More Bang for Your Buck

When there's talk of technology in schools, the amout of use of that technology is often mentioned. As this use is examined, many, many schools find that the hardware, with which they spend millions of dollars on, in the end, spends more time collecting dust than acting as a tool for students. Unnecessary to say, this is frustrating, no, aggrevating.

In my second, albeit delayed, post related to my experience with Dr. Soloway and Dr. Norris last month, I want to paint a picture of the potential of a "handheld-centric" classroom. Here goes…

My last post read of the ratio of student to computer so I need not address it here. However, I must address the attempts of 1:1 via laptop computers. While this sounds all well and good, I don't think that is the answer for all schools. In terms of learning, handheld computers are more task appropriate. They are instantly available, whether in a student's desk, backpack or their pocket. There is no waiting for the operating system to boot up and ask the student to log in to a specific domain so their every move can be tracked. Handhelds turn on and turn off immediately. When mobility is important, handhelds can't be beat. They fit in a pocket, backpack or in the palm of the hand extremely well. As mobile as it is, it is also invisible. What I mean by invisible is not that you can not see it, but after some regular use, it becomes ubiquitous. I love that word. Every where learning occurs, if necessary or desired, handhelds can be there. It is invisible, because you become accustomed to using it and therefore don't notice it. Until it's missing.

An obvious concern about technology is cost:

"There are 55 million K-12 kids in America. Fifty-five million times $1,000—the cost of a laptop—isn’t going to happen. But 55 million times $100—the cost of a handheld—that could happen tomorrow," (Dr. Elliot Soloway, eSchool News, 2003)

My last point is that, compared to desktops, handheld computer users use 90% of it's functionality. Show me a desktop machine that has 90% of it's functionality being used and I'll show you a stripped down machine with nothing worth a darn using or an Uber Geek that has nothing to do. To reach such a high percentage of usability and still be inexpensive just seems unlikely. But it isn't.

Bottom line: Handhelds are inexpensive, reliable, and highly functional. What tax payer wouldn't want a district to spend their tax money this way?

What are we waiting for?

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend a workshop at Erie #1 BOCES where we looked at the Handheld-Centric Classroom. The presenters were none other than Dr. Elliot Soloway and Dr. Cathie Norris of GoKnow, Inc. I got so much out of this workshop, I couldn't possibly put it into one post. I decided to post what I learned in chunks related to what the good doctors spoke about.

I can't say enough about the down-to-earth discussions I had with Dr. Soloway and Dr. Norris. Dr. Soloway was real, understanding and very curious as to what the group thought were some reasons why handheld computers were not more prevalent in our schools. Despite Dr. Soloway's correct statement, "they are not handheld computers, they are computers!", I choose to continue to refer to them as handhelds or handheld computers because they are not prevalent in schools at this time. Unfortunately, many teachers see them as just personal organizers or only good for games. We simply must to a better job on getting the word out to administrators, teachers and students.
Dr. Soloway suggested that there has been "precious little" impact of technology on K-12 education. I have to agree. Every where you look districts are throwing wads of money into hardware for classrooms. Has this method really changed anything? Even with the major money being thrown around they can't throw enough to reach the holy grail of technology integration, 1 computer per student . The typical ratio of students to computers is 5:1 (9:1 in urban areas) and is far from 1:1. Dr. Soloway and Dr. Norris believe as do I that handheld computers are the solution. (Remember they are computers)

A great idea is how some teachers are getting sets of handhelds, at very low costs, by looking for older used units. What's so great about this idea is that for just getting started with handhelds you don't need a high end unit. Many of the older (+/- 2-3 years) are capable of running most applications that are used in a classroom. Many of these applications can be found at Tony Vincent's web site

I want to publicly thank Michelle Okal and Jeff Dolce of Erie1 BOCES for inviting me to attend this workshop. Check back for more in the next few days as I run through the rest of what I learned from this great experience.