Handheld Computers in the Australian Classroom Philip Callil, Faculty Head it, Xavier College Melbourne Australia

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Handheld Computers in the Australian Classroom

Philip Callil, Faculty Head IT, Xavier College

Melbourne Australia
Handheld computers (Palms, PocketPCs, etc.) offer the opportunity and promise of one-to-one learning with computers at a significantly more affordable cost than laptop solutions. Excitement and motivation of students are obvious in the classroom - but do they improve learning and if so, how? This presentation will report on results and observations of a handheld trial currently being undertaken with Year 6 students. Experience overseas, applications used, curriculum integration, the pros and cons of class and home use will be discussed.

  • Handhelds, sometimes known as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), are computers that fit in the hand. They are usually dominated by a touch-sensitive screen and a small cluster of buttons.

  • Can help with basic skill development, problem-solving, organizational skills and more.

  • They perform many similar functions as a desktop computer with the added benefit of mobility. However, they are not replacements for desktop computers. Desktop computers continue to perform major processing functions, while palmtops are “satellites” for quick and mobile information access and communication.

  • The typical handheld computer comes with personal information manager (PIM) functions: calendar, address list, task list, and memos. These may appear to be the core features of the machine, but they really only scratch the surface of its potential. Like larger computers, the power of handhelds lies in the ability to use different software packages and special hardware to do many different jobs. The possibilities of these small devices are really only limited only by the imagination of the user.


  • Three good reasons: they’re portable, low-cost, and versatile.

  • Every student and teacher can have one of these powerful information processors for classwork or to take home. With personal information management software (PIM), word processing, spreadsheet, and graphing applications, students can learn basic maths and reading skills, progress to advanced applications and skills, and keep track of their assignments.

  • Unlike laptops which are heavier and obvious in school bags, handhelds are light, compact and are approximately 25% of the cost of a laptop. By adding a class set of handhelds in Year 6, we are effectively doubling the computer resources at 25% of the cost of a second class set of laptops.

  • Our world is becoming digital. Students need to learn with digital tools in order to succeed. They can improve skills, find new learning opportunities, and prepare for the future with handheld computers.

    • In an interview conducted on stage by University of Washington president Mark Emmert, Microsoft 

chairman Bill Gates predicted that the pace of technology will be just as speedy in the next 10 years as it has been over the past thirty.
In delivering his remarks about technology, Gates made several predictions about where the industry is headed. He noted that computers will keep getting smaller and that advances in antispam services and information-management tools will make it easier for users to navigate e-mail, keep up with news and stay on top of work tasks.
Portable computers are due to become more widespread, Gates predicted, as users shift from printed data and textbooks to digital documents that can be transported on handheld devices.’

  • Millenials - how they like to learn: 3 things set them aside from previous generations of students: Diverse cultural experience, global media influences, familiarity with digital technologies

  • Middle school students especially are motivated by the use of technology

  • Unquestionably for our students but also interested in using this as a trial for schools in Australia that can't afford laptop programs. This is how they have been rolled out in the US. Most if not all of the state wide laptop programs in the US have stalled if not been scaled back - not so with the handheld programs.

  • Sabre tooth curriculum

  • One to one learning, lightweight, versatile, real life skill, affordable

  • Convergence of electronic devices

  • Process and content

  • Why Palm? In the US, Palm has over 50% of the education market.

  • Videos - see PowerPoint presentation


  • Year 6 ICT syllabus and ICT structure - see PowerPoint presentation


  • Students in Year 6 have ownership and responsibility for a portable hand held assistant (PDA) for 6-8 weeks in 2005.

  • Students take them home with all recharging and syncing done at home.

  • Cost

  • Acceptable User Policy - see presentation

  • Terms

  • FAQ

  • Research

  • Applications - include use of simulation software

  • PDA Participatory Simulations use Palm OS handheld computers (for now only Palm OS is supported) to embed people inside of simulations. A range of participatory simulations is available from MIT. Interactions between players in the game are mediated by peer to peer infrared beaming.

  • There is great potential in languages use a handheld as a dictaphone, and convert the WAV file into an MP3.

  • iPodder (a podcast aggregator - http://ipodder.sourceforge.net) has a Pocket PC version - you can use your handheld to collect and listen to the podcasts

  • Digital camera to record whiteboard brainstorms.


  • Haven't lost a handheld, keyboard or charger but have lost stylus and CD - this is in line with US results.

  • Keyboard makes a huge difference

  • Web site created and stored on portal well patronized

  • PD is required for teachers but the learning curve is shallow for students and teachers

  • Screen size - eye ache (for essay writing, should not be doing a lot of writing even with a keyboard; should be doing on a desktop and transferring)

  • Printing - need to have access to a laptop or desktop. One of the best things it has done for us is highlight the fact that student skills in formatting documents are deficient.

  • Correcting

  • Storing on a central server – script written to upload to the server

  • Most school administrators are looking for direction guidance on this type of technology.

  • Getting past novelty value with students - tool for work or play toy?


  • Teacher buy in - so far teachers very supportive – and these teachers are not ICT proficient. YLC had difficulty but very supportive in an Exec review; important to have them write down in evaluations good and bad.

  • Students could distinguish between improvement of computer skills and improvement in acadmic learning.

  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.... well organized students seem to fly with the extension such a machine offers whereas students who are disorganized struggle – identical to how students use a personal laptop.

  • Diary use: students have a choice as to how they record their homework – memos, camera, voice memo or calendar. It may be better to insist that at this stage of student development it is better that they are use to use their diary efficiently instead.


  • Continue on with student trial by extending from 6 weeks to 1 term for each class

  • Find a better presenter to use with a data projector

  • Integrate the use of probes with handhelds for Science experiments and PE classes

  • Use the full GoKnow software including the uploading feature so parents and teachers can view student files over the internet

    • Integrate the use of handheld computers into other specialist areas e.g. LOTE and Art

    • Develop learning outcomes for semester report assessment in the KLAs

  • Supply another 10-15 interested teachers with a handheld, establish meetings once-twice a term

  • Make a decision re expanding this to each student in Year 6 purchasing one the following year or maintain existing model. They would then use this for three years until the end of Year 8. This will be based on teacher, student and parent evaluation.


  • Millard E, "Gates Talks Education, Tech Needs to Legislators" CIO Today (August 18, 2005)


  • Peddiwell J.A. (1939) The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum, New York, McGraw-Hill.

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