PDAs & Implications of The Wireless Portable Classroom

Networked Classroom Computing
(UNCC) or for short


Click picture to open backpack.
Research Classroom Portable Field Pack
(RCPFP) or for short


Rapid evolution in computer technology requires that new research questions continue to be posed to challenge our existing assumptions. How inexpensively can one equip everyone in a class with a computer, provide a network and peripherals and be totally portable for both indoor and outdoor education?  What educational purpose could it serve? How effective and supportable might variations on this model be for other countries that do not yet have many American information age resources?

Portable and wireless computers allow the design of new approaches for instruction, changing not only classroom methods but opening up the possibility of much wider use outside of the classroom. Such educational designs will remain fluid because the nature of handheld, laptop and wireless technology continues to change. Though the concept of handheld computers goes back further with Apple's Newton and other devices, the Palm Computer design was the first to create a widely popular device. Palm's history goes back to 1996 (read). As their history shows, palm computers have gone through significant changes in their capacity. Thousands of applications have been created for them. Laptop and wireless technology also continues to evolve. Given the continued decrease in the size of computer components, it is reasonable to expect continued rapid product innovation and increased capability in the years ahead. 

Computer Lab in a Backpack

It will be neccessary to invent a couple of names for the educational models that will be discussed, done not necessarily tongue-in-cheek, to discuss two slightly different teaching situations. A focus on inside the teacher's classroom will be called UC (Ubiquitous Networked Classroom Computing), an environment that assumes ample electrical plugs and ethernet connections.  A focus on roaming beyond the classroom will be called RP (Research Classroom Portable Field Pack), an environment that generally requires batteries and no wires. The portable possibilities of this latter model are emphasized by the image above of a backpack in a tree. An entire classroom system of handheld computers and related devices will fit in a standard backpack with ample room left over. Handhelds are also called PDAs (personal digital assistants), and palm computers. 

It has been a great pleasure after 25 years of teaching inside the lowered lights and four walls of indoor computer labs, to be able to hoist my backpack and take my class outside to just as adequately cover many course topics there. Of course, the backpack could just as well be represented by the standard classroom cart for in-building movement between school spaces, from library to gymnasium for example. Click the backpack image above to see a new picture that shows the electronic contents of the backpack placed on a blanket. See the table below for the details of this picture. A response to the second question on educational relevance can be found under the spreadsheet table. For more information about handheld computers, refer back to the chapter one reading on PDAs (review).

Backpack Research Lab: Extending PDA Power with Sensors

With probes, a computer lab in a backpack also becomes a field research laboratory as well. PDAs can be enhanced in a number of ways by connecting with additional technology, additions that further the value of the portability. A wide range of sensors, also called probes, can be hooked into the handhelds. 

One of the leaders in providing handheld computer and sensor support is ImagiWorks. Learning about its product line provides a strong idea of the nature of such products from other such vendors. One of its products is called ImagiProbe that currently connects to both Palm and Handspring PDAs. Attached to the PDA, probes can be attached which provide for real time data collection and graphing display on the PDA. By tapping the HotSync button on the PDA cradle the data quickly transfer to desktop computers (Mac/Win) for importing into Word, Excel, web pages and more. Teachers use this package to enable students to collect and visually think about the scientific information as it collects on the PDA.  Their ImagiMath software suite includes a mathematics graphing visualizer, a full-featured calculator, and a word problem worksheet equation solver. A new version of ImagiProbe is due out towards the end of 2002.  "The big difference is that ImagiProbe eX runs on a Palm, Windows computer, AlphaSmart Dana, and as a standalone device.  In addition, the application will have much faster sample rates along with the ability to simultaneously work with up to 8 sensors in real time.  This is the "power-user" version of the application and the current version still will remain active as an entry-level model for quickly taking a snapshot of real-time scientific data" (Jeff Arrigotti, Tuesday, October 22, 2002 1:54 PM, Email comunication, ImagiWorks).

Sensors for the Pocket PC handhelds have been slower in coming, but are now appearing. Hopefully, fully developed curriculum materials with begin to accompany these tools. Data Harvest (http://www.dataharvest.com/) is one example of sensor company with a wide range of possible sensors.

Field Reporting: Wireless PDA Communication

Wireless technologies also exist that can connect the handheld with cellphone and satellite phone systems as well as building and campus computer networks. Cell phone companies sell "data connectivity kits" (approximately $70) that connect PDAs and laptops with cell phones. This allows near instant uploading of data to web sites, databases and other forms of digital publishing from any where a person, class, Scout group or other organization can go. Cell phone companies are blending PDA and cell phone designs while also moving to a next generation (G3) technology that will offer much higher speeds of data transfer than cell phone modems. 

Within or near school facilities, cheaper and faster wireless systems can be used. Wireless ethernet cards can be added to PDAs that use 802.11b technology to transfer data at 11 MB per second and faster.  Many businesses such as McDonalds and Borders Bookstore are planning to offer free or low cost access to 802.11b. This is also called WiFi and for more see - http://www.weca.net/OpenSection/index_noflash.asp.

Reviews, Case Studies and Classroom Demonstrations

Currently there is an insufficient number of reviews of probeware products, but some thoughtful reviews have been done. The ScienceMan web site provides an enthusiastic and thoughtful review of ImagiLab (1999), a bundle that includes a PDA. The review also presents some more ideas for educational integration of this powerful tool for scientific visualization. ImagiProbe and ImagiMath won the eSchool News Readers' Choice Awards (July, 2002) for best science and math applications in an independent review by readers (http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/surveys/editorial/rca/handheld/handheldresults.pdf). Other PDA uses were also covered in this reader survey. Competitors included: LabPro by Vernier; CBL 2 from Texas Instruments; Pasport by Pasco Scientific; ThinkStation by TeamLabs; and WizLog400 by Effective Education. See the bibliography for working links to these products.

Numerous case studies are beginning to appear that describe classroom integration ideas from ImagiWorks; Palm ; K12Handhelds ; Wake Forest University and others.

See the videoclip of third graders using PDAs and probes. The movies are identical other than size. You will need to use the same name and password data that you use to access to team page to access these clips. Pick the link appropriate for your Internet bandwidth or view on campus:

Cost Models - What's in the Backpack?

Cost is the most significant factor in the spread of innovations, and will consequently be given attention here. The following spreadsheet provides the ingredients and costs for both the UC or RP models of a classroom teaching system that is mobile, ubiquitous (everyone has a computer) and allows networked use for both indoor and outdoor education. In outdoor settings,  greater use of sensors and more powerful wireless systems for the RP model would be needed but are not essential in the concept of the UC. The minimum indoor presumption is that one local area network (ethernet) connection is available in a room.

The equipment chart below includes handheld, laptop, sensors (probes) and wireless technology. A minimum cost and fully configured cost with the presumption of working in the outdoors is provided in the table below. Items listed will vary somewhat based on teaching needs. Prices are not provided for waterproofing the system which will involve other slightly more expensive storage containers nor are prices provided for in-the-field battery recharging and satellite uplink. Prices are estimates of minimal acceptable costs for the items below. Weights given are estimates. Download the Excel spreadsheet version of this page to change details to fit particular teaching and learning situations. One source to check for current prices is www.pricewatch.com.

Cost $
in lbs
Computers and Computer Storage
Almost any standard backpack (or classroom cart), weight given is of backpack 100 3.0
ZIP lock bags, Tupperware, cloth bags for specimen collection 5 .5
Set of 30 handheld computers (PDAs) with integrated wireless, example price, Dell x3i, $203 each 6,090 10.0
(software tools: draw, memo, spreadsheet) 0 0.0
Laptop computer (software tools: video editor; image editor; word processor with outlining) example price, Mac iBook, $1,299 or other laptop. 1,300 4.0
Graphic Information System software 200 0.0
Communication systems
Infrared communication, built in to the PDA and used for beaming, and works between the PDA and many laptop and desktop computers which have infrared communication capacity 0 0.0
Cradle for synchronizing the handheld unit with a desktop computer (comes with the PDA) 0 .1
Cell phone withlaptop connector (but monthly charge not included in price) 100 .3
Interesting option: Satellite uplink dish (essential for communication in some remote mountain areas and other areas of the world that do not yet have reliable phone service) examples: LandSea Systems ; Swi-Dish Satellite Systems ; ? ?
Flexible solar panel and adaptor for field recharging ? ?
Digital still camera attachment for PDAs 150 .5
GPS unit 200 .5
USB powered scanner 70 3.0
Digital camcorder to record motion and sound 350 3.0
Probes for temperature, turbidity, acidity, elevation, etc. prices vary significantly; ImagiProbe bundle for connecting probes to PDA, including software and the hardware interface, lists for $329 each. 1,000 2.0
 Weight total

Portable Classroom cost subtotal


Not in Backpack so weight not counted
Charger unit for car cigarette lighter to restore batteries for some units 20
Wireless base station for classroom not field use as they require 110 power 300  
Infrared capable printer (Deskjet 350CBi 5/2ppm 600dpi 512k Parallel w/Infrared) weight not included as printers would be reserved for in-classroom use. 295
RP - Total of all items

What is UC or RP good for?

There is little difference of equipment between the fully configured UC or RP models in the technology used, though the RP model would require more powerful communication systems in special remote situations. The difference is simply one of frame of reference. That is, will this computer lab be used in a classroom or in settings that require more mobility? Within these different settings, different factors for its use would apply. Beyond cost, factors of ease of learning and ease of use are next in importance. From a classroom management perspective, there is real value in everyone staying active with something. Members of different teams could take turns working with those special items that are in low quantity, such as sensors and ethernet cards.

Ease of use factors must also consider ease of trouble-shooting and storage security. Handheld computers have no moving parts so there is much less that can go wrong with them. If dropped though, the repair costs of the least expensive units are almost the same as their street price, making it more worthwhile to toss them in the trash then to repair them. Because of their extremely small size it is easy to lock the entire classroom set in a secure location or move them easily to a more secure room or building. One might also add consideration of more secure trees, for when camping in our mountains we've learned to keep our packs about 15 feet off the ground to keep the bears out of them. Fortunately, PDAs have little taste appeal, but hand scents transferred to them could attract some crunches fatal to the PDA.

The UC (Ubiquitous Classroom)

Every student has a computer that fits in their desk and pocket. Within any classroom this model allows a teacher to teach much of what a standard computer lab is used for in English, science, social studies, math and other subjects. Infrared beaming in which data is easily transferred wirelessly between PDAs allows team collaboration to be used for trading ideas and data. The model also presumes the standard configuration for today's school classrooms, one computer with one Internet connection in the room. Within the classroom the cradle will hook to the room's desktop computer and greatly increase its instructional value in that students can synch or upload their work to the desktop computer to use its more sophisticated applications and take advantage of its large color screen. For example, students would start brainstorming and essays on their handheld computer. 

The next step for more rapid editing could involve a mix of several options. One could be uploading the essay through the synch cradle to the teacher workstation which would enable them to put the file on a floppy disk and take turns using the teacher's workstation or take the work home. A second option would be to attach PDA keyboards to the handhelds to allow more rapid typing, but only older students (from 4th grade on) are likely to have mastered touch typing to the point that this would speed their work. A third option would be uploading to the teacher workstation, moving the file to a floppy, and using the large number of computers in the school computer lab for more rapid typing and editing. A simple extension of this model would be to increase the number of laptop units to one per team so that one member of every team could more quickly work on organizing and synthesizing the data as it was found, recorded and transmitted. A fourth option would be to send  the student's writing to a printer, using the infrared communication ports, allowing work to be taken to a seat for editing markup. 

Either way, heavy use of a single printer or single teacher computer will create bottlenecks of delay requiring special management and advance planning. As prices drop for wireless modules and cards and as this technology becomes built-in to the PDA, the better solution will be for each handheld unit to upload directly the students' websites for display or to a network folder for backup, storage and later editing. Rapid product evolution is expected. For example, as of the fall of 2001, Handspring is offering a product called Trio which seamlessly integrates a phone with their PDA. Palm is pressing ahead with their recent telecommuncations add-ons. Intel has also announced a new computer chip that merges three separate chips for networking, phone use and PDA functions. Further, the price of active matrix color units is starting to drop under $300.00.

The RP (Research Portable)

PDA mobility allows classrooms to carry out authentic research anywhere. Since most classrooms have one desktop computer, not a laptop, providing greater mobility would require using a laptop instead for the teacher's workstation for more mobile settings.  Outside of the classroom, the mobility of laptop and PDAs along with the full range of peripherals suggested above would allow the full cycle of problem solving (discovery, analysis, composition and publication on Internet web pages) to be carried out on ANY research site and even to some degree on the way to and from the site. The idea is just as valuable for "remote sites" that are quite close, such as within the school building. Remote sites would range from the school's library, the neighborhood library, and the school building's nature trail to more extensive field trips that involve driving. 

The portability of such systems along with various sensors or probes provides great advantages when teaching hands-on science and math. The basic communication features that come with the PDA, infrared beaming,  are sufficient to employ the basic concept on many such research sites. More expensive telecommunication options allow the groups to much more quickly contribute their findings to the class computer and extend their electronic reporting range over much greater distances. Wireless modules or cards will allow web use, including web page research, email and other forms text messaging. The equipment suggested would allow for a wide range of data collection and composition, including: text, audio, video, animation, virtual reality, and still images.

Certain items have battery power that could cover much of a school day without recharging, such as the laptop computer and wireless PDA cards. Hand-held computers with battery power can run for weeks without battery replacement.


Training on PDA use would be just part of the teacher's education needs. Users of the design would also need to master moving the data from multiple PDAs to a single teacher workstation and from there to other desktop applications and to network folders accessible to students in the school computer labs. 

There are many factors to be considered in comparing this model with standard desktop configurations. Cost is often the most significant factor. As a fully equipped computer lab classroom can run to $150,000 or more depending in part on remodeling needs, the under $5,000 - 10,000 cost of the UC/RP designs that work in any room or space is a serious advantage. Eliminating multimedia equipment and enhanced telecommunications capacity lowers the cost of the model to under $5,000 in addition to shrinking storage requirements and weight. Either way, the cost is so low that other equipment could be added into the price, such as a projection screen for $2500 that can connect to the teacher's computer should be a high priority. Adding another five laptops for $6500 to provide one for each class team would also be valuable. The factor of reliability or durability of mobile equipment must especially be considered for portable devices and these costs do run higher. However, using the price assumptions above, a repair budget of a $1000 would cover 7 new PDAs a year but depending on the number of students, may not be needed. That is, the figure of 30 PDAs was used with the understanding that most classrooms have fewer students and the extra PDAs become replacment equipment for the year to cover broken items and those that have been sent out for repair. Size is also important. Most classrooms simply do not have the space, let alone the electrical power, to hold a desktop computer for every child and still have room for the children and other classroom essentials. The key here is the useability and flexibility of the model. 

That every student can actively use the computer technology and easily and quickly transfer their data to more powerful computers is a significant instructional advantage over the current standard classroom model of just one computer per classroom. Light weight, small size, battery powered and light cost allow the design to fit a wide range of classroom settings from rural to urban, in this country and in many different countries.

Probe Product Bibliography

Key factors in making purchase decisions include: 
  • the cost of the computer component (desktop, PDA); 
  • the sophistication and development of the curriculum the company makes available for their product; and
  • the reliability and durability of the product (getting the probes to calibrate easily and reliably can be an issue). 
  • Reliable wireless capacity may also be a factor in selecting the host computer.

LabPro by Vernier (connects to Mac/Win computers, TI graphing calculators, or Palm OS)

CBL 2 from Texas Instruments (connects to Texas Instrument calculators: TI-73, TI-82, TI-83, TI-83 Plus, TI-83 Plus Silver Edition, TI-86, TI-89 (cradle will not accept old-style TI-82 VSC))

Data Harvest http://www.dataharvest.com/

EasySense Flash Logger by DataHarvest (a range of devices which connect to Mac/Win computers & PocketPC handhelds)

Pasport by Pasco Scientific (connects to Mac/Win computers, Palm OS devices and Pasport's PowerLink)

ThinkStation by TeamLabs (connects to Mac/Win computers; Palm OS product in development for late spring, 2003)

WizLog400 by Effective Education (connects to Mac/Win computers and Pocket PC handhelds). 

ImagiWorks (connects to Palm OS handhelds)

ImagiWorks Case Study Examples:

ImagiProbe Demo Tour:

ImagiMath Software Suite Demo Tour:

General Science ImagiLab  -- Free Curriculum Samples:

ImagiWorks also has a loaner program form, which will allow you to evaluate the application for 30-days. 

Wireless Info

Potential factors in purchase decisions include: 
  • Will the sensor/probe systems connect with the wireless handhelds? 
  • Will the wireless signal be cell phone or 802.11? Which is more cost effective for a given implementation?

Chapter Home Frame  |  March 19, 2003 | Page author: R. S. Houghton | Back