When I first told people I was going to be using handheld computers in my classroom I received two responses. First they said that sounds cool and is a great idea. Secondly they said, aren't you afraid they are going to lose or break the handheld computer? This was a valid question, especially since many of my students had a history of losing or destroying property. However, my response was, yes I was a little afraid some of my students might lose their handheld computer, but no I was not afraid they would break them. All the research I had conducted about the use of handheld computers showed that most schools had very little problems with theft, or destruction of their handheld computers.
I have used desktop computers and handheld computers in my classroom not only to enhance the learning of my students but also as a classroom management tool. The next time you walk by a computer lab in your school, stop and look. I would be willing to bet that you will see students actively engaged in writing or research, with few behavior problems. Yet, take the same group of students and ask them to do the same task with paper and pencil and now you have some behavior problems. For some reason it seems that students write more and with less problems when they are behind a computer. Handheld computers can do the same thing for every student but for much less money. Plus, the small screen means other students cannot view someone’s work to cheat off of, and some students might be willing to take more risks as they know others will not be able to see their work until they decide to publish it.
Before setting up a handheld program there are several things that should be addressed prior to handing out the handheld computers, such as an acceptable use policy, hot syncing and security issues, charging the handheld computers, naming the handheld computers and the features you need.
The first thing to consider and develop is a strong user’s agreement (to view my user’s agreement click here) . This user’s agreement should talk about appropriate use of the handheld, where it can be used as well as replacement costs; as well as any security deposits that might be required.
Secondly, hot syncing should be addressed with your IT department. In many cases the security settings in place may prevent your students from being able to hot sync and view Palm Desktop. In my case the IT Department had to make each one of my students a local administrator on the one computer they were going to hot sync to. Along with hot syncing you should develop a plan as to how and where your students will hot sync/charge the handheld. Since each one of my students already had a desktop computer right at each one of their desks; the question of when and where to hot sync was not much of a problem. I decided that I would require each one of my students to hot sync during the first 2-3 minutes of class and to check their calendars, while I took attendance.
As far as charging the batteries goes, some of the handheld computers required separate batteries. I chose rechargeable batteries and always keep a few charged and ready to go. Since changing the batteries can be tricky (you can loose data if you are not quick enough) I always change the batteries and make sure the students hot sync prior to changing the batteries.
Thirdly, before handing out the handheld computers you need to decide how you will name each computer. I decided that since many of my students would be with me next year and would be given a handheld computer, I would name each of the computers with the school year, the students name and the model of the handheld. For example, if Joe Smith had a M100 for the 2004 school year, I would name that handheld 04 JSmith M100. This would ensure each handheld had a unique name, and I could easily identify each handheld.
Perhaps the last thing that should be considered are what features do your students need on a handheld computer and how will it be used. Many of the new handheld computers have built in digital cameras and MP3 players. While these features are nice; I did not want my students to have a handheld computer with these features. My high school has a policy against using CD players or MP3 players in school and I felt that if their handheld had that capability my students might get into trouble. I also felt that the digital camera might get them in trouble as well, so I decided to avoid models that had this capability. Also if the handheld computers you choose do not have built in rechargeable batteries you will have to decide how you will deal with replacing batteries as they die. We typically have to replace the batteries about once a month.
In order to address some of the problems that might develop regarding theft, destruction, and inappropriate use I required my students to give me a small security deposit and have them sign a user’s agreement . This user's agreement required the student and the parent to sign the agreement, before the handheld computer could leave the classroom. Student's who failed to have the agreement signed were allowed to use their handheld computers in the classroom, under the supervision of the teacher only.
I was prepared for some damage and theft and normal teenage mistakes. Therefore, I purchased extra styli in case someone lost their stylus. I protected the screens with screen protectors and I had an extra handheld computer in case one of them broke down. I felt that if my students were to truly use these handheld computers they would have to use them in all aspects of their lives. Therefore, they would be allowed to take the handheld computers home and use them as needed. I told my students that if they felt more comfortable leaving them with me at night they could do so. It turns out that the students I was most worried about losing their handheld computers actually had the same fears themselves. These students choose on their own free will to leave their handheld computers with me during times they felt they were most likely to loose them (weekends, PE...). By the end of the school year, there was no damage or loss to any of the handhelds. I did not even have to replace so much as a stylus.