No one will dispute the fact that Apple's "personal digital assistant", the hand-held Newton MessagePad, has not lived up to its early hype. However, in this quietly evolving market, Apple's offering has managed to see off most of its potential rivals while still attracting a surprisingly solid foundation of software developers and applications.
While Newton's handwriting recognition has probably turned out to be its least attractive or functional feature specialist markets are making use of its excellent operating system and information handling capabilities in areas such as farming, medicine and education. A particularly good example of this current crop is for education: Learner Profile from TAG Developments.
Learner Profile is essentially a tool for expanding assessment techniques. It enables teachers to plan, organise and review observations about pupils' progress and the work they produce in any given subject area. Connecting desktop computers to the Newton MessagePad with some clever bar-code technology, Learner Profile simplifies and streamlines general observational assessment practice and administration.
With its "plan, observe and report" approach, teachers can record observations in the classroom, in laboratories or even outside or on school trips. Information scanned or tapped into the Newton is automatically stored and, at the end of the day, this data is imported into the Learner Profile program on the Macintosh desktop computer. Every time an assessment is made, in an instant, the criteria and the student can be referenced together to record the achievement.
Learner Profile allows you to create either an administrative or observer "account" so that more than one teacher can share equipment and select information while allowing each one to maintain separate records. Account structures, which can include observables such as student groups, observation sets, lessons and so on, are created on the Mac and then downloaded into the Newton using the Macintosh version of Learner Profile. On the Newton, the screen can be divided into three main areas. Student information can be displayed at the top and observation and attendance data in the middle. Various buttons for communicating with the base take up the bottom of the screen. When using the program, an administrative account will carry special privileges and responsibilities while an observer account will be established for each individual who will be using the program.
To access the Learner Profile preferences on the Newton, you simply tap the small Apple icon in the lower centre of the screen. Preferences allow you to select student names and abbreviations, to sort alphabetically, display attendance records or delete data. The Newton MessagePad stores all Learner Profile information according to the way preferences in the Card Dialog in the Extras drawer has been set. If the Store New Item on Card option is ticked, Learner Profile data will be stored on the removable PCMCIA card (like a mini version of a computer's hard disc) rather than in internal memory.
Another optional feature called Organising Observables enables you to group and regroup observations which are created and included in an observation pool. Using observation sets or lesson observations to group data enables you to efficiently select from a related list of entries, compare frequency of use of observables and quickly group observables so bar codes can be printed or downloaded to the Newton for easy use in the classroom. Learner Profile even includes features designed to improve the creation and planning of lessons using observables. Objectives, materials, activities and lesson evaluation can be incorporated into lessons and the entire lesson plan or portions of the lesson may be printed out.
According to Jim Patterson at the Technology and Research Unit (TERU) at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Learner Profile is transforming assessment practice for many teachers. Trials for the product are currently running in around 15 sites: primary and secondary schools, colleges and teacher-education colleges. "The project is helping us establish ways and means to help teachers get on board," says Mr Patterson.
"Learning to use the MessagePad itself takes time but phase one of the Learner Profile trials is looking very interesting and showing us where we need to focus. Some teachers are working in pairs, individually or in subject-based areas and it looks like we'll get a lot of positive information back for further template development.
"While it's still in its early days, it promises to liberate teachers and allow more time to be spent teaching and interacting with learners while raising the observable evidence of achievement."
Learner Profile enables you to collect information that reflects pupil development and learning over time and to more accurately describe levels of competency. And by analysing information over time, teachers can graphically demonstrate the learning process to pupils.
Another positive aspect of Learner Profile on the Newton is that it's not trying to distort practice to fit technology. It provides a means of instant assessment which actually makes teachers feel more confident about what and where pupils are achieving and it could go a long way to helping teacher accountability.
And teachers, unlike most Newton users in other fields, seem to be enjoying the chance to try out the MessagePads.
"We had one primary school decide to buy three more Newtons after just three weeks' use, just to give more people a chance to use them," says Jim Patterson.
"If accountability is to be formative rather than threatening, it is crucial that a teacher can genuinely feel responsible for the teaching and learning environments and be professional in making judgements and collecting evidence. We feel that Learner Profile goes some way to achieving this aim."
Learner Profile is being tested by TERU in a number of centres and further curriculum modules will be available in January, 1996. Meanwhile, Apple is previewing a new operating system for the Newton which finally looks like delivering much of the machine's original promise.
With the power, portability and convenience of emerging software such as Learner Profile, perhaps the Newton MessagePad is finally finding its niche.
* Learner Profileis available from TAG Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU. Tel: 01474 357350