17 April 2007

Handheld computers in the classroom

Handheld computers don’t replace laptops in education but they do have several advantages for many classroom and fieldwork applications.

  • They are less expensive. A modest model perfectly capable of hosting science software can be bought retail for around £60 or €90, at the time of writing; education and/or bulk discounts pull that down further. This means that more of them can be placed in student of pupil hands for the same investment - roughly ten handhelds for the price of one laptop.
  • They are small and light which encourages instant, intuitive their use at the classroom desk, on the lab bench, during field trips, at home, and so on.
  • With suitable software they can mimic a range of popular scientific calculators (graphing or otherwise, as preferred). The computer itself is similar in cost to such calculators, the software often free or inexpensive from sources such as PalmGear or Handango. Unlike the hardware calculator, the software is upgradable for little or no cost.
  • They can make software such as database managers more manageable and user friendly.
  • In some respects they resemble cellphones, which increases accessibility and appeal for young users. They also, for the same reason, encourage exploration of the serious, education relevant potential of newer “smart phones” which often run similar software.
  • Some of them have Bluetooth communications which allow them to be instantly networked with each other and with the teacher’s or lecturer’s laptop (or own handheld) for distributed brainstorming and data sharing.

Handheld computers have passed through several development stages. First came the keyboard equipped clamshells such as the Psion or its rebadged Xemplar Pocketbook form. For some time now, though, the dominant format has been the “mini tablet” operated by a stylus and touch screen. Detachable keyboards (or separate wireless keyboards) are available for many models.These mini tablet machines are available in two main competing forms with incompatible operating systems - PalmOS or PocketPC. I personally consider the PalmOS machines to be superior, and to have a better range of software (and they start at lower prices too) but PocketPC has the advantage of resembling Microsoft Windows which helps to make them instantly usable by students used to a PC. Try, if possible, to borrow one of each and talk to users of both - and, of course, find out whether one system or the other is already in use amongst colleagues with whom you can exchange ideas and work.

There is a third option, Symbian, but this is primarily to be found in smart phones - including the popular Nokia models.

[originally posted on Scientific Computing World's education pages]

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