October 16, 2002
IN THE CLASSROOM
Education Is Put in Hands of Teenagers
Youths in Palmdale are given Palm Pilots to help with assignments. But some researchers say gadgets won't improve student performance.
By David Pierson, Times Staff Writer
Zera Sanford holds her education in the palm of her hand--with a Palm Pilot.
As part of a technology experiment, Highland High School in Palmdale gave her and 31 other students hand-held computers to keep track of homework, download research material and complete classroom assignments. They are part of a growing national trend at high schools to use similar devices, the size of a calculator with a 2 1/2 inch-by-2 inch screen.
With a pencil-sized pointer, users can write on the screen or tap on it to open programs and issue commands. At close range, messages can be beamed from one hand-held computer to the next, much like a wireless pager. The computers can store textbooks, even though some say the screens are too small to read.
"It's not just an expensive notebook," Sanford said while beaming a message to a friend. "I don't see why anybody would pass the opportunity to use one of these."
School spending on hand-held computers, whether Palm Pilots, Handsprings or other brands, is predicted to increase from $5 million during the 2000-01 school year to $310 million by 2005-06, according to a study by International Data Corp., a market research company.
Hand-held computers cost as little as $99 and are considered a less fussy option to lap-tops, which generally cost more than $1,000. Highland's hand-held program cost $4,000 for 35 devices and was paid for by the Antelope Valley Union High School District's educational technology office.
"The way you get productivity out of technology is when it's ubiquitous," said Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has developed educational software for the hand-held computers.
"Education changed when every kid was given a paper book," he said. "Education will change again when every kid has a computer, and the only way to do that is with a hand-held computer" because of its low cost.
At Highland High, the Palm Pilots are being tested on students in Spanish teacher Jim Trumps' class. The instructor has the technological savvy and passion that experts say is essential to getting new computer programs up and running. Trumps, who pitched the hand-held computer idea to the school district, designed his own Web site where students can check their grades and download assignments.
"The problem with lap-tops is students have to carry them from class to class and they already have 70 pounds of books ... ," Trumps said. "But kids don't mind holding Palm Pilots. You can do most of the work on a hand-held that you would do on a lap-top."
The Antelope Valley district has had a lap-top program for five years. Currently, 600 of the district's 20,000 students carry lap-tops they own or borrow from the schools. Kent Tamsen, director of educational technology, said the Palm Pilots might replace lap-tops, but a study first must determine the effects both technologies have on student achievement.
In the four weeks since Trumps distributed the hand-held computers for students to keep for the school year, he's had them draw a comic strip on the device with dialogue in Spanish. He's beamed questions and answers for quizzes. And every day the children plug their Palm Pilots to a platform connected to a desk-top computer that downloads media Web sites and study guides.
"I've been reading a lot more," said 14-year-old Danielle Edwards. "When I'm bored, I study my Spanish vocabulary [on the Palm Pilot]. I also never used to check the news and weather, but now I do it all the time."
But some researchers say the technology is doomed to disappoint because not enough teachers will be properly trained to use the devices. They warn that some schools have spent lavishly on technology in the past -- such as on educational television -- without ever showing higher achievement.
Teachers "are hardly given any technical assistance and professional help to integrate the technology into daily classes," said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of "Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom."
Educational psychologist Jane M. Healy , the author of "Failure to Connect--How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds," questioned whether the hand-helds would improve children's behavior. She said hiring qualified teachers and reinvigorating marginalized programs such as the arts and athletics are "far more important than an electronic toy."
Palm Inc., which manufactures the devices used by Trumps' class, says it holds 82% of the education market. Since 2000, the Milpitas, Calif.-based company has given out $2.3 million worth of the equipment to learn more about how to market the product. Though not at Highland, the hand-held computers have been given to schools in Berkeley and Lennox, Calif., as well as to schools in New Jersey, West Virginia and Nebraska.
Mike Lorion, vice president of education at the company, said teachers can use the Palm Pilot to see what class a student wandering the hallways should be in. Teachers can follow text displayed on a hand-held being read aloud by a student and highlight words that were mispronounced. Instantly, the child has a note of what needs improvement.
However, Bob Moore, vice chairman of the Consortium of School Networking, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes computer technology in schools, thinks the computer that works best for students will have to be a happy medium between a hand-held and a lap-top.
"It's a promising technology," he said of hand-helds. "The one thing I'm concerned with is the small screen. How usable is it? It's good for calendars and contacts, but how useful is it for kids and teachers?"
Predictably, students have found their own uses for the devices.
Though this has not happened in Trumps' classroom, stories abound about students elsewhere downloading software that enables them to switch on and off televisions and power VCRs to the dismay of unsuspecting teachers. They download games such as "Dope Wars," a strategy game in which the player must outsell computer opponents in make-believe drugs.
Trumps warns his students that if he finds one of them playing games in his or another teacher's class, he'll take the device away.
The computers also have created a social fabric. One of Trumps' first assignments was for the class to exchange phone numbers. Students who never spoke to each other before now call each other several times a week to gossip and talk about schoolwork.
"We're more organized," said 14-year-old Clarrisa Camacho. "We're learning new stuff while communicating with each other."