From: Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education 15th International Conference, Atlanta, GA , March 1-6, 2004
PDA USE IN SOCIAL STUDIES
School of Education
University of Delaware
Abstract: The rapidly expanding uses for PDAs in education are presented in this
paper. Experienced and novice technology users are invited to learn techniques for
employing new upgraded handhelds for educational planning, data management, and
classroom applications. This article focuses on information that will assist social studies
practitioners. Accordingly, a variety of related instructional applications for these
miniature computers is discussed. A review of current PDA literature is presented.
Practical issues and classroom concerns are briefly covered. The paper ends with a
selection of URLs for social studies Web resources and a list of some recent PDA
software programs of interest to educators.
The digital age that ushers in the twenty-first century offers history and social
studies educators a unique opportunity to venture down roads never before taken
by teachers in the history of education. (Cantu & Warren 2003)
Today PDAs, personal digital assistants, are much more than just lightweight compact tools to store appointment
calendars and addresses. They have been transformed into miniature pocket computers. Tomorrow’s handhelds will
even incorporate microscopic-sized nanotechnology chips and perform tasks limited only by human imagination.
PDAs are practical tools for students because they are more convenient and cost less than laptops and desktops.
Teachers can use these computers to store their lesson plans, grades, reports to parents and faculty meeting notes.
These are but a few of the possible functions now at their finger tips: in the classroom, at meetings with parents or
administrators, and at home.
Not only are personal digital assistants small and portable, they are also simple to operate. Hence it is no wonder
that the use of these devices is growing rapidly. A PDA turns on quickly unlike laptops or desktops. Physicians
carry PDAs on hospital rounds and refer to specialty sources or patient’s records and note prescriptions and other
data. Books can be read and e-mail checked. PDAs are easily linked to the Internet and can control PowerPoint
presentations. Music is available for handhelds that incorporate MP3 players capable of storing hundreds of songs.
To make written notations the user can handwrite or type using a stylus or a miniature built-in or snap-on
keyboard. For lengthier documents an attachable folding portable keyboard is carried in purse or pocket. At day’s
end the PDA is placed in a cradle attached to a desktop or laptop. There the batteries are recharged and new data is
transferred to the files on the main computer. If these are both Bluetooth® enabled, the information is transferred
wirelessly thru a microwave port. A lesson or report file on a desktop is easily sent to the PDA for referencing in
the classroom or at a meeting. Despite the unique features, among educational PDA users, less than twenty-two per
cent are teachers, (Figure 1.). However, those who do are finding that their PDA is a highly innovative and cost
effective tool, (Quality Educations Data’s 2001- 2002, District Technology Forecast, in Ezarik 2002, P. 1, below).
Educational Users of PDA’s Figure 1
Others in district=52.7% Principals=43%
Technology Coordinators =57.5% others in district=52.7%
You will want to consider the practicality of supplying students with these small handheld devices versus
having them work in the computer lab. Even if you don't now have your own PDA, take a few minutes to be
informed on how PDAs can be integrated into the social studies curriculum. New educational software has been
developed. Some free PDA software is available on the Internet. Before purchasing or downloading, you will want
to be sure that the software you purchase is compatible with the model and operating system of your PDA; removing
unwanted programs can be difficult. Conserve memory by using only the features of the software that you need.
Connecting your PDA to the Internet
Some hybrid phone/PDA models connect directly to the Internet. For other PDAs, cards may be purchased from
telephone companies enabling a connection to their telecommunication network and the Internet. Infrared light
beams or microwave links, such as Bluetooth®, can be used to connect to the Internet via desktop or laptop
computers. Inexpensive Bluetooth adaptors are available that will fit the USB port of all modern computers. You do
not need a Bluetooth enabled PDA, phone card or PDA/phone to get on the Internet. You can purchase a cable that
will link your handheld to a cell phone. However, not all telephone companies allow for telecommunication service
from a cable-connected PDA. Be very cautious before purchasing any equipment or services. Have a clear
understanding as to compatibility and rates. If you expect to connect through your school network, check first with
your technology system administrator.
Teacher Uses of PDAs
Lesson Plans: The portability of handhelds means that teachers can jot down ideas for lessons directly into the
handy PDA. There are lesson plan programs available or one can easily be made. Formats that are required by a
district can also be copied on to a PDA format.
Instruction: A pocket version of PowerPoint for handhelds allows educators to stand, sit or move about a classroom
using a PDA to make presentations. Handhelds can plug directly into projectors just like a notebook computer.
Teachers may operate a PowerPoint presentation from various locations in the classroom. If a specific website’s
materials are needed, a teacher can send the URL links to the student’s PDA. Current events are now taught with
information from on-line newspapers and broadcast websites.
Recordkeeping: In addition to checking attendance, teachers can use PDAs to track student progress. On an ongoing
project, grades are recorded and notes made for each section of a project as the teacher walks around the classroom.
This record can then be provided to the student and parent to tell them how well the project is progressing.
Grading: One of the most obvious uses of PDAs is assessment. It is stated by Karen Fasimpaur, of the company
K12 Handheld’s, that “…90 percent of what you can do on a desktop you can do on a handheld”, (Ezarik, 2002,
section: Handheld (r)evolution). Fasimpaur reports that almost every major grade book company has a handheld
version of the software, ( Ezarik, section: Anytime, anywhere leading). Thus, no matter what grading program a
school uses the teacher can covert grades on the PDA to their school’s grading system. Additionally Excel programs
are available that can also be used for grades.
Educational Collaboration: Consider developing one lesson of a unit while colleagues develop others. E-mail the
lesson plans and store them on the PDA. The Lesson set can be edited according to specific needs. Later the teacher
can easily view the plan while instructing. Educators who are working on the same unit will find that collaboratively
sharing their labors is a real time saver; useful lesson plans can be shared with others on collaborative websites.
Student Uses of PDAs
Referencing Information: Students can access encyclopedias and other sources in class. There are free and for-sale
versions of encyclopedias for PDAs. Books are available from online libraries and chips can be added which will
hold entire volumes. It is possible to have a class library of biographies or novels for easy student access.
Data Collection Activities: PDAs are ideal tools for conducting surveys. Data is easily stored and collated.
Information can be quickly retrieved for later additions or oral and written class reports.
Peer Collaboration: Students using handhelds can send data and information files to others to assemble group
projects. Hence collaboration may not require classroom or after school meetings for planning or sharing data.
Report Writing: The ability to use word processing programs for writing is a real plus. Compact folding keyboards
are easy to snap on and large enough for growing young hands to comfortably manipulate. Scarce computer room
time is not a concern for the classroom with PDA sets.
Internet Searches: Locating primary source materials is easy. There are many wonderful websites that feature
historical, geographic and various other social studies topics suitable for K-12 students. There are also programs that
will filter unsuitable sites. Additionally, teachers can send the URLs of useful student websites.
E-mail exchanges: Students with Internet access are able to communicate with students in other areas of the U.S.
and in different cultures around the world. They are also able to contact those authorities willing to share expertise
with young learners.
Teachers can make numerous uses of handhelds but their functionality is even more promising when they are
available for students. Handhelds allow for more varied lessons. In fact, software can now be purchased for
numerous instructional purposes. Most students enjoy working with computers. Frequently they will use them to
perform tasks they avoid when working with text books. Importantly, students are on task and learning skills needed
for post-secondary study and tomorrow’s workplace.
Author Alan November, Empowering students with technology (2001) has written: “Technology is finally faster,
cheaper, easier and smaller. How long will it take to convert this amazing change in technology into improved
learning?” (p. xvii). Elliot Solloway, (2002) is optimistic; he believes that handhelds will answer the need for a
standard computing tool for every student. Solloway, Co-director on the University of Michigan’s Center for Highly
Interactive Computing in Education, is developing educational software for PDAs. Programs are available free at his
website: www.handheld.hice.org It is notable that there are those who predict that PDAs in the hands of every
student will be the norm rather than four or five tabletops at the rear of the room; among those is Tim Loudermilk,
President of a company making software for multiple platforms. He and others predict a revolutionary explosion in
wireless communication with increased messaging between teacher and student, (Ezarik, 2002 section: Leadership
Paul Shuster, computer science educator turned software developer at Media-X, reports that their software,
eTeacher, has been used in Canada for five years. This software is reportedly useful for construction of units, and
listing rubrics. Moreover, it will even graph student’s performance, comparing them to state standards, (Ezarik,
section: Leadership training). In reviewing PDAs Susan McLester, (2001) is impressed with the portability of
handhelds citing their convenience for field trips. This is certainly True. Teachers can check their attendance as
students board a vehicle, refer to notes on exhibits, and hold a map of the museum’s interior and the best travel
route. Student’s emergency phone numbers are also at hand. The current generation of PDAs have much larger
hard drives and are capable of far greater utility inside and outside the classroom.
Some still ask why new technologies are needed for Social Studies. This question is addressed by media &
history experts Bass & Rosenzweig, (2001, see section 1). These authors also observe that some early software
programs promoted passivity and did not provide meaningful interactivity. They caution that technology should not
be seen as a cure for bored students. However, Bass & Rosenzweig observe that it is important for teachers to have
tools available that allow then to use technology resources frequently and effectively. While the reader is reminded
that minority students are least able to purchase etools, Bass & Rosenzweig assert that with a connection to the
Internet allows the inter-city child to have as much access to documents as those who attend well funded private and
suburban schools. Primary documents, photographs and other artifacts become far more accessible. Thus, those
students who are actually provided with technology tools are better able to realize the complexities of the past and
meet standards for information literacy. Additionally, e-mail and web bulletin boards make available important new
ways to enhance social studies interactions, (p. 7).
In answering the question “what works” Bass & Rosenzweig, (2001) see three principal uses of handhelds for
social studies. These are: inquiry based learning, on-line interactions that bridge learning and foster interactions, and
the review and public exchange of student created information products, (p.4.) Because the Internet makes accessing
archival sites of primary sources possible museums are striving to digitalize their holdings. Stephanie Norby,
Director of the Smithson Center for Education & Museum Studies describes the new resources available on the
educator’s section of the new Smithsonian website. www.smithsonian.org Period photographs, newspapers,
telegraph messages, reproductions of old paper money and related interactive websites for students all provide
valuable data or first-person reports that are very engaging to young minds. Norby (2003) reports on how even
fourth and fifth grades are using these resources, (p. 52).
As pointed out by Whitworth, Swan & Berson, (2002) a social studies classroom can be equipped with a set of
handhelds to be used by a student when needed or by a group for a research project. The portable PDA can go on
location with students to record data for field trips or results of public opinion investigations in their local
community. Using PDAs students can send e-mail to help in planning historical reports. Once typed, using the
handheld’s word processing program, the file can be forwarded for printing to the school media center or for
retrieval by the teacher. This process is facilitated by Bluetooth® enabled printers and PDAs or by beaming to older
IR (infra-red) type printers. In one case, Whitworth et al. report that students beamed each other findings on a
weekend public opinion survey. Whitworth et al. also describe software that helps economics students plan
household budgets. These authors advise educators to visit activity-planning websites and network with other
teachers working with handhelds, (2002, p. 7). The University of Minnesota EduTech project website suggests
students work in groups outlining primary documents. Outlines help pupils organize more detailed materials. Using
graphic organizer software such as PicoMap, designed for concept reading and information exchange, can increase
mutual understanding. To recall facts data cards can be made with PDA software such as Quizzler; both PicoMap,
and Quizzler are examples of programs available for a PDA.
The technology consortium SRI International, in conjunction with Palm Inc. and their Palm Education Pioneer,
PEP, grant program, studied 100 grade 2-12 educators, who had little prior PDA experience, (2002). Reportedly,
“PEP teachers were overwhelmingly positive about the use of handheld computers in their classrooms, p. 1.
Approximately 90% of PEP teachers stated that handhelds positively affect student learning. While teachers at all
grade levels used the PDAs, the study indicated elementary school teachers were “more positive” about their use.
Handhelds improved activities in many subjects,(p. iii). Students were said to have actually benefited the most when
writing. Teachers reported that having the necessary “software and peripherals was key…” Therefore, a need for
keyboards is something to be aware of in social studies writing. In the Palm/SRI study approximately three quarters
of those who taught reading and social studies lessons found PDA use was effective, ( p 11).
At the International School of Brussels, ISB, Middle School, the entire faculty and student body were given
PDAs. “The students were taught how to apply handhelds to basic academic needs.” They also learned how to
program the handhelds (Semas, 2002, see: The next tech wave). To enable this endeavor, a special training course
was developed over the summer. Initially, connection problems with the school’s network needed to be resolved.
Student classroom projects were conducted with groups of two or three; each group had a student with some prior
computer experience. With the help of a knowledgeable technology teacher some students actually wrote simple
applications. A beamable test was set up by one student group. “A teacher would beam it to students who would
beam back their answers,”. At IBS, with handhelds, the teachers were able to design a system to easily track buses.
In the United States, one of the largest American PDA employments involved all three high schools of the
Consolidated School District 230 in Illinois. PDAs were provided for student instruction, District 230 operates a
wireless network; a cart shifts the handheld to classrooms where they enable computer use for every subject
including physical fitness. Families are also able to purchase a handheld from the district. Consequently, students
can operate the PDA at home to track grades and personal and school schedules, (Walery, 2003). It should be noted
that many of the findings reported from other content areas can be constructively extended to social studies. At the
conclusion of a large middle school science project PDA study, Metcalf & Tinker (2003) posited that success was
closely related to teacher buy-in and skills.
The most important factor for success was the teacher. Teachers who took the
time to review the curriculum and make it their own had significantly greater
success than those teachers who tried simply to drop the curriculum as is into their
classroom. Other factors for success included the teachers' openness to learning
technologies, comfort level with trying new things, content ability and level of
understanding, and classroom management skills. Metcalf & Tinker, ( p. 9.).
Meeting the Challenge
While teacher buy-in and comfort level are important, they won’t overcome every difficulty social studies
teachers face. Currently, there is less software to support social studies lessons and projects than is available for
other areas such as science and math. However Texas Instruments, TI, is cooperating with the National Council for
the Social Studies to develop lesson plans for PDAs, (Dean, 2002). Breakage and loss is also a concern. Many
teachers require that student contracts be signed by parents. Happily, TI has also has come up with a true triumph of
technology, a new keyboard that can survive being transported in a student’s backpack, (Dean). It is well known, of
course, that this mode of conveyance has taken many textbooks to their demise. Thus, it is possible that new sturdy
PDAs may indeed become the most significant carrier of the written word since printed pages replaced the clay
The information presented here is intended to assist teachers who are considering the utility, cost, and curricular
potential of the new PDAs. Many of the large organized PDA trials have started with inservice training. If such
instruction is not is an option, a possible solution for the novice is to start out with teacher applications. Quality
how-to books are available for most handhelds. A semester’s personal experience with a PDA will allow an educator
to better evaluate the tool, and their personal comfort level. It should be remembered that a teacher’s personal
initiative is essential to classroom success. As Cantu and Warren ( 2003) have written: “Without their leadership
the use of computer technology and the Internet in history and in social studies education will continue to lag far
behind other core disciplines and sectors of American society”( p. x iii,).
A Selection of Useful Social Studies Links
Smithsonian, Vast digital archives and related links. http://www.smithsonian.org
U. Virginia Etext Center, Free PDA books: American history, major authors. http://etext.virginia.edu/ebooks
D.E.A.L. Project, American Immigration multimedia resources, collaboration tools. http://www.udel.edu/soe/deal
Cntr. for Highly Interactive Computing in Education, Free PDA software and curriculum www.handheld.hice.org
Time for kids. Child oriented current events, games, and archives. http://www.timefrkids.com
PDA Librarian! PDA books & U.S. primary documents, biographies. http://user.pa.net/~thompson/
Puzzlemaker: http://puzzlemaker.school.discovery.com/ ; A history of the world website: www.Historylink101.com
Map reading lesson site: http://mac.usgs.gov/mac/isb/pubs/teachers-packets/mapshow/lesson1.html
Social studies clip art: http://school.discovery.com/clipart/category/socs1.htm
A Sample List of Software for PDA’s
Store lesson plans - software available- Palm; Create your own custom applications-AppForge, www.appforge.com
Read, Create, Word, Excel & PowerPoint documents- Documents to Go, DataVis
Thought Manager for Teachers- Thompson software; PDA PowerPoint presentation software, use while non-seated
Faculty meeting notes-email capacity- software-HPC notes; Desktop To Go -synchronized with school e-mail
Minutes- Minute Maker software- PC & Palm; Convert drawings to slides or import graphics- One Cat Doodler 3
Access your home or classroom computer-, Cosession Remote 32, Artisoft
Quizzler- software for listing recall of information; PicoMap graphic organizer software
E-mail voice read out to you as you work or wait- iSpeak Fonix - Pocket PC, Palm
Bass, R. & R. Rosenzweig (2001). Rewiring the History & Social Studies Classroom: Needs, Frameworks, Dangers,
& Proposals. In O. V. Burton, (Ed.) Computing in the Social Sciences (pp. 29-51). Evanston, IL, U. of Illinois Press.
Cantu, D. A. & Warren, W.J. (2003). Teaching history in the digital classroom, Armonk, N Y, M.E. Sharpe.
Dean, K. (2002). Teachers Wanna Hold a Handheld. pp 1-2 Wired News.
http:// www.wired.com/news/school/0,1383,53329,00.html On 11/1/03.
Famispaur, K. (2002). As quoted in M. Ezarik, Leadership training: section: Anytime, anywhere leading whole
world in their hands, District Administration, July 2002. http://www.districtadministration.com/ On 11/8/03.
Loudermilk, Tim. As quoted in M. Ezarik, Leadership training: the whole world in their hands,
District Administration , July 2002. http://www.districtadministration.com/ On 11/8/03.
McLester, S. (2001). Top 10 technology breakthroughs for schools. Technology & Learning, 22, 16-26.
From: http://www.techlearning.com/ 11/7/03.
Metcalf, S. J. & Tinker, R. (2003) TEEMSS: Technology Enhanced Elementary and Middle School Science, Annual
Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Mar. 23-26, 2003, Philadelphia, PA.
Norby, S. (2003). Hardwired into history, Educational Leadership, 61, (4) 48-53.
November, A. (2001). Empowering Students with Technology, Glenview IL, Pearson/Skylight.
Palm Education Pioneers Program, Final Evaluation Report, SRI International, Prepared by: Phil Vahey and Valerie
Crawford, SRI International From: www.palmgrants.sri.com On 11/10/03.
Quality Education Data, (2002) District Technology Forecast, in M. Ezarik, Leadership training: the whole world in
their hands, .District Administration, July 2002, 28-32. http://www.districtadministration.com/ On 11/8/03.
Semas, J. H. (2002). The next tech wave: a new course in Palm computer technology has overrun classes at this
Belgium school. These handhelds are changing personal habits as well as school culture. District Administration.
Nov. 14-20. http://www.districtadministration.com/ On 11/5/03.
Shuster, P. (2002). As quoted in M. Ezarik, Leadership training: the whole world in their hands, teachers, leave the
desks behind, .District Administration, July 2002. http://www.districtadministration.com/ On 11/8/03.
Solloway, E. (2002). As quoted by C. Wood in Education, PC Magazine, Mar. 12, 2002.
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,4149,15154,00.asp 0n 11/20/03.
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From http://education.umn.edu/tech/!social/tools/PDA.htm On 11/8/03
Whitworth, S., Swan, K. & M. Berson. (2002). Handheld computing in social studies. Social Education, 66, 174-184.
Walery, D. (2003). District 230 students make use of handheld computers. (Reprint by permission, District 230.)