OLATHE, Kan. — Aesop’s fables came beaming across the classroom and landed in Eva Hernandez’s Palm handheld.
On the bottom floor of Ridgeview Elementary School, she sat scrolling, using her stylus to navigate through through “The Flies and the Honeypot.”
“Hmmm,” said the 12-year-old. “I think I can animate the flies.”
Eva, a sixth grader, is part of a new generation of kids using handhelds to read, write, do math, take pictures of the human eye or research Egyptian hieroglyphics — all as a regular part of their curriculum.
As school districts scout ways to engage students already accustomed to instant messaging and interactive video games, they’re buying up the kind of tech tools once reserved for jet-setting corporate executives.
Educational sales of personal digital assistants, laptop computers and handheld remote controls called “clickers” are ballooning nationwide. Last year, a survey by Quality Education Data Inc. found that 28 percent of U.S. school districts offered handhelds for student and teacher use. One of every four computers purchased by schools was a laptop.
One of the frontrunners was Yankton High School in South Dakota, which adopted Palm handhelds in 2001 and found they improved students’ grades.
Electronic learning has become so popular that one school in Arizona went textbook-free this year, instead equipping its students with laptops. Seventeen schools outside Eugene, Ore., now use handhelds on most science field trips.
Eva Hernandez’s district has spent $1.84 million to build “smart classrooms” with electronic interactive whiteboards, handheld computers, DVD-VHS players, high-definition sound and video systems and wireless keyboards and mice, all of which connect to the teacher’s desktop computer. High schoolers use their Palms to write college applications and work through calculus problems. Nine-year-olds routinely “beam” in their homework, making the district a poster child for the digital classroom.
Ridgeview Elementary, which sits in a squat building on the edge of this booming Kansas City suburb, bought Zire 71 and Zire 72 models for the fourth and sixth grades. Aside from their basic functions, the handhelds boast color screens, digital cameras, Internet capabilities and MP3 players. They can be easily hooked up to wireless keyboards.
Eva’s teacher, Regan Veach, was one of the first in Kansas to embrace handhelds and now trains educators across the state.
Veach touts a new generation of educational software that makes the devices worthwhile.
Using a drawing and graphics application called TealPaint, students can animate their versions of Aesop’s tales to transform a fable into a digital flipbook. Another program, Inspiration, lets students create clickable “mindmaps” to diagram ideas before they start writing, while Quizzler gives children instant feedback on multiple choice tests.
Studies show that when used regularly, such media-rich instructional tools can work well to assess student performance.
But some worry that while children may learn to beam in their papers, this generation of “digital natives” could come up short in learning basic math, science and English.
“Despite the fact that we have spent gazillions of dollars in schools on technology, it’s still just a leap of faith that kids are better educated because of that,” said Robin Raskin, the founder and former editor of FamilyPC magazine.
Ridgeview’s principal, Kelly Ralston, is aware that technology won’t erase the difficulties faced by her students, over half of whom come from low-income families.
Last year, she spent just one-third of her annual $63,000 budget for handhelds; the district has spent at least $952,000 to equip 4,000 students with the devices in the last four school years.
“The overall achievement is rising and the Palms have been a piece in keeping our kids engaged,” said Ralston.
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