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Personal Digital Assistants in the Middle School Classroom: Lessons in Hand

Beverly B. Ray
Anna McFadden
Susan Patterson
Vivian Wright



Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), such as Palm Pilots, have the potential to revolutionize the middle school classroom. These small, inexpensive devices make it possible for middle school teachers to grade students' work in real time. Expectations for success on the part of teachers using these devices can be important factors in the implementation process. To a large extent, the effectiveness of PDAs as a teaching and learning tool is dependent upon how willing teachers are to use them and to overcome potential barriers such as time limitations. A qualitative collection of data
gave a closer look at teachers' perceptions of PDA use and value.

Image created by Lee Carroll - Meridian Co-Editor


A Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is a small hand held computer with applications such as word processing, spreadsheet, personal organizers, and calculators. Grade reporting and other instructional programs expand the usefulness of these devices for busy educators. With a shift from teacher-centered to student-centered classroom environments, PDAs may play an important role in enhancing the teaching and learning process. PDAs are much less expensive, faster to boot and access than many networked computers, and highly portable. They are truly personal devices that encourage customization. Teachers who must often work on computers and networks with locked-down control panels and software installation bans are able to customize their PDAs to suit their personal and professional needs. They are able to access and edit streamlined Word and Excel files at home and at work.

  Literature Review

Research on the effectiveness of PDAs in educational settings is sparse, because relatively few K-12 schools have had PDAs in place long enough to generate longitudinal studies about their instructional impact. Some groups are actively researching PDAs' classroom effectiveness, however. Among these is the Multimedia Portables for Teacher's Pilot in the United Kingdom, which has put 1,138 high-specification portable computers in the hands of practicing teachers in a range of schools. The program has thus far reported high levels of motivation and self-reliance among teachers who consider PDAs to be flexible and adaptable in providing a context for teacher professionalism (Fisher, 1999).

Another group examining the effectiveness of the PDA in an educational setting is the Concord Consortium. Research conducted with second and fifth grades found that both groups were comfortable with the technology, but older students used the devices more effectively (Staudt, 1999). Both groups "easily moved between note taking and data collection" (p. 1). The devices gave students "opportunities to connect questions and investigations to the data in a real time setting that enhances "systematic investigations, critical thinking and cooperation" (Staudt, 1999, p. 1). Additional research suggests that PDAs facilitate group work, the immediate analysis of data particularly during laboratory exercises or when conducting scientific investigations in the field rather than in the classroom (Belanger, 2000).

Image provided by the author.
Pownell and Butler (2000) identify ways that PDAs can benefit educators. They argue that PDAs are only effective when they support how teachers work and use information in their classrooms. They identify four differences between PDA/handheld computers and desktop computers. One difference relates to portability and size. While laptops are smaller and more portable than stationary computers, PDAs are small enough to be carried in a pocket or a backpack. Like laptops, PDAs offer teachers and students portability (Bell, et al, no date; Byers, 1991; Concord Consortium, 2000; Staudt, 2000) and on-the-fly note taking. They are also useful as field journals or in traditional lab settings (Berlanger, 2000; Cooke, no date; Crippen & Brooks, 2000; Trotter, 1999). Soloway (2000, p. 1) argues that PDAs "support cycles of doing and reflecting" by encouraging teachers to more effectively revisit their written work and to revisit each child's accomplishments at the end of each day.

Images provided by the author.

Accessibility is another area of comparison between laptops and PDAs. Handheld devices are considerably less expensive to purchase and maintain than laptops (Belanger, 2000; D'Orio, 2000; Staudt, 2000). Having a PDA in the classroom frees an additional stationary computer for student instructional use. Trotter (1999) calls them "equity computers" because of their low cost and ease of use. D'Orio (2000) believes that wireless PDAs are cost effective methods of assisting schools to handle growing student populations, particularly on campuses with portable units. No wires or trenches have to be laid or ripped up when classrooms are brought back into the main building.

A third category of comparison is mobility. Teachers are not restricted to a stationary computer and can access and retrieve information anywhere, anytime, including in the field or on fieldtrips to museums or historic places (Hsi & Manus, no date; Soloway, 2000). More than any other factor, mobility may be the most appealing feature for classroom teachers. D'Orio (2000) agrees, citing examples of their use as attendance records during fire drills and in portables and other areas of campus that are not network accessible.


The fourth area of comparison relates to the adaptability. PDAs give teachers greater flexibility in managing classroom assignments and in creating student-specific instructional plans (Soloway, 2000). Collaboration and sharing of information and software is enhanced by PDAs as well. According to Soloway (2000), this sharing and commenting on other's work leads to an increase in the quality of finished products, such as lesson plans and artifacts. Laptops and desktop computers currently do not support this type of immediate collaboration.

PDAs allow educators to communicate with email servers, administrative applications (Staudt, 2000), and databases, such as those containing grades and other student information. PDAs also allow educators to access the Internet via modem, infrared or serial port connections, or via wireless access (Bannasch, 2000). Web clipping services such as Avantgo make it possible for educators to download education web sites. While such educational sites are limited, many more are expected to follow Scholastic, Inc., which has been offering its content that assist teachers with lesson planning and professional development.

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2001
ISSN 1097-9778
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