Handhelds in the Classroom - Tools for Teachers

A handheld may also be called a handheld computer, handheld PC, pocket PC, or a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). People sometimes refer to them by the manufacturer's name: Palm or Handspring. With most handhelds, users input information with a stylus or a separate keyboard, although a few models have begun to include a thumb-pad keyboard. Generally handhelds use the Palm OS (Palm Operating System) or a Pocket PC version of Windows.

Handhelds are popular because of their portability; however, other features make them invaluable tools. Handhelds can sync (synchronize) data with a desktop computer and share data with other users through infrared ports. Many of them can connect to the Internet wirelessly or through a modem to enable users to pull down information from the Internet or access email. Some models have expansion slots for additional memory or for peripheral equipment, such as digital cameras and scientific probes. Handhelds come with a basic software package, which typically includes "business" applications such as a date book, memo pad, to-do list and address books. The Pocket PC platform has a special version of MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint that sync with desktop computers. Palm Pilots now come with Documents To Go, which also permits users to easily move documents from handheld to computer or back. Additional software titles are available for both operating systems, although there are many more titles for Palm OS. Users can access software that enables them to download and read books, keep track of student grades and make diagrams. Software developers are beginning to recognize the value of this tool in education and are beginning to develop additional applications to help administrators, teachers and students.

Handhelds for Teachers

In the spring of 2001 a group of Beaufort County School District teachers had the opportunity to use handhelds to assist in data collection and management of student learning. The teachers explored assessment strategies and experimented or invented ways in which to use the handheld as a tool. At the end of the school year one teacher commented, "I don't know what I would do without the Palm. The Palm allows me to walk around, monitor and record what I am seeing. This freedom of movement allows me to be a better record keeper, better assessor; and hopefully, a better teacher." Teachers also commented that using the Palm to record observations of student behaviors provided them with a comprehensive picture of learning, yielding formative data that was useful in guiding the development of lessons and activities. Teachers liked having all of their information in one place and appreciated having a tool that they could take anywhere to record or access student information.

In addition to the generally accepted use of each of the basic Palm applications, teachers found creative ways to take advantage of the technology.




º Teachers set alarms to remind them to send students for special services.
º They recorded homework assignments with attached notes that listed details. Students who were absent had the opportunity to check the Palm for missed assignments, or if they had their own Palm, could have the assignment beamed to them.
º Teachers set reminder alarms to go off when the end of the class period was approaching. Time for clean-up!
º In addition to recording scheduled parent conferences, teachers would note impromptu meetings at the grocery store, in the hall or wherever. An attached note would detail the discussion and outcome. This served as a great record of parent contact.
º Teachers recorded lesson plans with attached notes to add detail about materials, equipment or learning strategies.

Address Book

º High school teachers stored parent or guardian contact info for each student and categorized it by class.
º Some teachers documented the outcome of parent meetings using attached notes. Using the shortcut stroke and a date stamp allowed teachers to keep a running record of parent contact on one note.
º Custom fields let teachers track other data, including birthdays and emergency contacts and phone numbers.

To-Do List

º One teacher kept a list of her students in a To-Do list and kept track of which students were to clean the cafeteria tables. She kept the setting to show completed items, and would check and then uncheck student names as they completed their jobs.
º List the steps of a complex activity and check of each step as it is completed. This was especially helpful for teachers who taught the same activity to more than one group of students. A category for each class would keep the To-Do lists separate.
º Use as a modified rubric, listing the behaviors you are looking for. Create a To-Do list for each student by creating a category for each student.


º Create a category for each student (for teachers with small classes) and add daily notes.
º Create a category for each class and have one memo for each student. Record observations about student learning.
º Date each entry using shortcut strokes and date or date/time stamps
º Create shortcuts for commonly used phrases to speed data entry.
º Use memos as a personal learning journal to reflect on and improve learning activities.

Teachers found that using the basic applications was easy and useful, even though there are limitations imposed by force-fitting teacher's needs into business applications. However, there are a growing number of software applications for educators that will increase the utility of the handheld for teachers. Some examples include:

Software Title



Available from:

Handango Teacher Suite

Palm OS & Pocket PC

Three in one: Teacher's P.E.T. grade book & student/class manager, lesson plan organizer, and Thought Manager, a planning tool.


Learner Profile to Go

Palm OS

Student management system that allows teachers to asses students, track assignments and develop rubrics of observable behaviors for assessment.



Palm OS

Assists teachers in conducting running records to assess reading performance in grades K-3. Other reading assessment titles available.

Wireless Generation click on "Products"

PDA Teacher

Palm OS

Student information log, class lists, absentee report, lesson plan template and database, gradebook, disciplinary log.

Palm Education Solutions Click on "Education Software" under "Software Solutions" and then click "Teaching Aids"


Palm OS

Student management software to track assignments, attendance and general status lists for all of your classes. Gradebook applications.

Palm Education Solutions Click on "Education Software" under "Software Solutions" and then click "Teaching Aids"


Palm OS

Syncs SASIxp information to handhelds.

L-Systems, Inc

There are a number of distributors of handheld software. Some titles are available at retail outlets, such as Staples, but more are available as downloads from the Internet. Downloaded software is placed in a folder on the desktop computer, and transfers to the handheld when it is next synchronized.

The handheld is a valuable tool for teachers allowing them to record and access student information and organize the details of teaching in one small, portable device. The handheld easily slips into pocket or pocketbook so data is available anytime, anywhere. The ability to transfer information among users has not been addressed in this article, but opens another avenue of communication among teachers, students and parents. The technology is evolving and brings the promise of more utility for teachers and administrators.

Email: Cyndi Pride