Handheld Hints

Are you intrigued with the concept of handheld technology, but do not know anyone using handhelds in his or her classroom? I asked around in my local community and found no one could give me the name of a teacher using handhelds. I searched online for local school districts implementing handhelds and came up empty. Then I asked other educators at an international teaching conference and got a common answer: contact Tony Vincent, a fifth grade teacher from Nebraska, who has been using handhelds since 1999. Tony Vincent is considered the “Heloise of Handheld Technology”, because he has shared many helpful hints for handheld uses in the classroom. His classroom Web site, Planet 5th has a comprehensive “Learning in Hand” section that features freeware applications, activities, and management ideas. There is an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page for educators who are interested in the handheld experience.

Janet Coughlin and Tony Vincent are co-authors of the Handhelds for Teachers & Administrators (2003) book produced by Tom Snyder Productions. This book comes complete with an easy to use guide, lesson plans for using handhelds across the curriculum, and a CD with cross-curricular applications for students and teachers. Talk about engagement! My 12-year-old son and I played late into the night with our handhelds loaded with the variety of applications found on this CD.

My fascination with these miniature computers began this past January at FETC (Florida Educational Technology Conference), where I observed a multitude of teachers and technology coordinators visiting a vendor section called the palmOne Neighborhood. Perhaps it had something to do with the free raffle give away if you visited all of the stations and got enough stickers on your card. One of the merits of handhelds is that they’re relatively inexpensive tools which cost from $99 to just under $400.00. A school could initially purchase more handhelds per student than desktop or laptop computers. The software is less expensive and there are thousands of freeware applications that can easily be integrated into the existing curriculum.

What “gameboy generation” student would not be excited about using a handheld computing device in the classroom? I was very impressed with a set of four applications from Go Know, Inc. (www.goknow.com), whose Handheld Learning Environment (HLE) software includes FreeWrite, Sketchy, FlingIt! & PiCoMap. There were also many peripherals available, such as the wireless keyboards, probeware for science experiments, and classroom set chargers. OK, by this time I was ready to invest in a classroom set myself, because I could see how these devices could become useful instructional tools in the classroom.

I was ready to talk with someone who had actually worked with handhelds in the classroom and that is where Tony Vincent came in. I was impressed that he had been using handhelds since 1999. Tony spoke with me about the early history of one-to-one computing that began with the Apple Newton, which came out in 1993. In 1996, business people began using handhelds as personal organizers. In 1998, Hi-CE, the University of Michigan’s Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education, backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation, began developing freeware. When the NSF funding terminated, the freeware moved over to GoKnow, Inc. and can be seen at their Handheld Learning Environment.

Tony began using his personal handheld as an organizer when he began teaching in 1997. He began hinting around at school that he wanted a set of laptops for his classroom. Instead, district officials approached Tony with the offer of a class set of handhelds for testing purposes. Tony also credits Hi-CE’s Elliot Solloway for talking with his school district officials about exploring the use of handhelds in the classroom. The research question posed was “How can handheld computers in the classroom improve teaching and learning?” Tony agreed to participate and began writing an innovative plan to use handheld computers in his classroom. He knew he wanted to use them for writing projects, so he also requested the keyboards.

Why are handhelds so intriguing? Tony explained that the software applications are great and the device offers anytime, anywhere learning. It would appear that the “gameboy generation” thrives on the one-to-one aspect of handheld computing. His students actually construct their own learning. One example is the abacus application, in which the students discover how to use an abacus by using the program. This engages and hooks the students to want to know more about the abacus. The next step is for them to read about how the abacus was invented and used. Thus they are acquiring knowledge on a need-to-know and motivated basis. Tony has created a list of activities that range from animating animal cell movements and solving mysteries to creating a database of famous Americans.

How can handhelds be used in the curriculum? Tony knew that he wanted to encourage and motivate students to write. Every school day, he assigns a student to become the roving reporter of the Daily Planet. Meaningful Writing Experiences through Handheld Technology describes the process. Also, learn about an average day in Tony’s classroom for some students by viewing Photo Essays).

What are common concerns with handheld use? Okay, by now you are curious about the management of handhelds. How do I handle these handhelds? is a common question. You’ll find answers at Classroom Management.

The page covers processes from simple to complex, such as: charging and synchronizing the Palms, troubleshooting, how to get parents on board to support handheld use at school and home, classroom management ideas, and how Tony addresses concerns of inappropriate use.

Where can teachers find the free software applications for the Palms? In Tony’s class I download – and then beam to students – many freeware applications from the Internet, which can be found on the Planet 5 th website. The number of educational applications for handhelds has doubled every year, and there are now about 20,000. Interdisciplinary freeware such as Hungman (Spelling), Nine Colours (Art), Converter (Math), and SAT Hangman (Reading Vocabulary) can be viewed at Palm OS Applications. Teacher applications such as BeamPro, which can beam more than one file at a time, HanDBase, which creates custom databases, and NamePick, which chooses items randomly from a list and is great for calling on students, can be viewed at Teacher Applications. Tony’s class made a wish list for new software appropriate to the fifth-grade curriculum, and it can be viewed at Classroom Palm Wish List.

What are the most important lessons for teachers to understand before bringing handhelds into the classroom? Tony says, “You cannot be afraid to learn from your students. Also don’t be afraid to change the technology management rules if you find something that will work better. The best way to do it is to speak with the students and let them know that they will help you find the best way to use the handhelds in their classroom. Another piece of advice is to network with others who are doing the same thing. It is really wonderful that the Internet came before the handheld, because now teachers have an anytime, anywhere support system in place with an anywhere, anytime instructional tool.”

Want to know more about handhelds? Click on “On the Web” to read articles, tutorials, and lesson plans that integrate technology using handhelds Another good place to start is the handheld page of “lead: Learning Educational Administration from a Distance”.

Email:Tony Vincent and Jerry Woodbridge