32 freeware programs on the handhelds, including math tutorials, calculator applications, writing programs, and chemistry tables.

Windsor's move away from a standard laptop-based 1-to-1 program to one reliant on handhelds was motivated by more than cost, however. The idea of using handheld devices meshed with the district's desire to begin making the shift toward a more mobile classroom environment with interactive and portable technology. Brooks cites other advantages: The handhelds require less upkeep than laptops ("Less things to break on a handheld," he says), and the simplicity of the updates and imaging required by the devices is much more manageable. And the district was able to link the Palms to its AIMSweb online student assessment system to facilitate progress monitoring for at-risk students and to track students' remediation and learning progress. Ease of use was also a consideration: Handhelds are old hat for today's students, so training is minimal.

"This is very familiar territory for our students, who do a lot of texting on their cell phones," Brooks says. "They took to the Palms right away, and the devices quickly became just another learning gateway."

One clear disadvantage of the handheld strategy is an inherent problem with all internet-ready handheld devices: lack of compatibility with all websites. "Some large, dynamic sites are running JavaScript applications, which the Palm OS can't handle, and we have to look for alternative sites," Brooks says.

Yet, greater numbers of companies do see cell phones and handheld devices as important mobile computing platforms and they want to provide access, and so are designing their websites accordingly. "More and more websites are becoming mobile-friendly," explains Roussin. "Google puts out two types of websites: one with JavaScript and one without. While there are limitations with accessing information, we have not run into any major barriers. Students are still able to find relevant information on mobile-friendly websites."

By far the district's greatest concern about the handhelds was the potential for loss, theft, and damage. Surprisingly, that has not been a problem, Roussin says. "To date, we have lost only two. We added security features with synchronized passwords, etched the backs of the Palms with school names, and keep them in a locked cart that also charges them. Teachers also monitor the students while they are using the devices. And since they are community property, the students take good care of them."

"It's important to communicate that students need to be responsible with the Palms," Brooks adds, "not dropping them, spilling on them, or losing them. From the start, we have effectively communicated student responsibility, and we have not had any major problems with students respecting the technology. But it's also important to keep the Palms locked in the cart when they are not in use."

Windsor decided to keep the handhelds in its 1-to-1 computing program for classroom use only, and so far that policy has kept them in pretty good shape. But the district is considering the pros and cons of loosening the program to allow students to take them home. "As time goes by," Roussin says, "we may evolve a take-home aspect to the program, but the risk goes way up when you let the devices off campus. Right now, we're considering it only for one or two of the gifted classes."

The handhelds are currently being used primarily in the high school's English department for essay composition and accessing e-books, and in its social studies classes for web browsing and presentation activities. "We placed them in rooms where teachers are more progressive with technology," Brooks say.

The Palm devices have all the functionality that the district's other computing systems have, allowing students to work collaboratively or independently, write in journals, blog, and conduct online research. A key advantage is purely the engagement students feel using their favored form of technology. For example, students can "beam" written work to the teacher, who then corrects it, provides feedback, and "beams" it back for review. "Students find it more enjoyable to write essays and are excited to use the [handhelds]," Brooks says.

Also, the devices work as well as laptops when connected to a mobile, interactive whiteboard operated by the teacher. Two of the interactive whiteboards are available to each of the departments in the high school; on average, there are about seven teachers per department. The portable, standardsized keyboards that attach to the Palms are a must-have complement, as they make it possible for the students to write papers on the devices, which they send to their teachers' handhelds for grading. "We knew they were used to texting, but we couldn't expect them to write essays with their thumbs," Brooks explains.

He notes that though the aim of the program was to find a cost-effective route to supplying all of its students with technology, the ultimate purpose of any technology integration effort is student achievement.

"The district went 1-to-1 with the handhelds to create an alternative to accessing the web with a laptop or PC," Brooks says. "The Palms also serve as another way of presenting material and engaging students in learning."

John K.Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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