George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Handhelds: A Valuable Technology Tool for Student Teachers

Three educational-technology students tell prospective teachers how to make handheld computers work for them.

September 1, 2001
Credit: Paula Monsef

College students studying to become teachers can make their professional lives run more smoothly -- as well as get a head start on learning how to engage students -- with a very compact, easy-to-use electronic organizer known as a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).

Wearing a PDA in a clip case attached at the waist or on a tether around the neck, teachers can electronically jot down their observations about individual students as they walk around a classroom. They can input grades. They can coordinate schedules with colleagues who own PDAs. They can read papers on the run. They can share lesson plans while passing each other in school corridors.

The PDA, such as the Palm, Handspring Visor, or Rim Blackberry, generally includes at least a name and address database, to-do list, and notetaker. PDAs typically use a pen to tap selections on menus and to enter printed characters, although they can include a small, onscreen keyboard that is tapped with the pen. Prices for PDAs range from just over $100 to $500.

Price, size, convenience, organizational abilities, and new software capabilities help explain the growing popularity of PDAs among veteran teachers and those -- known as preservice teachers -- studying to enter the profession. The allure is enhanced by a rapidly proliferating range of peripherals and enhancement tools that include keyboards that fold to five inches and miniscule modems that permit receipt of e-mail and access to the Internet.

Here are some other applications especially useful to preservice teachers:


Calendar Management

Education students need a calendar for a variety of reasons, such as scheduling classes and observation times out in schools and noting deadlines for papers, projects, appointments, and class-related activities. The calendar function on a PDA is used in the same way as a day planner but with the ease of just popping open the PDA and the additional time-saving capability of "hot syncing" -- moving the data from the PDA datebook to a desktop or laptop computer. Some models also have the ability to "beam" datebook items to colleagues who have the same models, a handy capacity for members of a preservice team or other group whose schedules may coincide or who need to coordinate appointments or projects.

Example: Setting Up a Team Planning Meeting

Six preservice teachers need to get together to make exploration kits for students for a health unit. Each preservice teacher needs to buy certain food items and bring them to the meeting to be assembled into kits for third-grade teams. The challenge is to find a time when all the preservice teachers can meet and make sure the meeting is scheduled with enough time left so they can pick up the items at the grocery store.

Someone offers to be the team leader and set up the meeting. The others simply put the times they are able to meet in their calendars and then beam their week's schedule to the team leader. By looking at the composite week's calendar showing the available blocks of time for all team members, the team leader can tell when the schedules overlap and when a common meeting time is available.

The team leader then sets the schedule on his/her own calendar and either beams it back to all members, if they are still in the same room, or sends them the notice of the meeting time on e-mail. In the former instance, each person's calendar will automatically reflect the meeting; in the latter case, each person will add the event to his/her own calendar. Either way, this is a more efficient approach than trying to coordinate varying schedules with paper calendars! Now each person knows when to meet to bring the food items to organize the exploration kits for the third graders' health lesson!

Sharing Documents and Document Portability

Preservice teachers sometimes need to create and edit written information on a portable PDA because they can't get to their desk computer. Notes can be taken on a PDA during observations or class periods while in K-12 classes as well as during university lectures, especially with the help of the folding, portable keyboard. The memos and notes can be synced -- sent back -- to the desktop for completion at home at the end of a busy day! They also can be synced back to the PDA and printed or "beamed" to other PDA users.

Some software allows users to create and edit full documents as word processing files on PDAs. Preservice teachers can, using this add-on software, start research papers at home on the desktop, sync them to the PDA, and continue working on the papers while on campus or enroute, then dump them back into the home computer.

Development of tests and grading of tests and papers also are uses of the add-on document software. Tests can be developed, and electronically submitted papers can be graded anytime, anywhere, by syncing student work -- which can be submitted as either electronic files or e-mail attachments -- to the teacher's PDA. They can be sent back and forth between PDAs and desktop or laptop computers.

Other software allows users to turn the PDA screen into a drawing pad, either for scratching out quick reminders or drawing. Preservice teachers report using the drawing software to draw ideas for bulletin boards, classroom rearranging, and spatial directions. If they see something on television or elsewhere that they would like to re-create, they do a rendering onto their PDA.

Example: Reading and Grading Papers

The preservice teacher does a unit on bicycle safety in a sixth-grade classroom as part of his/her own coursework in the teacher training program. The unit requires the sixth graders to review a set of Internet links on bicycle safety and do independent research on the nature of injuries, types of equipment, and "rules of the road." Each student is to prepare an essay using word processing and, working in teams, collaboratively design and develop a Web page to serve as a resource on bicycle safety.

Each sixth grader sends the preservice teacher an e-mail with his/her document attached. The teacher then syncs each student's document to the PDA, giving the teacher the flexibility of working anywhere -- carpool, student union, university hallway -- while waiting for class to begin. Using a tracking feature, the preservice teacher or student reviewers can provide feedback to the writer within the document.

When grading is completed, the preservice teacher has a number of options regarding the route that the graded work gets back to the students: e-mail via the PDA, e-mail via the desktop or laptop with or without attachment, or printed version.

Example: Professional Collaboration Using Shared Files

With special software, preservice teachers sitting in class or anywhere on campus can use their PDAs to work on joint papers and collective projects, including data-filled documents like budgets. Each preservice teacher can share his/her portion of a document with the team leaders for joint submission and/or for peer review. The ability to pass projects among team members electronically increases the ease with which information is shared.

Example: Expense Account Management

The preservice teacher is asked by a first-grade teacher to help students determine the type, amount of goods needed, and cost for a tent for the reading area. The preservice teacher is to follow up by buying the items and submitting receipts for reimbursement. Using a pocket version of a financial planning program, expenses can be tracked and divided by categories. By hot syncing, the information can then be tracked on the desktop and printed for submission for reimbursement almost immediately.

Example: Tracking Expenses From a Conference

Some preservice education programs require or encourage preservice teachers to participate in professional conferences. In some cases, the university training program provides reimbursement for items related to the conference. PDAs have features allowing for the easy tracking and documenting of expenses. Categories may include mileage, meals, airfare, taxi, car rental, hotel, and incidentals.

Example: Sharing PowerPoint® Files

Four preservice teachers are going to give a presentation on use of digital cameras for engaged-learning projects to the teachers in the elementary school where they are doing their participatory activities. Together they have determined their outline for the two-hour workshop that will include a PowerPoint® presentation on various digital cameras, followed by examples of lesson plans and activities that require the students in the elementary school to use the digital cameras.

Each of the four preservice teachers has worked out his/her own PowerPoint® file for the individual presentations. However, the preservice teachers need to be sure that their presentations are consistent in approach. With special software, they can review each other's PowerPoint® files on their PDAs wherever they happen to be. They can hot-sync the files back to their desktops, and, chatting or using e-mail, make changes.

Classroom Assistance and Data Handling

Preservice teachers, especially those in project-based classrooms, need to know how to manage information efficiently and quickly. Many teachers hang their PDAs around their necks so they are handy for recording quick notes. Preservice teachers whose assignments include making written observations about individual students or groups of students have an easy way to record the information with a PDA. Software designed specifically for teachers can aid the process, as can software and a camera that allows users to take photos and make notes on the same screen.

Example: Assigning Classroom Work Groups

A preservice teacher working in a ninth-grade history class has been asked to help the classroom teacher arrange teams or work groups for an assignment on understanding the polling process. He spends several periods over numerous days watching students as they work in different groups on various assignments. Using the PDA that dangles from his neck, he posts short observations that he will review and consider later. Using a few questions based on grouping research, he asks students some carefully chosen questions and records their answers in a word-processing document on his PDA.

Later, he sits at the side of the room, using his PDA and his folding keyboard, and writes more about specific classroom comments and events. At the end of each day, he reviews his log of notes and observations, looking for themes and patterns. When he is about ready to prepare a report for the history teacher, he prepares a word-processing document on his desktop computer and then downloads the final draft onto his PDA. The next day he reads it one more time on his way to the school and makes corrections. At school, he beams his final version to the history teacher's PDA for the teacher to review over the weekend. On Monday, they will collectively consider how to structure the work groups for the upcoming polling project.

Example: Documentation of Group Work on a Class Project

A preservice teacher oversees work groups of high school math students developing different three-dimensional trigonometry projects that are supposed to demonstrate visualization of a concept, problem-solving, and collaboration. A camera and software made for the PDA documents the project -- from the initial work group planning meeting, to construction, and on to presentation of the final product to the entire class. Using other software, the preservice teacher and the students are able to create a day-by-day log of the process. Once hot-synced to the desktop, the log is ready to be published on the Web, available for others to learn from. An important part of the process includes the visuals collected each day, along with immediate feedback and opportunity for self-evaluation on product and process. The final visual story can be used to review the process and allow for group review and examination of collective performance.

Example: Keeping Attendance and Grades

The best approach to using the PDA for this activity is to consider using special software, since PDAs do not typically include spreadsheets other than those for tracking expenses. By adding software, which may be a special program designed specifically for teachers to input grading, attendance, and contact data, the information can be easily retained and then moved to a desktop.

Example: Lesson Planning

Classroom teachers, college professors, and preservice teachers all spend considerable time developing and evaluating lesson plans. This activity takes on a totally different nature in classrooms using engaged learning approaches instead of the more traditional, teacher-directed methods. The process of planning for lessons is more collaborative and more focused on student outcomes and the process of learning. As more classrooms embrace collaboration models for students, it will become more common to see teachers also forming work groups. In such work groups, lesson planning becomes an important collaborative activity that can be made easier with quick access to electronic communication.

Example: Sharing Lesson Plans

Teachers and preservice teachers can beam lesson plans among themselves as they pass in the hallway. As one teacher stands on the playground for recess duty, she can run through the part of the lesson plan proposed by her teaching teammate and make comments. Then, when she returns to the building, she can pause at her teammate's door to beam her revisions to the teammate prior to their planning meeting that afternoon after school.

Another teacher can scan his own plans on a PDA as his class is walking in from P. E. and then pass the document on to a teaching team leader prior to a planning meeting scheduled that afternoon. His teammate will stop by his classroom later that day to have the documents beamed to her PDA for review.

"On the fly," all the teachers can hot-sync the lesson planning documents to their laptops or desktops, merge them into one document over the school's network and produce one final collective document. The principal or lead teacher also can collect them as a document attached to e-mail, and/or have them printed wherever the meetings will be held later that day.

When the final planning meeting is held after school and the group has designed all of the activities for the grade level for the next set of units, someone in the group can use the portable keyboard to make the changes for a master copy. These then can be beamed to each person's PDA, and then each person can take the PDA home to hot-sync at home and/or on the desktop in the classroom. The final document then can be sent to each person via e-mail or posted on the school's server for individual downloads. From that point, each person can hot-sync from the desktop to the PDA and walk out of the building with a copy of the final plans on the PDA. It beats carrying around all of that paper! Software is available that allows teachers to input lesson plans for up to twenty-five classes.

Internet Access and E-mail

Teachers and preservice teachers use the Internet as a valuable resource for their own professional development and for instructional support. Activities include using Web page content as well as e-mail. With downloadable software, the PDA user can browse and interact with downloaded Web pages, which can include anything from news, stock quotes, and maps to flight schedules, movie listings, and restaurant reviews.

Example: Data Charting

The student teacher's class is starting a unit on charting, learning how to display various types of data in different formats. The classroom teacher typically has brought in the local newspaper for the students to use as a resource for finding weather-related data to chart. However, the preservice teacher has a PDA capable of downloading Web pages. The preservice teacher is able to literally 'bring in' the Weather for the students to have access to wider ranges of data without having to get on the Internet. Students can see the data on the PDA and use it at a work center that does not have Internet access, since the number of connections in the classroom is limited.

Example: Professional Reading

For the teacher or preservice teacher, time to peruse Web pages may be very limited, not by interest or even by time but by time online. Sometimes educators have time while they ride a commuter train or wait for family members at soccer meets and piano lessons! These are good times for educators with a PDA and special software to catch up on professional reading. With this combination of tools, pages such as or others might be reviewed on the PDA without Internet connection.

George E. Marsh, II, Ed.D., is a professor of human environmental sciences at the University of Alabama. Anna C. McFadden, Ph.D., is an associate professor of human environmental sciences at the University of Alabama. Barrie Jo Price, Ed.D., is a professor of human environmental sciences at the University of Alabama. All are experts on technology in education. Susan Patterson, doctoral student at the University of Alabama, Beverly Ray, Ph.D., Idaho State University, and teachers in the Tuscaloosa City School System, also contributed to this article.

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  • Technology Integration
  • 9-12 High School

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