All Hands on Tech
- By John K. Waters
A district finds integrating handheld devices is the way to an effective and
cost-effective expansion of its 1-to-1 computing program.
WHEN 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
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'
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
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
"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
to begin making
the shift toward
a more mobile
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
can't handle, and we have to look for alternative sites,"
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
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,"
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.