Homework gets Beamed (not handed out)

By PATTI GHEZZI, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Teachers at Davis Academy will start beaming out homework assignments next week. Leaders at Davis Academy, a private school in north Fulton County, are giving personal digital assistants to all 142 middle school students. Teachers can transfer homework assignments to their students PDAs either through electronic transfers — called beaming — or e-mail. Students say the gizmos, also called handheld computers, are smaller, cooler and more fun than laptops.

“It’s amazing how we are going to use these for basically everything we do in school,” said Ari Whiteman, 13. School officials started training students on the devices last week. Their reaction? “Whoooooaaaaa!”

Just the size of an index card, the PDA can do much of what a standard computer can such as send and receive e-mail, store files and surf the Internet. It also functions as a graphing calculator. Kids say its best feature is keeping track of assignments. “I’m going to be a lot more organized this year,” said Lindsay Tuchman, 13. “Teachers can beam us work and we can keep all our papers together, because they’re all in the computer.”

The PDA connects easily to a home or school desktop or laptop computer, enabling students to type their papers, store them in the PDA and print them out when the teacher is ready to collect them. And when a student is sick, there’s no need to send work home with a sibling. The teacher can send tailored assignments as well as class notes straight to the student’s PDA.

Adding to the cool factor, school leaders told students that Davis Academy is the first school in Georgia to issue PDAs to everyone, bucking the trend of handing out laptop computers, something the Cobb County school district is planning. Some metro Atlanta public school districts are using the devices. In Cobb, for instance, students take tests on them — delivering instant responses to the teacher.

Davis Academy leaders plugged into the idea of PDAs while building a new middle school with wireless Internet access. Principal Peter Cline initially thought, “Laptops for everybody!” But his research led him to a different conclusion. Laptop computers are clunky and quickly become outdated, he said. Handheld devices are more flexible and easier to upgrade, he said. Each costs less than $250, which parents pay for through tuition and a supply fee.

“We wanted everything integrated and easy to use, not disruptive,” he said. “This is an authentic use of technology.” The school had to lay down a few ground rules. No “instant messaging” at school. It’s too distracting. And school officials have the right to inspect the PDAs and monitor usage. If a student uses the PDA to cheat by sending an e-mail to another student, the evidence will be stored in the device.

Cline said abuse is unlikely, because “they understand it’s a privilege.” Davis Academy dad Mark Miller, whose eighth-grade son, Jason, is excited about the new gadget, said the technology, “gives the kids a step up on everybody else.” They’re learning to use technology the way many professionals do in the workplace, Miller said.

In metro Atlanta’s competitive private school marketplace, technology is an important selling point. Prospective parents sometimes ask Cline where the school’s computer lab is. “The whole school is the computer lab,” he tells them. Many private schools have carts with laptop computers on them that roll from class to class. The Atlanta Girls’ School equips each student with a laptop computer.

Cobb officials want to issue laptops to more than 67,000 students and teachers during the next two years using proceeds from a 1 percent sales tax. A large-scale contract could cut the price of each laptop to less than $300. Kim Quinn, the state’s head of instructional technology, doesn’t see PDAs replacing laptops or desktop computers in public schools, partly because the screen is so small. Also, sophisticated spread sheets, charts and multimedia presentations require traditional computers. But she does envision more PDAs in Georgia classrooms as part of a “21st-century learning environment” replete with electronic whiteboards and other tech tools.

In Forsyth County, teachers are now using handhelds for creative lesson plans, such as explaining the central nervous system. Jill Hobson, coordinator of instructional technology with Forsyth schools, sees more “great benefits down the road” with handheld computers. If funds become available through a taxpayer-approved bond, the district could provide them to students. One school would likely pilot the program first, she said.

‘I wouldn’t always replace a laptop with a [handheld] computer,” Hobson said. “But pulling out something the size of your hand doesn’t take as much time. It can be the right tool for the right time.”

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