Detroit School Finds Success With Portable Learning Devices

If smiling students and teachers are a measure of success, one Detroit principal knows she's picked a winner. Dr. Pamela Wilkins, principal of Kosciusko Elementary School, says the happy faces are the result of using a new handheld computer device for self-paced instruction and remediation. "I can see their smiles when I walk into a classroom. Students say 'Thank you Dr. Wilkins, we like this, this is fun. '" Wilkins says she takes the feedback very seriously. "A big part of my job is bringing things to my teachers that make their lives more productive and their teaching more effective." Affordable Portables One tool for more productive and effective teaching is the Brainchild Personal Learning System, manufactured by Brainchild Corp. of Naples, Fla. Wilkins purchased 10 of these portable units with basic skills software for less than the cost of a single desktop or laptop computer. Kosciusko uses Brainchilds in five classrooms and for afterschool Title I tutorials in math and language arts for grades one through five. "There are self-options for children: They can decide to review, study or reinforce," notes Wilkins. "They can make their own selection and have immediate feedback. " The device, powered by three AAA batteries, is about the size of a VHS videotape, and its software comes on interchangeable cartridges. It features a video display screen and 12 thumb-operated keys. "It's not very complicated," says Kathy Butler, a 3rd- and 4th-grade math teacher. "It didn't take but a few minutes of study for me to understand them and be able to teach students how to use them. " The Brainchild software gets high marks from teachers as well. Several major educational software publishers have licensed their products for the PLS-1000, including Skills Bank, Core Knowledge Foundation, KAPLAN and American Education Corp. Butler reserves the Skills Bank cartridges for more advanced students, while average and slower students utilize the Core Knowledge Sequence. All programs assess student abilities and match them with appropriate lessons, which range in difficulty from elementary school through middle, high school and adult education. Underlying Concepts Explained Questions are presented in a random order, with underlying concepts explained, discouraging rote memorization. Students and teachers can track progress through a Personal Planning Guide, which serves as a record of performance. Administrators, meanwhile, praise Brainchild's low price. Each device retails for $195, with software cartridges selling for $39. The manufacturer also offers multi-unit discounts for educators. That pricing was very attractive for Detroit's Kosciusko Elementary. "At less than $200, Brainchild is much more economical than a computer," says Butler. And because they are portable, the devices have found many applications both in and out of the classroom. In class, children who need further study in a particular area can sit down with the appropriate software cartridges and go right to it. For group instruction, teachers borrow Brainchild units from another classroom so each student has one. Enhances Group Instruction Even when students work together, advantages are realized. "Whenever you divide kids up into groups, everybody figures out who are the smart kids and who are the slow ones," notes Butler. "But I can have a dozen kids working on Brainchild and they can be on different levels and nobody knows what the others are doing." All involved have commented on Brainchild's ease of use. "I can use these computers in a number of ways, and that flexibility really helps," says Butler. "Plus, I don't have to spend the whole class period explaining how Brainchild works, so that gives me some real quality instruction time to spend with the students." Principal Wilkins says the smiles have convinced her that the approach works. "Children expected it to be fun, and it was. The fact that they were learning something made it even better-it was icing on the cake."

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.