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PDAs may solve digital divide, finds Becta report

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) could be the only realistic way to achieve ubiquitous computing in British schools, as well as overcome the digital divide, suggests a British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) report.

The report, Handheld Computers (PDAs) in Schools commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, says the "strikingly low" prices of PDAs, from pound;75, mean some schools and local education authorities are now "seriously considering equipping all pupils with them". Laptops start at about pound;600.

The evaluation project equipped leadership teams in 27 schools with Compaq iPaq handheld computers, while two secondary and two primary schools each received a class set of either Palm m130s or iPaqs.

Even the simplest device had a could significantly help teachers - particularly heads and senior managers - deal with workloads, said the report, which is launched at the Education Show 2003 in Birmingham this week. It found many users liked the way PDAs ensured "simple things such as contact lists, diaries and meeting arrangements were kept up to date and fully in synchronisation across a management team or the school's whole staff". Responses from classroom teachers were more mixed, but many were enthusiastic about PDAs' potential.

Users liked the small size of the devices, the instant-on capability, longer battery-life than laptops, the quantity of data that could be stored and the ability to "beam" information to other PDAs. The weaknesses named included small screen size, printing difficulty and fragility.

The report also examined how the technology could support teaching and learning and said its potential to help staff teach or pupils learn was less clear. But it said some "very positive examples are emerging". The devices have many small, classroom-specific applications, but it takes a lot of time and experimentation to find and evaluate them, thinks author David Perry.

All schools participating in the project agreed on the motivational effect of PDAs: "Giving children a PDA lights up their enthusiasm... there is potential here to be exploited by, for example, targeting disaffected boys." Fifty per cent of pupils surveyed undertook collaborative learning when using PDAs, which the report said was appreciated by students and teachers. There is also potential for using the devices to develop home-school links, it says.

* Becta's report an be read at www.becta.org.uk See page 28 for David Perry's feature on the project

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