A Mobile Cause


Incorporating handhelds into the classroom means first having to address a few key challenges.

YOU’VE HEARD THE SPIN: Handhelds increase motivation, encourage networking, are portable, and can costeffectively improve test scores. But implementing a handheld project can be problematic, especially if you’re starting from scratch. What about staff development? Finding appropriate software? Providing adequate technical support?

We talked with teachers and education consultants about incorporating handhelds into instruction. They offered a host of useful suggestions on overcoming the five major challenges of bringing mobile devices into the classroom.

1) Training Teachers. The teachers and consultants we talked to agreed: Staff development presents a considerable hurdle. Without knowledgeable teachers, money spent on new technologies can easily go to waste. Accept that staff development is a big part of a technology rollout, and plan to spend accordingly.

In a just-completed three-year project funded by a No Child Left Behind grant, Christine Tomasino worked with two colleagues and 37 school districts in northern Illinois to incorporate 3,000 handheld devices into fifth- and ninth- grade classrooms. Tomasino, a former teacher and technology director, is now a teaching and learning consultant working out of Joliet, IL. The NCLB project, “Bridging the Disconnects” (www.bridgingthedisconnects.org), used two different handheld devices with wireless and infrared connections—a Palm Tungsten C (www.palm.com) and a Palm-powered device called Dana by AlphaSmart (www1.alphasmart.com), which has a fullsize keyboard. The project focused on reading in the content areas of science and social science.

Tomasino says that more than 100 hours of training were spent per teacher. That sounds like a lot, she concedes, but it included summer training, monthly courses, e-mail support, and “blended” learning opportunities in which other material was taught as well. “Research shows that to change [teaching] practices you need 80-plus hours,” she says.

Also, technical support is a must. In many schools, one teacher drives technology forward and supports the devices on the strength of pure knowledge and enthusiasm. That can work, but if you don’t have a technology driver at your school, make sure to get the IT folks you do have on board to commit to providing support.

Initially, the Bridging project specified direct, inclass technical support. Eventually, Tomasino says, teachers will become comfortable enough with the handhelds to take over tech support themselves.

2) Staying Focused on the Purpose. Wireless is often misused, says Kellie Doubek, an instructional technology and literacy consultant who has worked with schools and districts in Illinois and Michigan. Too many schools, she contends, reach for hot new technologies like mobile and wireless without strategies in place on how they plan to use them.

“If you are looking at using technology,” Doubek says, “use the same sound instructional strategies that you would with any new initiative. Administrators and teachers forget that, because they’re overwhelmed by the tool.”

That said, Doubek sees handhelds as especially effective for some educational uses. Along with their mobility and lower price, they promote interaction among students, she says, far more than laptop computers do.

Doubek, who works with Tomasino, encourages client schools to focus on the purpose of the new technology, which should be driving the project in the first place. “If [devices] are being implemented with a purpose, think through staff development,” she says. “First, what is that purpose? Second, what’s your goal instructionally? Third, where’s the technology support coming from?” Doubek advises answering those sorts of questions up front, all the while making sure not to stray from the project’s instructional objective.

3) Finding Cost-Effective, Useful Software. A few years ago, finding good classroom software, especially for handhelds, wasn’t easy. But today, according to Tony Vincent, a fifth-grade teacher at Willowdale Elementary School in Omaha, NE, “whether you’re using Palms or Pocket PCs, there’s just a multitude of great programs out there.” Vincent, known for his evangelical support for using handhelds in the classroom, has more than 100 programs on his school handheld alone. “Some are cross-curricular; some you might use just for one lesson,” he says. “The market has exploded.” (For software ideas, try Vincent’s Web site, www.learninginhand.com. If cost is a concern, he lists many free and shareware programs.)

4) Managing the Classroom. What do you do with handhelds once you have them in class? How do you distribute, support, and manage them? Vincent, who also serves as a technology specialist at Willowdale, has worked out a system for managing the 30 or so non-wireless handhelds that rotate among Willowdale’s three fifth-grade classes of 25 students each. He simply passes them out when projects call for them, then collects them back again, charging the batteries in the off hours.

“Think through how things are going to work,” Vincent says, “but don’t be afraid to learn from students. This is a case where students know more than the teachers.” Vincent says his students often come up with ideas for new projects involving the handhelds.

Administratively, Vincent says, there’s not a lot that can go wrong with handhelds once things are set up. His students use inexpensive Palm units without wireless capabilities. The handhelds periodically are synchronized with Vincent’s own handheld, using infrared beams that travel to and from the devices. They can also be connected with a standard computer via a USB port.

By buying lower-end handhelds without Wi-Fi capabilities, Vincent saves considerably on each device, spending about $199 per handheld plus $60 for a larger keyboard—and he doesn’t need to worry about wireless coverage in the classroom. He says the typical handheld has a four-year life span, after which problems start to crop up. “But if you divide the cost of the handheld and keyboard by four,” he points out, “it’s costing less than $65 per student per year. I’d say that’s a bargain.”

Handhelds in Action

Tony Vincent, a fifth-grade teacher at Willowdale ElementarySchool in Omaha, NE, is an ardent proponent of handhelddevices, which he introduced into his teaching in 2001.Visitors come from all over the country to see handhelds atwork in his classroom.
For an idea of what a classroom looks like when handhelds are used throughout the day, check out this fifth-grader’s photographic description of a day in Vincent’s class: www.learninginhand.com/articles/photoessays/index.html.

5) Handling Bandwidth and Battery Issues. Whether you go wireless or choose to communicate via the infrared capabilities of most handhelds, you may run into bandwidth problems if the students are all using the devices at once to share data. Vincent suggests careful planning to avoid traffic jams. “If [students] all try printing at once, it will take half an hour. Split it in half. It just takes some experience.”

Tomasino says that bandwidth issues are one reason that in many cases she prefers communicating with handhelds using infrared versus laptops using wireless. “I think wireless has a place,” she says, “but it’s not the only [technology].” Also, she points out, wireless devices are typically much more expensive—and often unnecessary in gradeschool classrooms, where the focus is more on simple uses that don’t involve the Internet.

Vincent offers similar sentiments. His local community recently passed a bond issue that will pay for wireless laptops, he says, “but I’d almost rather have handhelds.”

Another classroom challenge with any mobile device is maintaining battery life. Surfing the Internet “sucks the battery life out of anything,” Tomasino says. Knowing that, teachers can plan accordingly and avoid using the wireless devices in class for idle Internet browsing.

Another solution: a device like AlphaSmart’s Dana, which offers 30-plus hours of battery life. In Tomasino’s Bridging project, the fifth-graders using the Dana didn’t have battery-life problems; the high school students using PDAs sometimes did.

Spread the Word

Despite the challenges that any new frontier offers, introducing handheld devices can have a tremendous payoff. Tomasino says that following the end of her three-year NCLB project, formerly technophobic teachers now say they can’t live without their classroom handhelds. And the project produced immediate and dramatic improvements in reading skills—the areas that were focused on. But even so, “the handheld environment is still pretty small,” she says. “We’ve just got to get the word out.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.