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Holding knowledge in their palms

Thursday, September 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Lauren Guillory works on her Palm Pilot m130 with fiery grace. Using a slender 3-inch stick, her hand flicks staccato taps across the half-sandwich-sized computer as she etches a memo to a friend.

In a breath, she clicks on an icon, sends the message into cyberspace and feverishly scrolls down the screen to tackle the day’s next task.

A student in fifth grade has a lot to do.

Guillory is one of 138 Shepard Elementary students issued a handheld computer this year. The school is using the petite computing devices to teach fourth- and fifth-graders the basics in reading, writing and math.

For these kids, PDAs are their pencils.

“I felt there were some things happening in technology that could help in the classroom,” said Shepard Principal JoNetta Weaver, who initiated the use of the handhelds in the school’s fifth-grade classes last fall.

In 2001, Weaver attended SuccessLink’s Technology Leadership Academy, a Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education program for school administrators. During the semester-long course on classroom technology, Weaver was introduced to the concept of using PDAs as a teaching tool.

In the world of grown-ups, PDAs typically function as electronic planners and address books. In classrooms at Shepard Elementary, the handhelds are not programmed with any calendar-keeping capacity.

Instead, the tiny computers are loaded with educational freeware, or free software. With the handhelds, students practice multiplication tables using digital math flashcards. They download current events from the Scholastic News Web site. They play spelling games. To compose essays, they dock their Palm Pilots in wireless keyboards, open a word processing program and forward their text to the teacher’s desktop computer.

The students are not afraid of the high-tech computing devices, said Debra Winn, fifth-grade teacher at Shepard.

“The kids are intrinsically digital,” Winn said. “They’re not intimidated by these, because they’ve got Gameboys and computers they’ve grown up with.”

By the third day of school, the students spoke PDA jargon with ease.

“First you hit home, then go to settings, then click on new, then say who you want to beam to,” said 10 year-old Guillory, explaining the method for sending a text message. “Beam” is handheld lingo for sending data between two PDAs.

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Chloe Brown, 11, is one of 138 Shepard Elementary fifth-graders to work with PDAs this year. Chloe said that being able to type is her favorite part and using the handheld computer is “pretty easy.”

Chloe Brown, 11, said she was relieved the students would use the handhelds daily.

“You can do things a lot faster, like write notes and stuff,” she said.

Weaver said the primary goal of bringing the handhelds to Shepard was to get students to write better and more frequently.

Students have the option of using paper and pencil to practice their writing skills, but they are more willing to write and edit their work using the PDA word processor, Winn said.

“We all know that using word processing takes some of the tedious work out of writing,” she said.

In a research study earlier this year by Columbia Public Schools’ Instruction and Information Technology Services Department, 88 percent of parents agreed that the handhelds had a positive effect on their children’s attitudes towards school. The same percentage of students said the handheld computers helped them work harder in class. Weaver estimated 80 students were in fifth grade last year.

The study also compared students using handheld computers to students without the tech gadget at Midway Heights Elementary for a month. The study found students using the PDAs had a sharper increase in their amount of learning, Weaver said.

“Instead of them learning 10 facts a day during the one-month trial, they learned 20 facts,” she said.

A single fourth-grade class at Midway Heights also used 25 handheld computers last year. Linda Klopfenstein, the school’s principal, said the elementary would apply for a district grant to obtain another 15 to 20 handhelds.

Klopfenstein said Midway Heights was still deciding which grade level would utilize the PDAs during this school year.

Using handhelds simply increases students’ access to computers, said Chris Diggs, the district’s technology coach who conducted the research study.

“It’s an affordable way to address equity issues in terms of access to computers, providing that access in a society where these computers are becoming a normal part of daily life and the educational process,” Diggs said.

In the wake of the fifth-grade study results, Shepard Elementary ordered a set of Tungsten E handhelds for this year’s fourth-grade classes.

A handheld computer and accompanying wireless keyboard costs between $200 and $250, according to Weaver. The principal said 67 fourth-graders and 71 fifth-graders will have a PDA for the school year. Students may take the devices home with parental consent.

Last year’s Palm m130s were supplied through district technology funds, PTA contributions and a grant through the technology company 3M, Shepard Elementary’s Partner in Education. This year’s Tungsten Es were also provided through district money and 3M, along with a parent’s anonymous donation.

Weaver, who taught at Shepard for 14 years before becoming its principal, said the handhelds are also beneficial to teachers.

“I am a classroom teacher from my heart, so I knew I would have loved to have used this tool in my classroom,” she said. “That’s when technology is really good: when it’s used as a tool to teach.”

In her first year teaching in Kentucky in 1979, the most advanced machine Weaver used in class was a filmstrip projector.

“Don’t you wonder what it’s going to be like 15 years from now?” she asked.


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