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Beaming across the divide

Not only could the neat, handheld computers favoured by business improve teaching and learning, they might bridge the digital divide, suggest David Wright and David Perry

As personal digital assistants (PDAs) become more powerful, their value for education is starting to be investigated. Last year, a Becta project, Handheld Computers (PDAs) in Schools, evaluated the use of PDAs and pinpointed real value in their use to assist administration, support classroom management and enable personal and group learning. A Becta leaflet outlines project highlights and a report is being launched at the Education Show, at the NEC, Birmingham, this week.

A range of PDAs was used by more than 150 teachers in 30 schools, with pupils being given about 100 devices. Teachers have similar needs to the business community, the traditional market for these devices, so most are enthusiastic about the technology. Users in the project praised the PDAs'

efficiency in ensuring contact lists, diaries and meeting arrangements were kept up to date and fully synchronised across a management team or even the school's entire staff. They also valued that these functions were instant.

Headteachers and senior management teams also responded positively to a PDA, as did technicians, administrators and site managers.

Russell Moon, headteacher of Philip Morant School and College, Colchester, says: "I co-ordinate my diary between my personal assistant and myself and have no paper diary anymore - all my tasks are on the PDA and are all under control. I can manage tasks better and can give tasks to staff."

Philip Edwards, a teacher at Cwmaber Junior School, in Abertridwr, near Caerphilly, is just as impressed: "I'm 100 per cent convinced (a PDA) has enabled me to become a more effective teacher," he says. "If there was a deadline to lose, I lost it. If there was an important phone number I'd need later, it would have to be tattooed on to my body. Now I know where every detail of my life can be found."

Organisation is also a factor for pupils. Comments reported to Becta included: "If I didn't have the PDA, I'd probably forget my work"; "There is more room to write what the homework is in the PDA than there is in the planner, so you write better notes"; "People don't always bring their homework planner, but no one ever forgets their PDA"; and "I'm not very good with my homework, but when I put it into the PDA and turn it on when I get home, it's telling me to do my homework."

But there are other uses for PDAs besides co-ordination:

* wireless networking can provide access to the resources of a network from anywhere on site;

* PDAs are invaluable for email, especially for schools that are using it for most communication;

* purpose-designed software can enable teachers to record class attendance on PDAs, which can be transmitted to the head so that 10 minutes after a lesson has begun, heshe knows class sizes.

One of the most popular features of the handhelds is their ability to share information via an infrared link; "beaming", as it is known. This instantly shares documents, notes, images, contacts, tasks or appointments between teachers and pupils; teachers can beam homework tasks or other documents to a class knowing they will not be lost or "eaten by the dog".

The full potential for PDA use in class is only just developing. Many education-specific applications exist and some is "shareware" or "freeware" that can be downloaded via the Web. But some teachers are already making impressive use of their devices. Mike Rutherford, from Durham Johnston School, says: "My PDA has become my first, best reference tool and I would never go without one now. It is my instantly accessible encyclopedia, thesaurus, periodic table, diary, registermark book, world map and even star chart."

Others appreciate their instant accessibility. The PDA opens up opportunities for ICT to be at the heart of teaching and learning, instead of an experience many students find devoid of context and real applications. Like a wireless laptop, the PDA can be used with the lesson to change the culture and approach to ICT.

For pupils, the PDA appears to have built-in "coolness" similar to that of mobile phones. Certainly, giving one to children lights up their enthusiasm. Pupils reported: "I thought it was a bit boring when it was just an organiser, but when I found out people were beaming stuff, I was very interested"; "When I first started school I hated it, then I got the PDA and it doesn't bother me now"; "I think I'll still be more interested in computers when we don't have the PDAs"; and "It's a very full hour - time flies with the PDAs as you are having fun."

Such positivity could be the "toy effect" or perhaps it's the fact that PDAs are an appropriate size to interface with children. However, unlike mobile phones, there have been no reported problems with security or loss of these devices.

Ubiquitous computing means "wherever, whatever" processing; it is being able to carry a personal computing device with you and use it as a personal, dedicated resource without restrictions. With the cost of some models starting at around pound;75, it is becoming feasible to consider equipping every member of staff and pupil with a PDA; one LEA is seriously considering a leasing scheme for key stages 2 and 3. Although not intended to replace PCs, PDA devices appear to be a "bridge" - between classroom and ICT suite, school and home, and between teachers, pupils and families.

Could this be a solution to the digital divide?

Becta reports and research

Other projects and reports

Getting A Handle on Handhelds, 2001:


Usability and accessibility of PDAs in Education:

Palm Education: www.palm.comeducation

Palm Education Pioneers Programme evaluation reports:

Adapting PDAs for people with impaired speech:

Win a Palm Zire in our caption competition (p5)

David Wright is an education officer at Becta and David Perry is a consultant and author of Handheld Computers (PDAs) in Schools

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