Portable Technology Comes of Age


The Utilization of Handhelds in a Pilot Teacher Education Program

The pda was originally conceived of as a portable handheld electronic device that provided a user with a tool to organize his or her life through easy access to a personal calendar, daily planner and address book. Over the years, these devices have expanded to include many new functions, which have helped more applications in diverse fields. This includes an increased interest in their use within K-12 and higher education.

During 2001-2002, PDAs for teachers had been integrated into 7% of all U.S. public schools. In addition, SRI International released the "Palm Education Pioneers Program: Final Evaluation Report" (2002), which reported on a large-scale study of the use of handheld computers in more than 100 U.S. elementary and secondary classrooms. Of the teachers who participated in this study, about 90% felt handhelds were effective classroom tools and had the potential for making a positive impact on student learning.

However, the majority of practicing teachers and prospective student teachers has had little exposure or experience with PDAs as educational tools. This article focuses on a study of the incorporation of the Compaq (now Hewlett-Packard) iPAQ Pocket PC into an introductory teacher education course at Brigham Young University. The study looked at two things:

1. How student teacher candidates voluntarily used the PDA for personal and educational uses.

2. Attitudinal changes that occurred during the six-week course regarding the use and effectiveness of handheld technology in the classroom.

Data Gathering Methods

A class section of a secondary education course in social studies was selected for the pilot program. The particular section was chosen because it integrated two additional strands of technology and creativity into the social studies methodology. This six-week course had 26 participants: 70% female and 30% male. Of the participants, 42% were juniors and 58% seniors; 89% were of ages 18 to 23, with 11% of the participants 24 years or older. Students met daily with university professors on campus and visited a public school weekly where they provided a classroom lesson. Once the iPAQs were distributed, the students were provided with initial training on how to use the devices and limited help with the actual set up.

This study used two primary instruments for gathering data. First, students were required to keep a daily log of how they used their PDAs. This log identified the type of use or function performed by the PDA and the amount of time actually spent in use. Second, a pretest and posttest were conducted using attitudinal scales regarding the effectiveness and use of handheld technology in education. Data was also collected on students' experiences with technology before taking this course. In addition, weekly debrief sessions were held in which students could share thoughts or feelings about their experiences with the iPAQ.

Pilot Program Results

Experience with technology (see Table 1 below). All 26 of the participants were either juniors or seniors and had completed a minimum of two years of general studies courses and some requirements for the content they intended to teach. Students indicated that they all used a computer on a weekly basis for school-related work, while 92% used e-mail regularly and 88% used word-processing software regularly. Computers were also frequently used for fun by 83% of the students on a weekly basis, but by only 54% of students for schoolwork on a daily basis. During their previous college-level courses, 85% of the students had taken a course that required the use of technology, which, in most cases, involved accessing a course or course material through the Blackboard online system.

Although it may appear that the students were technologically literate and experienced, this may only apply to a narrow band of technology. Only one of the students owned or regularly used a PDA, none of the students had their own personal Web pages or sites, and 72% never or rarely used a cellular telephone. Percentages were also low for use of multimedia software, experience with online chat rooms, electronic organizers and virtual environments.

Use of the iPAQ (see Table 2 below). Logs were kept on the daily use of the devices over a four week period. The students were not required or held responsible for how they used the devices or how often they used them. The PDA was presented as a learning tool that they could use for course purposes as well as personal needs. In addition, their logs were not graded or factored into their final grades.

Overall, the most frequently used functions of the iPAQs (in terms of minutes spent by each student per week) were for note-taking, tasks and games. A closer look at the average use per function by week shows some dramatic changes. As expected during the first week, considerable time was spent familiarizing and setting up the iPAQ (35 minutes), setting up tasks (104 minutes), downloading and beaming software (40 minutes), setting up the calendar (30 minutes), and playing games (60 minutes). However, after the first week, all of these functions decreased significantly.

What increased drastically after the first week was the use of e-mail and creation of documents. E-mailing was a function that students already were familiar with and used regularly; they just needed to understand how to do it on the iPAQ. But, the creation of documents using the word-processing and spreadsheet software increased considerably once the expanded keyboards were made available during the third week of the course. The students found the function of note-taking and document creation valuable because of the portability of the PDAs and the ease with which they could synchronize with a computer and printer.

Best student experiences. At the conclusion of the six-week course, the students were asked to report on the most positive experiences they had using the iPAQ. The most frequently mentioned functions included the calendar (54%), e-reading (46%), games (38%) and taking notes (38%).

Students' recommended changes. As part of the students' final examinations, they were asked to report what things or activities should be continued during a course that uses PDAs, what things or activities should be discontinued, and what new things or activities could be added to the current offering.

The students felt that the iPAQ should be used more frequently in course assignments and activities, course material could be made available to them through beaming, and more training activities were required. In fact, the largest response to what should be changed was the suggestion to spend more time in training the students on how to use the devices. There was little agreement among all the students on what should be eliminated from the current offering.

Changes in student attitudes. Students were asked to indicate their degree of agreement (from strongly agree to strongly disagree) to statements reflecting attitudes toward the use and effectiveness of technology in the teaching and learning process. Responses on the pretest reflected a general optimism about technology in education and a strong belief in its potential. Their posttest responses remain overall positive, but show some changes as a result of using the iPAQs during the course.

Students indicated that their confidence in using electronic devices increased by 25%, their confidence in effectively using a computer or electronic device to communicate with others increased by 16%, and their confidence in using an electronic device to organize their personal learning increased by 41%. When asked if they think technological tools are critical to the improvement of the teaching and learning process, strong agreement increased by 19%. When asked if they were willing to experiment with technology to discover its capabilities, strong agreement increased by 15%.

Reflecting back on the course, 50% of the students agreed that they were excited at the beginning of the course to use the iPAQ. After using it during the course, 65% felt it was a positive experience, 41% felt their attitude toward the use of technology in the teaching and learning process was more positive because of their experience with the iPAQ, and 66% agreed that electronic devices are useful tools in the classroom. However, only 38% believed that wireless handheld devices like the iPAQ should have a place in classrooms today. More than half of the students (67%) found it easy to discover uses for the iPAQ in their personal lives, 54% agreed that technology gives each individual more control over his or her own learning, and 50% agreed that technology helps one to be more productive. On the downside, only 8% agreed that PDAs are worth the cost to purchase and maintain.


The findings of this pilot study matched well with the conclusions from the SRI International study of teachers in the Palm Education Pioneer program. In the PEP program, practicing teachers used the PDAs as classroom educational tools for an extended period of time. In this study, prospective student teachers were first exposed to the PDA and provided some initial and limited experiences in using the PDA in a classroom environment. The students were then given the opportunity on a voluntary basis to use the PDA how they wanted for personal reasons. A comparison of results from the two studies is useful, as seen from the following outcomes.

In the SRI International study (2002), the teachers overwhelmingly concluded (90%) that handhelds are effective instructional tools, handhelds have the potential to have a positive impact on students' learning, and teachers will continue to use the handhelds in the future. The student teachers' attitudes in this study changed for the positive, but not to the same extent as the PEP teachers in similar beliefs that PDAs are effective educational tools (66%) and have great potential for impacting student learning (71%).

The PEP teachers concluded that the main benefits to the students were increased time using the technology, increased student motivation, increased collaboration and communications, and benefits from having a portable and accessible personal learning tool (SRI 2002). Likewise, 67% of student teachers felt that the PDAs increased student motivation and interest, 71% felt that they increased the ability to collaborate and communicate, and 80% of the student teachers increased their productivity by having a portable and accessible learning tool.

On the downside, the PEP teachers found that the major drawbacks to using the handhelds included inappropriate use (especially of beaming), technology management issues (particularly synchronization issues), usability issues (long text input) and equipment damage. The student teachers had many frustrating moments dealing with technology management issues such as loading software and synchronizing with computers. They requested more tech support and recommended a support system that spanned the university. Likewise, they felt more training from the beginning of the course was needed. No inappropriate use of the devices was noticed or reported. Usability issues generally involved having to deal with the small screen and long text passages. Some of the students were concerned about theft of the small devices and were hesitant to carry them around; however, no damage or loss was experienced during the pilot program.

The PEP teachers also reported that having appropriate software and peripherals were key factors to successful implementation (SRI 2002). In this study, student teachers did not have access to the Internet, probes or other peripheral devices that could be used in a classroom setting. They recognized the potential for such add-ons, but did not experience them firsthand.This may be one reason why some student teachers were less enthusiastic about incorporating PDAs in the teaching and learning process. Several felt that they would prefer not to have the device available at all with the current capabilities of the software on the PDA and the lack of peripherals; they saw it as a distraction and a costly use of resources. In addition, some disliked having management responsibilities for devices that students were using.


Handheld computers, such as PDAs, offer some distinct opportunities in education. A few of the advantages include mobility, beaming or the sharing of information and communications, the personalization of student work, and empowerment of each individual having a learning tool under his or her own control. In this study, given the limited experiences of the student teachers in the classroom, we did not focus on the instructional use of the PDA. Instead, we focused on how the student teachers would voluntarily use the devices for personal and learning needs, and how their attitudes toward technology in the teaching and learning process may change as a result of experience using handheld computers.

Initially, only 50% of the student teachers were excited to use the PDAs during this pilot program and only 50% expected to use them in the teaching process. There was a lot of uncertainty among the students as to their ability to learn and use the devices appropriately in such a short period of time. Many of the student teachers felt the devices were too expensive, the advantages were not sufficient and the time period of adoption too short to warrant changing the technology tools they were already using. Some resisted to the point of not using the PDAs during the course. Though, most adapted the devices for personal use and found their portability and ease of use to be desirable.

Because the participants were student teachers in an introductory course on teaching methodologies, they had no previous teaching practices and experiences to compare with those in the pilot program. Many of the student teachers struggled to see the value of handhelds in the classroom environment. At the conclusion of the course, the majority felt that handhelds offered a lot of promise for effective use in education, but they personally did not experience it. During debrief sessions, the students often struggled to identify new or novel activities or uses of the handhelds in school settings.

The student teachers in this study felt very comfortable with the use of PDAs after this experience. A majority (58%) saw the need for the classroom to be more collaborative and active, while 96% of the student teachers believed that technology, such as PDAs, has great potential for effective use in the classroom. They realized that as the instructional leaders in the classroom, they also need to be capable of appropriately using such devices; many are not yet to that point. For a lot of the student teachers, this course presented a vision of the possibilities that technology like the PDA can offer.


SRI International. 2002 "Palm Education Pioneers Program: Final Report." September. Online: www.palmgrants.sri.com.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.