Downloading Education

By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
A day in the life of a typical twelve-year-old becomes more technical on a daily basis. Beginning with a wake up call from a computer, to playing an Xbox or video game, to downloading favorite songs, to checking e-mail on the internet, a young teen’s life is consumed with computer-based activities. To put it bluntly, technology energizes normal activities. The challenge to using technology is something that today’s parents, when they were the same age, only read about in science-fiction books. Teens know that there’s a whole new world to explore using computers. So what’s next?

A new program at St. James School in Syracuse and St. Patrick School in Oneida brings handheld computers into the fifth grade classroom to enhance their education.

The handheld computers, which are about six inches long and about four inches wide and made by the Hand Spring and Palm Companies, can be wirelessly connected to teacher-chosen websites. Teachers can download approved sites into the handheld computers for the students to use and track the movements of the students’ usage on the handheld computers.

“As the teacher, I control what they can look at. Unless I ‘hotsink’ things into their computers, they don’t have access to anything,” said Sally Terek, fifth grade teacher at St. James. “It’s a safeguard.”

The handheld computers are also equipped with a digital camera and a detachable keyboard. Technology will allow students to research topics such as weather changes, which correlate with their academic work.

A trip to a national conference in San Jose, Calif. inspired Dominic Lisi, director of technology for Catholic Schools in the Syracuse Diocese, to implement programs encouraging increased access to technology. He explained that the conference made him aware of the widespread use of computers throughout the nations’ schools and influenced him to consider a plan that would keep the diocese’s children prepared to compete in an increasingly digital world. “I took part in the palm educational program,” Lisi said. “I wanted to see how the programs would work. Basically, these programs give the kids access to technology where they wouldn’t normally have it.”

Lisi stated that while most classrooms have one or two computers for student use, the handheld computers give students the opportunity to have a one-on-one ratio to a vast source of information. It is also a time-saving way to integrate computers into everyday classes.

St. James and St. Patrick Schools were chosen as the pilot schools because Lisi wanted to implement the computers in one school in Syracuse and one outside of the immediate Syracuse area to compare various influences on academic progress.

Prior to placing handheld computers in the classrooms, forums and discussion sessions were held to initiate parents, teachers, administrators and students to the idea of having them in the classrooms.

“It’s a futuristic move. Children will be working with equipment that is cutting edge,” said Joseph Keane, principal at St. Patrick. “PCs are going to be a thing of the past, so we might as well begin now in preparing them for 10 or 12 years down the line. And parents, as well as students, are very enthusiastic about that.” Keane added that the use of handheld computers in the classrooms shows parents that the school is willing to provide the latest and best equipment to better prepare students in academics. “It shows how much we care,” Keane said.

Teachers working the handheld computers into their lesson plans attended a training session to introduce them to the opportunities the technology creates. Lisi said that after the training they were quite impressed and excited about using the handheld computers.

Terek explained that her students are very intrigued with technology and eager to learn advanced ways of using it.

“Most of the incoming fifth graders learned about it [the plan to introduce handheld computers] last year and they are very enthusiastic. It’s the size of a Game-Boy. They’ll surely catch on quickly,” said Terek, who received her master’s degree in technology.

Teachers and administrators familiar with the plans to have the handheld computers in the classroom are assured that the technology will not interfere with the basic skills students need to learn.

“There’s no difference in the skills being taught to the students. They still need to know the basics before using the computers,” Lisi said. “Now we have the ability to show them how to use another educational tool, which, if used properly, can help tremendously.”

Terek added that the students will not be using the handheld computers six hours a day, but rather for specific periods.

“We’re introducing it slowly,” Terek said. “First with science and then we’ll work it into social studies by using them to research for data-based questions. It really won’t directly affect standardized tests in any way. It’s just a resource for the students to use academically.”

The diocese funded the handheld computers, which cost between $150 and $200 each, through grants. Options such as laptops and more computers in the classroom were estimated to cost more than $800 each. Both St. James and St. Patrick Schools received approximately 20 handheld computers. Students are only able to use the handheld computers during class hours and are not able to take them home. The schools plan to allow the current fifth graders to continue using handheld computers in their classes when they become sixth graders.

Lisi chose to introduce the technology primarily at the fifth grade level in order to have at least two years to study the influence of the program. “Fifth graders are at a good level. They’re not stressed out by the fourth grade tests,” Lisi said, referring to the standardized English-Language Arts Tests. The handheld computers the schools are using in the classrooms are the same as the ones often bought for personal use; however, the schools are including educational software to make the handheld computers most useful in an academic setting.

“I was impressed when I saw what can be done with handheld computers, far more than what you’d expect, especially from a classroom standpoint,” Keane said. “Unfortunately many people are unaware of it, but classroom use of computers is expanding exponentially. There are so many possibilities, I can’t even think of them all.”

For one of the first projects, the handheld computers are being included in the teachers’ science lesson plans to track weather movements.

“It’s a hands-on tool that can be more time-effective,” Terek said. “When we go out in the field, we can take these with us and they can do a comparison on temperatures right there. They also have access to air quality and water quality reports.”

Such tasks as reading a book online, researching topics, typing papers, downloading information from textbook resources and creating PowerPoint presentations are all possible using the handheld computers. In addition, the handheld computers can be used as advanced calculators capable of graphing and performing scientific functions.

“When the students begin in September,” Terek said, “it’s going to be great to watch their excitement about the new handheld computers.”

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