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Volume 19, Number 5
September/October 2003

How Handhelds Can Change the Classroom


Technology has long promised to have a significant impact on K-12 education. Each new wave of innovation—mainframes, timesharing, desktops, the Internet—rekindles those expectations. Sadly, K-12 schools are still waiting for the long-promised results. Indeed, while the Internet has brought about positive changes in many areas of everyday life, including in commerce and government, K-12 education has gotten precious little value from it.

The arrival of a new generation of technology—handheld computers—also raises skeptical questions about the potential impact of these powerful tools: given our poor track record, why should anyone believe the technology enthusiasts? What is so different about handheld computers?

Since 1999, we have worked with more than 1,000 students in K-12 classrooms around the country exploring the strengths and weaknesses of handheld computers for teaching and learning. As a result, we believe the promise of handheld computers will be realized because they effectively address the concerns of teachers. What follows are some of the reasons based on what we have identified in our research and in conversations with teachers.

Productive Learning Activities

Handhelds can make a range of productive learning activities easier or more interesting for students. For example, in numerous classrooms, we have seen how using handhelds encourages children as they write and revise. Why? No magic here: it's all about access. Since handhelds are literally ready-to-hand, access to documents is a tap away. In contrast, if a child writes on one of the few available classroom computers—or writes in the computer lab—that child needs to go back to the original computer (or the network, if available) to revise. In short, getting back to that original document is seldom easy. (Keyboards made especially for handhelds can and should be provided. While children will use a stylus to write a short paragraph, they will not write significant-sized documents unless they are using a keyboard.)

Collaboration is easier, too. Artifacts are the bridges that sustain extended collaboration. But the need to exchange paper-based artifacts can limit collaboration. Similarly, if documents on a computer are not readily accessible to all members of a team, collaboration is hampered. But with handhelds, a team member can "beam" a document in seconds to the peer's handheld. In the FreeWrite text editor developed by the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education (HI-CE) at the University of Michigan, we have built in "exchange beam" where, in one action, a pair of students can swap documents. Similarly, peer editing becomes easy to do: beam, review, and beam back.

Reviewing notes for a test is made easier with handhelds. "Mom, have you seen . . . ?" is a typical student question at review time, but if the notes are on the handheld computer that goes everywhere with the student, that is no longer is a problem.

Handhelds also can improve assessment by archiving a digital portfolio of a child's work. In a typical classroom, a child will do some work on paper and some on computer. Since there is no central, cumulative repository for that work, it is hard to assess how much how much learning takes place as reflected in a child's work over the school year. However, if all the work a child does—from notetaking to group projects—is done on the child's handheld, then there is a permanent record that can be periodically inspected and reviewed. (Clearly, work produced on a handheld computer must be backed up, since there will inevitably be crashes and lost files. We return to this issue later.)

In trying to sell teachers on the value of handhelds, technology enthusiasts have usually made a couple of mistaken arguments.

Mistake #1: Handheld computers have a number of super features. Yes, but. . . . Schools don't want technology, they want curriculum. Teachers and students are not evaluated based on the number of computers or speed of access to the Internet they have but on the learning that takes place using those computers' access to the Internet. It is curricular needs that should drive the use of ­technology.

Mistake #2: In order to use this new technology, teachers need to change their instructional practices completely. In the early days of computing, some version of that sentence was used to introduce and close professional development workshops. Today, in introducing handhelds in a professional development workshop, we start by quoting Silicon Valley strategist Geoffrey Moore: "Evolution, not revolution." We suggest that teachers use their existing curriculum and existing instructional strategies—with just a little change. For example, if teachers use concept mapping as a learning activity, we suggest that they do that activity using PicoMap, a concept mapping application on a PalmOS or PocketPC-based handheld. In using PicoMap, the teachers can have the children collaborate (e.g., two students work together on a concept map) or peer edit (e.g., one student critiques the concept map of another student) by using the infrared beaming function. With one tap of the stylus, a student can send a concept map to the handheld of another student in 2 or 3 seconds. Success breeds confidence. Based on the success of this activity, teachers may be willing to change their instructional practices a bit more to benefit from the technology.

Managing Handhelds

Managing devices, students, and artifacts when 30 children use handhelds for classroom activities is a challenge. Limited access to technology (e.g., 1 or 2 computers in a classroom or a computer lab down the hall) certainly increases the burden on the teacher to effectively manage a scarce resource. But does 100 percent access to handhelds also burden teachers? The potential is there. While the barriers to initial use of handhelds is low, scaling up to 100 percent use needs to be done with careful planning.

There are two models for managing handheld devices in the classroom. In the "rotational model," students are given a handheld computer for a specific task during the school day, such as a concept-mapping activity. The handheld is collected after the activity. The burden for managing the devices falls on the teacher, and it is an onerous one: charging or swapping batteries on 30 student devices is time consuming.

We prefer the "personal model," in which students get a handheld for the entire school year. They may be allowed to take it home after an initial in-school-only period. Will students steal the units or sell them for drugs? Will students drop the units or mistreat them? In four years, these potential concerns have remained just that—potential concerns. With the personal model, we have found that the children take ownership and respon­sibility for their units.
Based on our experiences, teachers who adopt the personal model will want to use a document management system. During the school year, students may generate 100 or more documents on their handhelds, not counting revisions and intermediate versions. What happens when one of the boys in the class puts the 29th game on his handheld and locks it up so that a hard reset is needed and all the documents are lost? And how does a teacher retrieve Assignment #4 from each of the handhelds, grade them, and provide individualized feedback? And how does a teacher distribute a book report form to each student? Frankly, infrared beaming works for quick, one-shot sharing, but not for class-level, secure movement of ­documents.

That's where a document management system can help. Since it is still early in the deployment of handhelds in classrooms, there are few such programs available. However, one-the Pocket Artifact and Assessment Manager (PAAM) we helped develop-runs in a web browser.

Students put their handhelds into a cradle attached to a desktop computer and the PAAM retrieves all the documents and sends them over the Internet to a server, where they are safely backed-up. Teachers (or parents or principal) can then view the documents in a web browser; the teacher can send comments about the document back to the student using PAAM.

(From Go Know,, you can download, free of charge, several educational applications for the PalmOS handhelds. A comparable set of applications for the PocketPC platform can be downloaded at

The Access Issue

Though U.S. schools have spent billions of dollars on computing technologies, there still is a fundamental problem with access. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the ratio of students to computers is 5.4 to 1 in general, and 9 to 1 in urban settings, which is far lower than is necessary for technology to have a significant impact. And of the teachers we have surveyed, 60 percent say that they have a single computer or none at all in their classrooms. Technology can't have an impact if children aren't using the technology.

However, individual access to low-cost handheld computers is conceivable. This past July, the Michigan legislature, following the example of Maine, appropriated $40 million to provide every sixth grader in Michigan-approximately 132,000 students-with a personal wireless computer. For the $300 per student the legislature is making available, laptops are not a viable option, but handheld computers are. Over the next three years, most states will pass similar measures. By the end of this first decade, we could ensure that all public-school students have their own handheld computers to use in class and at home. If we do, K-12 schools will finally begin to reap the benefits long promised by modern computing technologies.

Cathleen A. Norris is a professor at the University of North Texas's College of Education, where she researches how to integrate learning technologies more effectively into classrooms. Elliot Soloway is a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education, the School of Information, and the College of Engineering. He is a cofounder of the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education (HI-CE), which explores the use of computing and communications technologies in project-based science classrooms.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education, University of Michigan, School of Education, 610 E. University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1259; tel: 734-647-4805; email:

    GoKnow. 912 N. Main St., Suite 100, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; tel: 800-203-3412; fax: 734-929-6622; email:

    C. Norris, J. Smolka, and E. Soloway. "Extracting Value from Research: A Guide for the Perplexed." Technology & Learning 20, no. 11 (June 2002), 45-48.

    U.S. Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: Author, 2000.