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By Francine Strickwerda
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There was a time when every Boy Scout’s camping adventure began with a compass, a sleeping bag, and a clean pair of shorts with his name sewn inside.
Now those sweet days of summer could commence as easily with a Handheld PC. Just ask the several dozen Boy Scouts from Oxford, Miss., who recently earned their computer merit badges on the compact devices powered by the Microsoft Windows CE operating system.
"It was neat, the computers were sharp, and the kids had a blast," says Scott Hill, Chicksa District Executive of the Boy Scouts of America’s Yocona Council in Tupelo. With computers in hand, the boys diagrammed campsite layouts, wrote letters home to their parents, and made shopping lists of "roughing it" provisions like marshmallows and hot dogs.
For Robert Cook, a Scout den leader and and Chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Mississippi, bringing the power of handheld computing to these boys is a great way to practice his passion: researching how technology can be used to help students learn in schools and universities.
"Handheld PCs have great potential in education," says Professor Cook, who first became interested in the devices two years ago as a summer researcher at Microsoft. Cook convinced Microsoft to donate 25 Handheld PCs for a portable computer lab at the University of Mississippi.
Thus began the National Classroom Project, designed to explore use of the handheld computers with wireless connectivity and develop accompanying educational software. The project is funded by Microsoft and Mountain View, Calif.-based Proxim Corp., which manufactures the PCMCIA wireless LAN solution.
Accessibility for All
Many of the nation’s schools have new computer equipment connected to the Internet, thanks at least in part to the President’s Educational Technology Initiative. But many more schools are struggling to keep up. Mobile labs of Handheld PCs or Palm-size PCs with wireless connections are an answer to the problem of in-class accessibility, says Cook.
"We can wheel a cart of 40 machines into a room, and voilà! We have an instant computer classroom anywhere there is a single network connection," he said. With wireless modems providing the connectivity, the room doesn’t need to be wired and desk space is free of bulky PCs and monitors. Schools can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation costs. "A portable lab has the potential to make the poorest school in the country equal to the richest."
Additionally, the Windows CE platform shares a similar user interface with Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0. This means introductory computer classes can be taught on Handheld PCs at both the high school and college levels. Furthermore, Windows CE-based Handheld PCs include a World Wide Web browser, an e-mail client, and pocket versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.
We’re Wireless, Now What?
Like many educators, Cook is asking the question: once every child in a class has computer access, what next?
Web browsing is an incremental improvement for education, but it’s not revolutionary, says Cook. "Teachers have enough trouble getting through the material they have already." In fact, decreasing the amount of information might be a better approach than bombarding educators with more.
The real "killer application" in education, according to Cook, will be computerized testing. With a Microsoft Windows NT Server-based system that Cook developed, students can take examinations over the Internet. Also, with testing on the Internet teachers can readily share exams.
When it’s time for the test, the teacher brings a cart of Handheld PCs into her classroom and distributes one to each student. The system, which is already used by some of Cook’s undergraduate students, corrects the tests automatically, saving the teacher countless labor-intensive hours of paper correcting. Additionally, the computer can be used to track each student’s progress, which gives the teacher information she can use to recommend new problem sets for an individual child.
Another promising use for the Internet is distance learning, which enables schools to offer courses that they would otherwise be unable to. "A physics class over the Internet is better than no class. There are plenty of high schools in that situation all over the country," Cook says.
The professor is developing a C++ programming environment along with an online C++ class for university students that includes Internet testing. It is Cook’s hope that some high schools will want to make use of the class, too.
Neighboring Oxford High School will be among the first to give it a try. Cook begins a pilot program with a mobile lab of Handheld PCs there this fall. Interestingly, the school was already looking for a way to start its own mobile lab before Cook approached it.
"I think it’s great," says Oxford High School Principal Britt Dickens. "We’re always looking for new ways of improving our infrastructure. If this does that, it will serve our goals well."
Cook plans to expand the program to other schools over time. "I’d like to have a mobile lab in all the schools down through kindergarten," he says.
Last Updated: August 5, 1998