Thursday, December 30, 2004

What About the Handhelds?

Okay, this blog is titled Handheld Reality Year 1 and there hasn't been much mentioned about handhelds. All our work with classroom webpages coincided with us meeting and investigating the concept of having handhelds in our classrooms. Our principal, and team member, has been a Palm OS user for quite a while. She has a Zire 71 and uses it on a daily basis to keep track of her appointments, set reminders, take pictures, and document workshops and trainings she attends utilizing Documents to Go.

I began to utilize the iPaq I received at NECC for the same things. I liked a lot of the features, especially the way I could "tell" it what my writing was like. The iPaq allowed me to view various ways letters are formed by hand and choose which were similar to the way I write. This was so much easier than having to learn and remember grafitti strokes that were needed for my Sony Clie when I wanted to input text. My iPaq literally became attached to my hip, at least it's case was always hooked to my belt loop and was easily accessible.

When the team met about the webpages, we continued to express an interest in getting handhelds into the hands of students at our school. We felt the concept was cost effective and would enable students to have more options in class. Even with our mobile computer labs, it wasn't possible for all students in one classroom to be working independently on a laptop. There were only 15 in each cart and that always left some students without a computer, even utilizing the desktop models in the classroom.

The big question our team kept asking was, "Which type of handheld do we choose? Palm OS or Pocket PC?" Two of our team members had been utilizing Palm OS handhelds throughout the past year. They both noticed a major issue that caused concern if we placed the Palms in the hands of our students. Both of them had experienced data loss on their handhelds, not only on the handheld itself, but on the memory cards they installed. If their Palm's battery completely discharged, it would dump the memory on the handheld and the memory card. All their items were lost! Yes, they knew all about synching their handhelds, but the fact that the data was completely DUMPED on a battery's discharge was frightening.

For this reason, and the fact that we had all been introduced to Pocket PC's through ISTE, we began our research. One issue I was concerned with was students' keyboarding skills. We didn't have a computer class in place at our school, although we did have a full computer lab for student use. When I used the laptops in my classroom for writing activities, students took quite a long period of time using the "hunt and peck" method when typing. This had the potential to become a larger issue when handhelds were incorporated, especially if we wanted to utilize them in place of pencil and paper tasks.

Our research led us from wireless keyboards to thumbboards. These are small keyboards which attach to the bottom of a handheld and allow text input by utilizing the user's thumbs. Knowing that the thumb is "THE" digit of our video game generation of students, we felt that purchasing Pocket PC's with thumbboards would be the way to go.

In addition to our personal experiences, we contacted speakers we had listened to at NECC about their experiences with handhelds. For the most part, we found that many who had begun by using Palm, began to switch over to Pocket PC's for various reasons. We never got definitive answers from people as to which they would recommend for a startup program like we were designing.

Palm OS has been around for a long time and the majority of programs were written specifically for their systems. Many of the freeware and shareware programs were also for Palm, although Pocket PC's were starting to build an impressive library of programs too.

Our principal began compiling a proposal to present to our school district in order to fund the project. When she plans, she plans BIG! I guess she figures it doesn't hurt to go for everything you can dream of using. In addition to the handhelds, the proposal included a projector, a Margi, digital cameras for the handhelds, a laptop computer, and many other items. We were traveling yet another path that would lead to change.

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