Iowa gives handheld PCs to fifth-graders

Iowa gives handheld PCs to fifth-graders

Test aims to find out how well computers work as teaching, learning aids

By Ron Levine

Special to GCN

Alex looks like a typical 12-year old, riding his bike to school, a lunch bag sticking out of his backpack. But he is toting something else that fewer than 100 kids in the country have: a free, school-supplied handheld computer.

Alex and 89 other students are part of an experimental study called the Iowa CE Laptop Project. The study, which began in January last year, aims to clarify how portable computers put in the hands of elementary school children could change the scope of teaching and learning.

For the 42-month project, 30 fifth-graders in each of three school districts received 30 Hewlett-Packard Jornada handheld PCs. The students will keep the computers as their own for three years, until they graduate from the seventh grade.


Students in the Iowa CE Laptop Project use handheld computers and a wireless network to tap into their classroom coursework.


The project is a joint effort between the University of Iowa; the school districts of Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Monticello; and the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, a regional service center that supports all three districts.

A little help

The project, which has a budget of $600,000, has received a Goals 2000 Grant from Iowa's Education Department, as well as contributions from Classroom Connect of Brisbane, Calif., Compaq Computer Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Proxim Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

In the fall of last year, students in the program received the handhelds, which run Microsoft Windows CE, to use at school and to take home every night.

To facilitate study of the Internet's impact on learning, the project has provided wireless Internet access at each school.

At the beginning of the project, the three school buildings didn't have enough Internet connections for each student in the project. Rather than installing hard-wired connections, the schools provided one Internet drop per room connecting to the school's LAN. The schools then installed a Proxim RangeLAN2 wireless systems that let all students in each classroom connect to the Internet simultaneously.

PC curriculum

This lets teachers such as Nancy Fotsch, of Kirkwood Elementary in Iowa City, use the lesson plans she developed last summer during the staff development phase of the project. The teachers received 200 paid hours to adapt their lesson plans for the new technology. Of the three Kirkwood teachers, two described themselves as technical neophytes at the beginning of the summer and literally had to be taught how to create file folders on the computers.

After receiving training, the teachers taught the students how to use their new handhelds.

Though Frank Johnson, fifth-grade teacher at Central Middle School in Monticello, initially spent an hour a day training students in the workings of their new devices, he stressed that teachers in the project aren't teaching technology, but are teaching the same course content in a new way.

Students use the handheld computers throughout the school day. They access lessons that their teachers have put out on the LAN, conduct research via the Internet and view other students' work projected for the whole class.

Kay Rewerts, the Iowa CE Laptop Project director, said the fifth-graders are not surfing the Net on their own, but are going only to teacher-selected sites. The schools will ease the limits on Internet access as the students progress through the upper grades, she said.

'I have seen such a difference in the way teaching and learning occurs already in those classrooms,' Rewerts said. 'Those students are on task. When they are using those devices, they are completely focused on their learning.'

Though the students take the handhelds home each night, they can't access the school LAN outside their classrooms. They are free, however, to access the Internet through their families' own Internet service provider accounts.

Service provided

For students who do not have Internet access at home, one service provider, Internet Navigator Inc. of North Liberty, Iowa, is providing 10 hours of Internet access monthly. All the students have been briefed on Internet safety rules.

Although the Jornadas are intended as companions for desktop PCs, the students are using them as standalone devices.

Each unit contains a 190-MHz RISC processor, 16M of RAM and an internal 56-Kbps modem. Each also contains a Proxim internal wireless adapter card as an interface to the wireless LAN. The handhelds have no hard drives.

Each student's handheld is equipped with a variety of Microsoft software that runs under Windows CE: Pocket Word for word processing, Pocket Excel for spreadsheets, the Pocket Access database, Pocket Outlook for a calendar and scheduler, the Pocket Internet Explorer browser, and the PowerPoint Viewer presentation program.

The current Viewer version of PowerPoint allows the students to view PowerPoint presentations, but not create them. They can, however, create presentations on desktop PCs in the schools' computer labs, save them to the LAN, then download them to the handhelds.

Another feature of the handhelds is VGA output, which lets the students connect to large-screen monitors in the classroom. This way, an entire class can view what a student has created on an individual handheld device.

Equally important to the students is the small size of the devices. The handhelds weigh only 2.5 pounds and measure 7 inches by 10 inches. Each device costs $700 and is insured.

Each classroom in the project is equipped with a Proxim RangeLAN2 access point, which transmits data to and from the Jornadas at 1.6 Mbps over a 2.4-GHz frequency band. The system uses frequency-hopping spread -spectrum radio technology, which is highly secure and resistant to interference.

Each handheld computer has a card equipped with an antenna that slips into the PC Card slot. The RangeLAN2 access point, connected to the school's LAN, and the wireless cards in the Jornadas, form a complete system over which the handhelds can communicate across the LAN.

The students can take their computers anywhere within 300 feet of the RangeLAN2 access point and stay connected. The RangeLAN2 access point, which is small enough to sit on a shelf in the classroom, unplugs easily from the LAN connection and can be moved to another classroom.

Each of the school districts had its own LAN and WAN systems in place before the Iowa CE Laptop Project began. For the project, they have all standardized on Ethernet networks running Windows NT on Compaq ProLiant 800 servers. Each server is equipped with a single 400-MHz Pentium II processor, 192M of RAM and one 9G hard drive. The schools all are converting to T1 connections.

The project is working with its first group of 90 fifth-graders. Next year, the project will buy 90 more handhelds to accommodate another group of fifth-graders.

The program will also buy three more RangeLAN2 access points, one for each school, to ensure continued coverage and high-speed Internet access for the rising class of sixth-graders.

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