This article was written in November 2003.
Competing Visions of Handheld
Computer Use in the Classroom
by Wesley A. Fryer
The idea of using computers in K-12 classrooms to enhance or even transform
learning is a relatively new one. Until recently, however, access to computers
posed a significant challenge for educational computing evangelists. Desktop
computers have been simply too expensive. Most schools have at least one
computer lab, and teachers may have one or even a small “garden” of classroom
computers, but these limited resources sharply restrict the daily and weekly
computer access time individual students can realize. Hence, the digital
divide continues, where students with a computer at home tend to have more
digital literacy than their peers lacking a home computer. Digital
literacy has largely developed in spite of rather than because of schools,
thanks to families who provide greater access to technology in their homes
than children can find in their schools.
Handheld computers hold promise to change these patterns, however. For the
cost of a pair of tennis shoes, each student in a classroom, school campus,
or entire district can have their own computer: a powerful tool small enough
to literally fit in the palm of their hand. Despite
this exciting potential, relatively few school districts have embraced a
coherent vision of student handheld computer use. Different visions about
the ways handheld computers should be used in K-12 classrooms abound in educational
technology circles, and it is vital for parents, educators, and students
to understand the defining characteristics, assumptions, and goals of these
perspectives. While some of these visions of classroom handheld computer
use may be complementary, some are clearly competitive. The “ideal environments
of teaching and learning” promoted by these visions, and their associated
software products and staff development training programs, can be starkly
QUALITY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT?
The different types of administrative and instructional uses for handheld
computers discussed in this article beg vital questions about teaching and
- What does a quality learning environment look like?
- What does it sound like?
- How should technology be used to shape this environment?
- Should technology define the environment?
- Is technology a fundamental requirement for teaching and learning, or
an optional add-on?
In the early years of the twenty-first century, we are living in an era
where the vision of legislated “educational quality” is very different from
the intuitive sense of educational quality that “the common man/woman” has.
A straightforward way to demonstrate this is to ask a group of adults or
young people to think about one their best instructional memories from elementary
school. Then have them share their memory with someone beside them. Last,
have volunteers share their memory with the group. No one will describe a
fantastic standardized test they took in fourth grade, or an amazing worksheet
they remember from second grade. In fact, none of the memories group members
are likely to recount (possibly decades after the experience for some) will
involve standardized assessment or a didactic, teacher-directed, lecture
experience. Many of the memories will involve some type of classroom lesson
that was essentially experiential. It may have involved the creation of a
project, an interview with someone from the community, or a showcase when
students shared the knowledge they had gained with others. The “quality learning
environment” which allowed students to have long-term memories of lessons
learned may not have used any technology at all.
I do not share this observation to suggest that technology is not needed
in our classrooms to prepare students for their future: My position is actually
the contrary. I share it to point out that discussions about educational
quality in general, or specific programs like those involving handheld computers,
should begin by focusing on first principles. As Ian Jukes has noted, many
schools in our country have attempted for force feed “a curriculum that is
a mile wide and an inch deep” down the throats of children of all ages, and
one result has been countless hours of wasted instructional time long forgotten
by students as well as instructors. As
Dr. Allen Glenn notes, “It is philosophy, not technology, that will make
a difference in your classroom.” A defined vision for the learning environment
should logically precede the adoption of a new technology solution, including
handheld computers used by teachers and/or students.
With these ideas in mind, let us examine some of the competing visions of
handheld computing uses which abound in the educational marketplace today.
VISION 1. COMPUTER ENHANCED ASSESSMENT
One of the most prevalent and popular uses for handheld computers in the
classroom focuses on ways these devices can improve assessment of student
learning. State and national level legislative emphasis on standardized testing
fuels the interest of administrators and school board members in solutions
promising to improve student test scores as well as functional literacy.
Characteristics: A photograph from the Wireless Generation website
communicates this vision effectively: The teacher is holding a handheld computer
as she makes assessment notes about the performance of children in her room,
while the children read books or respond in writing to prompts while she
supervises. Rather than having to wait for tabulated results after assessments
are complete, results are immediately available to the teacher, administrator,
Assumptions: This vision assumes that by better assessing the performance
of every child in a classroom, the educational experience for each will improve.
Most importantly, students not mastering specific grade level expectations
will be identified so they can receive remediation. This vision assumes that
the capability of teachers to individually assess students can be uniquely
enhanced by the use of handheld computing devices and customized software
tailored to the curriculum and standards already used by the classroom teacher.
Example: The software solutions offered by Wireless Generation (www.wirelessgeneration.com/web/)
are one example. According to their website, “Our mobile tools support ongoing
assessment of student performance and help teachers tailor instruction to
each student's needs.” Their “mClass” solutions (including mClass TPRI customized
for the TPRI observational reading inventory utilized—in paper/pencil as
well as electronic forms-- by more than 90% of K-2 classrooms in Texas) allow
teachers to conduct observations of student performance electronically.
Ideal Learning Environment: Students engaged in traditional classroom
literacy activities, supervised and directed by a classroom teacher armed
with a handheld computer. Upon syncing her/his handheld computer, individual
student performance data becomes accessible by the campus administrator,
the teacher for later review, and possibly the parent during scheduled conferences.
VISION 2: MORE CENTRALIZED CONTROL OVER A TEACHER-DIRECTED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
State and national standards for student learning emphasize the importance
of a “student-centered” approach to instruction, yet the majority of classroom
instruction in K-12 contexts continues to be teacher-directed. Technology
tools offer the promise of further engaging students during teacher-directed
lessons, since each student can have his/her own handheld device to manipulate
and provide input immediately visible to the teacher. Teachers can receive
immediate feedback on student performance.
Characteristics: Every learner in the classroom has a handheld or
laptop computing device. Questions pre-selected or previously created by
the teacher are wirelessly sent to student devices for a response, or students
are asked to respond to a question displayed on a television or by a projector.
Every student is engaged in the lesson, and the teacher receives immediate
feedback from student responses.
Assumptions: During teacher-directed lessons (lecture), the level
of student engagement is typically low. By providing each student with an
electronic device, teachers can physically increase student engagement levels
by requiring motor skill activity. Intellectual engagement typically accompanies
physical engagement. Teachers typically share content during a majority of
class time and assess for a smaller amount of time. By utilizing electronic
wireless assessment devices, teachers can assess students more frequently
and receive specific feedback about individual student mastery levels.
Example: Discourse software by Educational Testing Solutions (ETS
– www.ets.org) is an example. Their slogan
for teachers, “You will always know what they know,” implies the aforementioned
assumptions. According to the ETS website, “In a lesson with Discourse, each
student uses a computer to respond to every question and activity. You monitor
each student's response, keystroke by keystroke, on your computer. Discourse
gives you 100 percent student participation and real-time assessment. It
allows you to ‘look over each child's shoulder’ and gain unparalleled insight
into each student's comprehension."
Ideal Learning Environment: Each student in the classroom works independently
and silently, interacting with his/her own wireless computing device as questions
are presented from the keystrokes of the teacher on his/her computer. As
students have questions or respond incorrectly, the teacher can either explain
a correct answer to the entire class or individually to a student. Assessment
can take place much more frequently than in a traditional classroom setting,
and results can be used for remediation as needed.
VISION 3: PAPERLESS CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT
Electronic databases of student information, combined increasing numbers
of families with home access to the Internet, offer the promise of providing
parents with immediate access to dynamic student information. Different types
of student information can be available and manipulated electronically. These
- Attendance data
- Teacher lesson plans
- Student information system data (enrollment information: emergency contact
numbers, transcript of past grades, etc.)
- State assessment data for individual students
Characteristics: Rather than using paper forms to record absences,
lesson plans, or assessment information about students, teachers use electronic
tools. These may include handheld computers and specialized software solutions.
Student information databases may be web enabled, allowing authorized administrators,
teachers, and parents to log in and view data about groups of students and
individual students using a web browser.
Assumptions: By keeping electronic records of student performance,
attendance, etc., both teachers and parents can be better informed about
past/current student behavior and academic performance. Discipline management
options for students who transfer campuses, especially during the school
year, may be enhanced because a more detailed electronic archive of past
incidents and administrative actions is available. In our era of expected
immediacy, parents as well as students appreciate prompt feedback from educators:
including attendance, grades following an academic term, standardized tests,
Examples: Media-X (www.media-x.com)
offers the ePrincipal software solution for classroom teachers and administrators.
This solution can be integrated with a district’s student information system
to provide “complete school and district analysis of student achievement.”
Teachers can use handheld computers (with eTeacher software) to electronically
document their standards-based curriculum planning, assess student performance,
and report on that performance to the administrator and parents. Administrators
can use eVal software to electronically document their formal teacher assessments
as well as informal walk-throughs. Parents can access data about their children
in the district through the MxWeb application, using a web browser on their
home or work computer and district provided login credentials.
Ideal Learning Environment: The learning environment is not necessarily
defined by the use of paperless classroom management tools. Taking attendance
with a desktop computer or handheld computer rather than posting a paper
note outside the classroom door does not require any fundamental changes
in the learning environment. It may be more convenient for parents and teachers
to have attendance, assessment, transcript, and other data at their electronic
fingertips, but this access does not necessarily require or encourage instructional
changes or models.
VISION 4: A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT DEFINED BY AUTHENTICITY
The classroom of the twentieth century was defined predominantly by textbook
learning. In the twenty-first century, sources of information are increasingly
electronic and diverse. Use of handheld technology in the classroom offers
potential for students to engage in learning activities with authentic content,
using authentic tools, in communication with an authentic audience. Like
vision #2 previously mentioned, student engagement is heightened within this
vision by the fact that every classroom participant has his/her own handheld
electronic device. Unlike vision #2, however, students do more than respond
to teacher-directed assessment questions with their handheld. Students access
information, take notes, create electronic concept maps, write articles for
email exchange and web publication, and consistently engage in collaboration
with their classmates as well as teacher.
Characteristics: Each child has his/her own electronic device: either
a handheld computer, keyboarding electronic appliance, or full-blown laptop
computer. The classroom is regularly abuzz with the sounds of collaborative
student learning. Students engage in peer editing and produce collaborative
electronic products. Some are printed for display in the classroom, others
are shared with classmates during student presentations, others are shared
online via email and webblogs. Students regularly evaluate the validity of
electronic information obtained online, and utilize print materials from
the library as well as digital texts. Whole-class mini lessons provide daily
opportunities for the teacher to present information and discuss ideas with
the entire class, while individual and group conferences allow the teacher
to monitor student progress on a variety of independent investigations.
Assumptions: Literacy is a broad concept that goes beyond traditional
textbook based learning. Students learn best when they are engaged with authentic
content for which they have schema (prior knowledge and experience.) Learning
is an essentially social and experiential process. When students publish
for an authentic audience (not just the classroom teacher), intrinsic motivation
and attention to detail increase. Students must learn to use authentic digital
tools in the classroom of today to prepare them for the workforce of tomorrow.
Examples: Mr. Tony Vincent’s “Planet Fifth” website, documenting
the activities of his fifth graders in Omaha, Nebraska, provides an example
of a classroom where handheld computer use is ubiquitous and students learn
in an environment rich with authenticity of many types. One example is “The
Daily Planet” reports by students in his classroom (www.mpsomaha.org/willow/p5/log/log.html).
Using their handheld computer and a digital camera accessory, students record
the major activities of their day with prose and still photography. This
documentation is subsequently published for a global as well as local audience
on their class website. Mr. Vincent’s “Learning in Hand” website (www.mpsomaha.org/willow/p5/handhelds/) documents
many of the techniques and tools he and students utilize in the classroom
with handheld computers.
Handheld software originally developed with National Science Foundation
grant funding at the University of Michigan’s Center for Highly Interactive
Computing in Education (HI-CE) is being utilized in classrooms across the
United States with this final vision in mind. These programs include PicoMap
(concept mapping), Sketchy (visual representation and simulation/animation
tool), and FreeWrite (word processor). These software solutions (previously
freeware) are now available commercially through GoKnow (www.goknow.com). Excellent videos about the
use of these tools are available on http://palm.hice-dev.org/media.htm.
Further examples, including secondary classroom examples, are available on
Apple Computer’s “One to One Learning” website (www.apple.com/education/onetoone).
Ideal Learning Environment: Both teachers and students are engaged
in an ongoing learning process, in which content area and technology skills
are embedded in lesson activities. Classroom instruction is primarily student-centered,
but the role of the teacher is vital in guiding and facilitating learning,
as well as helping assess student work. Assessment is authentic and ongoing.
Expectations of student performance are extremely high. Technology tools
are used transparently throughout the curriculum by students as well as teachers
to support the learning environment. Classroom work is characterized by a
buzz of activity, a high level of intrinsic motivation, and a spirit of discovery
as well as a love of learning on the part of all participants. Students demonstrate
mastery of required knowledge and skills through a variety of assessment
options. Authenticity of content, tools, audience, and assessment prevails.
TOWARD WHAT END?
When considering different potential uses of handheld computers in the classroom,
all educational stakeholders need to begin by asking fundamental questions.
What vision of teaching and learning will be supported by the purchase and
implementation of this new technology solution? Does this vision complement
or compete with the existing vision of teaching and learning which our classroom
/ school / district embraces? The individuals answering these questions must
NOT be limited to the “techies” working for hardware and software companies,
eager to peddle their wares to schools of every flavor. EDUCATORS need
to provide answers to these questions, and if necessary, help provide a guiding
vision for these and other potential purchases.
Research on CERTAIN USES of handheld computers in the classroom provides
reason for both optimism and excitement. Research from SRI published in September
2002 indicates the following:
- 93% of teachers believe handhelds have a positive effect on learning.
- 75% of teachers who let students take Palms home report an increase in
- 72% of teachers said handhelds are easier to integrate into classroom
activities than desktop computers.
- 89% of teachers said handhelds are effective teaching tools.
The purpose of this article is not to reject out of hand any specific technology
products or vendors. Rather, the purpose is to offer a challenge to educators
everywhere to define our visions for teaching and learning, and inform the
visions of our classroom peers and administrators! At the dawn of the twenty-first
century, educational technology evangelists should not merely seek digital
toys which make instruction flashy and more appealing to students, like a
slick PowerPoint with digital video clips. The question we should be asking
is: How can we use instructional technology to positively transform teaching
and learning environments, to prepare students and teachers for the twenty-first
The answer may turn out, literally, to be in the palm of our hands.
Wesley Fryer is the father of three children, including a six year old
who competently uses a Gameboy, a Leapad, and his father’s castoff monochrome
Palm IIIX. Handheld computing devices already figure prominently in the
lives of his children, and seem destined to play an important role in their
formal educational careers also. Several of Wesley’s presentations about
handheld computers in K-12 classrooms are available on www.wtvi.com/teks/handhelds.