Saturday, December 6, 2003

Schools testing merits of hand-held learning

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nate Taylor (left) gets a hand from Ben Stephens as they use hand-held computers in an eighth-grade Algebra 1 class at Highlands Middle School.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
FORT THOMAS - For the first time this year, about 50 students at Highlands Middle School have their own palm-sized computers. The verdict so far: They're fun but exasperating.

On the plus side, the computers add a game-like quality to learning. Even kids who tend to forget everything - reading assignments, permission slips, their own heads - are religious about keeping track of their hand-helds, teachers say.

On the down side, there's such a thing as too much fun. Early on, teachers had to ban students from using the computers to play favorite tunes like Outkast's "Hey Ya!"

Another thing: Sometimes the devices inexplicably stop working. And the screens measure 3 by 21/2 inches, which can be hard on the eyes.

That doesn't mean these nifty computers won't be used.

"There are problems, but there's always problems when you try a new, innovative program," says Janice Daniel, an eighth-grade math teacher at Highlands.

Her school's insights soon may be relevant to districts across Greater Cincinnati.

For now, laptops are the machine of choice when educators think about portable computing. But among cash-strapped public systems, laptops are too expensive to be widespread. Hand-held computers, which cost about $600 less per unit, are seen as a potential alternative.

Theoretically, they can be used to take notes in class, record teachers' lectures, do homework and even take quizzes. They feature infrared technology that allows files to be transmitted from one computer to another simply by holding the machines side by side.

The Fort Thomas School District received a $30,000 state grant to try the hand-helds with two classes at Highlands Middle School and one at Moyer Elementary this year.

Elsewhere in the region, Finneytown Middle School is testing the computers in one eighth-grade class, and Loveland City Schools use them in elementary through high school.

About $230 apiece, Loveland's units are a less-expensive version of those purchased in Fort Thomas. As prices continue to drop, they may well become a standard school supply, says Loveland Technology Coordinator Trisha Ward.

"They don't take up much space, they do not require extensive wiring, and many (software) applications are free," Ward says.

Loveland youngsters share the computers and use them only in school. They create graphs, write lab reports and draw pictures to illustrate books they're reading.

In Fort Thomas, kids have the computers 24 hours a day. In February, they'll be passed on to a new group of youngsters.

Highlands English teacher Dianne Yelton likes the way they motivate students. She uses them mostly for homework. Kids complete and correct worksheets by typing into the computers.

"It's more fun," says Tyler Miller, 13. "It gets boring when you always have to get up and sharpen a pencil and stuff."

Classmate Blair Adkins, 12, is so into her hand-held that she uses it to track her personal schedule: dance on Mondays, flute on Tuesdays, The Bachelor on Thursdays.

In addition to the seventh-grade English class, Janice Daniel's eighth-grade math class has the computers this semester.

Daniel loves not having to make so many photocopies. And this week, she's testing another trick: As she grades quizzes on her own hand-held, she'll be recording voice messages that students can playback on their machines.

But Daniel also sees some glitches. Students could easily cheat, for instance, by beaming homework to each other's computers via the infrared waves, she says.

Her students aren't entirely sold on the devices, either.

"Homework takes a lot longer than it should. The screen is really sensitive, so there's a lot of typos," says Mandy Lowell, 13.

All of this sounds a bit discouraging to the less technologically gifted at the school.

"I haven't gotten beyond Solitaire, so you know where I am," jokes Sally Walters, an English teacher who has yet to try the hand-helds.

One factor may yet motivate her: her dread of the school's computer lab, which makes her "go berserk" when it crashes.

"That's so frustrating," Walters says. "Middle-school students don't need down time."

Her take on the PDAs: "If it enhances learning, if it saves me time and doesn't add to the burden, I'm all for it, if someone will train me."


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