Lightweight gadget with a Heavyweight effect PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Broome on Tuesday, 03 May 2005
/edupalm.jpgFor years (decades, even) I carried a large ring folder to every class.  It contained class lists, records of what each class and each pupil had done, copies of the workschemes, and pictures of particularly good projects (so I could show those who’d managed to miss the inspiration that my introductions had engendered in their colleagues).  Oh, and I carried a diary, to remind me of meetings that I absolutely had to attend, for fear of being volunteered for something appalling, or of missing the (rare) important announcement or educational idea.

I still see people equipped like that; their PlannerDiary clutched under their arm, stuffed full of extra papers – all very important notes that must be acted upon urgently.  “How quaint”, think I, and reminiscences of how it used to be come flooding back.

So how is it different now ? Have I retired and now spend my vast leisure time observing ex-colleagues (because I miss it all so much) ?  No. Well, actually I did take early-retirement to escape the administrative load, and staff management “issues”, but due to a need to pay the mortgage, and a rescue-mission that came my way, I’m now teaching three days a week (note: teaching) and I’m happy as a pig in straw.  But why am I so happy ?  I’ll tell you.

When I upgraded my PDA to a Palm Tungsten T3 last June it came with the ability to read and write “Word” and “Excel” documents, which it could then “synchronise” with my desktop computer (at home, at school, or both).  For the previous twenty years I had developed a database system for recording my Departments’ and Faculty’s assessments, from which meaningful reports could be automatically written.  I began looking to recreate something like this on my PDA.
First stop was to transfer class lists to Excel format.  Next, these were synchronised to the PDA along with copies of the workschemes (also in Excel format).  Soon after, the syllabi (“specifications” in modern-speak) were downloaded from the exam groups’ sites as “pdf” files, and transferred for reading in PalmAcrobat.  As time went on, I scanned photos of good projects and added these to the PDA, partly as inspiration for pupils and partly to lift my spirits when not high on kids’ progress (!).
All this had the immediate advantage that I no longer had to carry the folder! All the information I had before, and more.  And it all fits into my shirt pocket.

In the classroom ?  How is it used ?  The pupils are gradually getting used to my gadget, after all they see it every lesson, as I use the Excel class lists for the register, and for recording assessments.  And it still causes intrigue in class, and raises my street-cred (not bad for a 59 year-old).

What swiftly occurred to me was that, whereas the paper register pretty well only had space for ticks and absence marks, if I wish I can write notes on the activities of every child every lesson, as the spreadsheet cell is not width limited ! That has been very useful when they’re on individual projects, and at different stages with different needs.  We assess Design & Technology projects through seven key indicators.  Once these are entered (a process that can happen even lesson, if I wish), the PDA can calculate a weighted average to give the equivalent KS3 level, or GCSE grade, which speeds up completing the school’s monitoring process later.
Fundamentally, I “don’t do” little bits of paper any more.  No more scraps with who’s in detention (separate “memo”, rated “possible det”, “delayed exit”, “detention” – with length & date, and “ring parents”), who’s waiting for help (can be carried over to next lesson if I wish), what I’d like raised in department meetings, and the department photocopy code (amongst others).  No more are they left lying about for others to read, or lost, or simply lurking in a pile of other urgent little bits of paper on my desk.  They’re on the PDA. Available.  Whenever.

How else is a PDA useful at the chalk-face (“white-board-marker-face” doesn’t have the same ring to it !) ?  If I’m called to emergency lesson cover I always have something to read, or perhaps the facility to write a “Word” document I’ve been trying to complete.  The 150,000 English word dictionary is useful to prove to kids that my spelling is better than theirs, as are the dictionaries of other languages, and the translators.  The variable format calculator (scientific, binary, hexadecimal, and graphical) is also useful, not least because that’s another plastic box I can leave at home (no need for a separate one).  Talking of the scientific… data loggers are available, so live data can be captured (and here’s the advantage over the usual equipment) either in the lab or outside on “field studies”.

Away from the classroom, the voice recorder comes in handy, and, for quiet moments when preparing lessons, the mpa player can be relaxing (depends on your choice of music!).  And, through my mobile phone, I can surf the internet.  Also via the “mobile”, txt msgs R mch easier 2 write (u cd txt ppl prnts their child is absent! – or brilliant!) .
And the future ?  I’m looking forward to the interactive white boards the department has been promised (hopefully before I retire again), so that I can prepare visuals (for example, on PowerPoint) of the lessons’ topics and then beam them to an infra-red equipped data-projector.

I’m looking forward to my PDA being linked to the school’s registration and pupil database.  I loathe (with a vehemence to behold ! ) the amount of administrative repetition this profession tolerates, so that link will mean I don’t have to copy things from one piece of paper or system to another.  Also, I’ll be able to have photos of pupils with the register, so their assessment doesn’t rely on whether I can remember which twin did which piece of work.  Furthermore, selected items of my assessment can be automatically uploaded to the school system, so I don’t have to manually (including typing it from my system onto the school’s admin. network) several times a year – it will mean I have to ensure I do my assessments in good time, but that’s focussing my time on the bit I’m specialised at, not the clerical transfer that most of us spend too much time on now.

There is already the technology for me to “beam” worksheets and notes to a PDA-enabled class, as most PDAs can “talk” to others, via infra-red.  There are some schools in USA where this is being trialled.
And that’s just the school stuff…!

Add the diary (“date book” – on which you can put an warning alarm on selected entries – or every one - if you wish), and the address book (“contacts” – which you can categorise “home”, “school”, “whatever”) and it is easy to see that a PDA can rapidly become the centre of your personal and professional organisation.

So how will this potential future development happen ?  If the standard model of educational development is followed, we will each work through the same process, re-inventing the axle, the wheel, the wheel nuts, and the hub caps, occasionally meeting someone who will suggest that wheels are best if round, and hub caps always fall off and you don’t really need them.  I have to stifle a “hobby-horse” here – the lack of co-ordination in this profession annoys me.  The intelligent model is to observe (and perhaps take part in) the forum of a group who are intent on designing the educator’s PDA Nirvana.  This can be found at www.handheldlearning.co.uk .  Join the 21st century and help to show that PDAs can make our profession more effective.

A word of warning never let a kid touch it – I did once, with my first PDA, when it was new, and it came back two minutes later with a scratch that turned every “i” written in the handwriting recognition format (called “Graffiti”) into a “t” – now I’m very strict about not lending it to anyone.

© Peter Broome

Peter Broome

I took early retirement in 2003 after 36 years teaching what became “Design & Technology” in the state system.  The last thirty years were as head of department or faculty, and latterly as Assistant Head, with a while as Co-ordinator of ICT as well.  Since retirement, I have “done supply”, through which I found a school in significant need of long term help, so I’m now teaching part time there (no admin, no tutor group, no staff management, just one almost empty pigeon hole ! ).

All of “my” departments and faculties have been “managed” through the use of computers, either using standard programs (spreadsheets, databases, etc.) or writing my own software.  Early experience of the RM 380Z, BBC, and Apple 2e machines guided me to use the Sinclair QL extensively, and subsequently PC machines.  Laptops made taking work home easier (was this an advantage ???).
In 2001 I bought a Palm Vx , which meant I never again missed a meeting – and always had notes at hand on decisions made.  When this wore out, around June 2004, it was replaced by a Palm Tungsten T3, and my PDA involvement in teaching really got into gear.

Pet hate 1: enforced repetitive tasks (the main waste of effort in the teaching profession) such as copying class lists into registers, copying assessment grades from class list to schools’ record systems, reinventing workschemes from the same National Curriculum syllabus (it’s still being done, all over the country – what a waste of effort).

Pet Hate 2: the use of the word “regular” when “frequent” is meant.

Comments from the forum:
Lightweight gadget with a Heavyweight effect
Jocelyn    June 14th, 2005 - 9:14 PM
Wow Peter - that's a really positive endorsement - have you tried Tiny Red Book http://www.tiny-red-book.com/ It is Palm only and rated as really useful by the ITT students except that it won't do 2 week timetables. Did you access the internet via wireless or mobile phone?
Re: Lightweight gadget with a Heavyweight effect
thornuk    March 16th, 2006 - 11:35 AM
Tiny Red Book looks interesting, although I have to be convinced why I should spent $25 when the Excel spreadsheet I have developed on my T3 mostly suits my needs.  An on-screen demonstration would be useful, as I dislike loading trial software only to have to remove it later (with the attendant suspicion that the clean up has not been entirely debris-free).

However, I still have misgivings about the Excel format, as it is quite possible for a pupil to be on two (or more) lists, and a fortnightly timetable (which I presently endure) does give scope to not notice that the pupil has shown up twice in parallel groups (because they have "sussed" the loophole, and are avoiding another subject).

My T3 does not directly access the internet through wifi, and, although it can via "bluetooth" to my mobile phone, the call charges inhibit my use of this !

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 03 May 2005 )
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