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.
For Eric Johnson, who directs educational sales for Palm Inc., the manufacturer of Eva's Zire 71 model, public schools represent a $300 million market. And as schools purchase handhelds, dozens of spin-off industries are racing to integrate themselves into teachers' lesson plans.
Ridgeview Elementary, which sits in a squat building on the edge of this booming Kansas City suburb, bought Palm Zire 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.
Veach's instructional process illustrates just how crucial the handhelds have become to everyday learning in Olathe schools.
First, she downloaded Aesop's Fables from a free online site and reformatted it using a program called ebookstudio that crunches it into a format the handhelds can read.
That left Eva and her classmates fidgeting with anticipation. Then, once Veach "synched" her Palm to her desktop and "beamed" the fables from student to student, excitement spilled through the room.
"My stepdad, he was like freaked out because he didn't get to use (the devices)," said Alejandro Najera, 11, as he selected colors from a rainbow template on his 3-inch screen. "Now whenever I go home, he's like, `What did you do with the Palms today'?"
Next was an exercise with the "clickers," handheld remotes that Veach uses to gauge students' progress. As pupils took a quiz to instantly test their understanding of Greek mythology, Veach got out a wireless whiteboard to write up the day's homework.
The day's assignments — 90 minutes of reading and a few multiplication exercises — were then wirelessly projected onto a roll-down screen at the front of the classroom and onto her desktop. The kids copied those notes down on paper — in the sixth grade, they're not allowed to take the handhelds home.
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. "Students need to have some opportunity to digest material serially, like reading a book from end to end. A tiny screen might stop you from being an analytic thinker 'cause you just can't see enough of a thing at once."
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.
In the beginning, Palm Inc.'s early marketing efforts to K-12 classrooms and in supporting the development of educational applications gave it an edge over competitors.
But as handhelds gain expansion ports to add peripherals and built-in infrared e-mail and Internet capabilities, Windows-based "Pocket PC" handhelds such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s iPAQ, Dell Inc.'s Axim and Toshiba Corp.'s Pocket PCs have started gaining ground.
Companies like Durham, N.C.-based Motricity Inc., a mobile content provider that sells books repackaged for several different handheld formats, stand to gain. The Olathe district purchased Motricity's classics collection and saved thousands of dollars on printed books.
But for Georgia Ross, who teaches special education math at Indian Trail Junior High in Olathe, the handhelds offer a way to reach students who struggle with traditional instruction methods.
"I don't know if it's that they feel cool or they're just jazzed about the technology," Ross said. "But having some of those bells and whistles make the kind of information they really need to learn exciting."
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