Implementing Wireless Technology in the Classroom: The iPAQ Project

Handheld devices or personal digital assistants (PDAs) are intuitive educational tools that basically function as a laptop by adding different software and hardware (Powell & Balley, 2001). They are easy to integrate into existing classrooms and school network environments. One important pedagogical aspect about handheld computers is that they extend the learning environment beyond the classroom. They are portable, support the paperless classroom and provide different methods of communication.

Other innovative uses of PDAs include wireless access to the Internet. Wireless networking is changing the way courses are delivered, and the teaching and learning process. With various PDA applications, the user can send and receive e-mails, have access to information, communicate with other individuals using messaging features and enjoy the freedom of roaming.

This premise was the foundation of the iPAQ (Pocket PC) pilot project conducted at Montclair State University. Students in a Research Method class in the Department of Health Professions, Physical Education, Recreation and Leisure Studies received a Pocket PC (iPAQ 3870), a wireless card, a modem and the necessary software to link into the classroom network from any location.

The purpose of the project was to incorporate handheld computers into the delivery of academic course content and provide on-the-go access to classroom information for the Montclair State University students. The focus was to enhance teaching and learning through the exploration of instructional uses of wireless PDAs.

Putting the Project into Action: The Planning and Preparation Process

Planning the use of these devices in the classroom included the following five steps.

1. Developing a Website. A course Website was designed, which included a link to the course syllabus, course meetings, course material and quizzes. Each page was programmed to fit the iPAQ screen to improve navigation and view of the material. A resource Webpage with tutorials and software was also developed to support the students and provide technical assistance.

2. Designing the Course Material. The preparation of the course material included converting files into iPAQ format. For example, the PowerPoint presentations were converted for Pocket PC using PocketSlides. Other materials developed included: online quizzes using the services of; assignments in a download format using Microsoft Word and EXCEL; and electronic class notes using a third-party software, ReaderWorks, to convert documents into Microsoft Reader files.

3. Imaging the iPAQs. Each iPAQ was configured with the same software. First, the software was installed in the clone iPAQ (i.e. PocketSlides, iPAQ Keyboard, Acrobat Reader, Wireless LAN Client and TV Pocket). Next, a backup image from the clone iPAQ was created and copied into the other iPAQs.

4. Distributing the iPAQs. At the beginning of the semester, each student received the equipment and completed a loan form. At the end of the semester, each student returned the iPAQs along with all supporting materials.

5. Providing Technical Assistance. Support and maintenance play a crucial part in the success of classroom technology. For this project, technical support to the students was provided through a one-on-one consultation. Additionally, orientation classes for the students were scheduled at the beginning of the semester and during the first 30 minutes of each lecture.

Classroom Usage

In the classroom, these devices were used for collecting and analyzing data, writing parts of assignments directly on the handheld, performing on-the-spot statistical analysis, beaming or e-mailing assignments written in Microsoft Word, accessing e-mail, browsing the Web to download course material, taking a quiz and chatting via an instant messaging program.

At the beginning of each class, the students used wireless technology to access the course Webpage and completed a self-assessment survey posted on the Internet. This quiz was used to guide the discussion on a given subject. During the course of the class, students downloaded PowerPoint presentations into their iPAQs and viewed them using PocketSlides.

Among other activities, the students completed learning tasks on the Web. Throughout the semester, students also were encouraged to record their experiences in a journal and provide feedback of their experiences by completing an online evaluation.

Benefits of implementing handheld computers are many, but the most relevant to the students and instructors is the opportunity to take the learning experience much further than the actual classroom. Because of their portability, they can carry these devices with them from class to class or wherever they go and capture information while interacting with their peers. It's also possible to store the students' work and make it portable and accessible to both students and instructors at any time.

Susana Juniu is an associate professor at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J. For more information, go to ~junius/ResearchiPAQProject/CourseMenu.htm.