~e; A Case for PDA Student Computing

From human being <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Wed, 6 Nov 2002 22:20:31 -0600

// posting for review before placing it in the
// future EM Education section of the website.
// comments, suggestions, critiques appreciated.

-- A Case for PDA Student Computing --

this is a draft of an essay proposing the PDA as
the basis for an affordable educational computer,
and a foundation for creating digital classrooms.

    1. A Few Basic Assumptions
    2. PDA Student Computing (PSC)
    3. PDA Student Computer Hardware
    4. PDA Student Computer Software
    5. The PSC Digital Classroom

-- A Case for PDA Student Computing --

I had the pleasure of going to a multimedia school
where the curriculum explored the multidisciplinary
aspects of multimedia computing, such as the history
of computers and its relations to developments in
other disciplines- and stories of technology pioneers
who sketched ideas of what the computer _might become.
In another class a project explored technology trends
and one assignment was to imagine what a computer
may be like in the near future. That is the genesis
of this current essay, which explores a cost-effective
computing infrastructure that could help bridge the
'digital divide' through both economies-of-scale
hardware purchases and custom software development,
for primary and secondary student computing devices,
and their integration into current classroom setups.

1. A Few Basic Assumptions

Before detailing what is needed, it would help to
dispel aspects of present day computing cultures
which are not needed in classroom computing, for
the most general utilities of computing in its
widest sense, as a learning device, as a support
tool, and not an education in itself. A full-scale
Personal Computer (PC), costing hundreds to thousands
of dollars is not required for grade school, junior
high, and possibly even high-school student who may
use it mostly for data entry, calculations, database
lookups, scheduling, prebuilt software packages, and
other basic (and some advanced) tasks. A school or
student may have need for more computing power for
Internet access, say, or as a dedicated art computer
(audiovisual or painting) and therefore a computer
lab may service these needs, or a particular classroom.

Hundreds of dollars worth of standard business software
is also not needed for the general student to perform
basic computing tasks, and explore computing at the
same time. Microsoft's Word software, by itself, would
cost more than the software and hardware of one student
PDA computer. As would software from most major software
industry manufacturers. Therefore, for some specific
applications, open-source software developed within
local, national, and international school systems may
be codeveloped and shared, instead. Paid for by sweat-
equity and-or government research and development grants.
This alone would bring the price-per-computer, and issues
of constantly upgrading software to a low price-point,
likely comparable with current textbooks and materials,
possibly below current costs, over a period of years.

Another aspect of traditional business computing that
does not work in the educational sector towards its
advantage is the form-factor, or the size, shape, and
characteristics of a full-sized PC. They are big, bulky,
noisy, create a lot of heat, need to be cooled, and this
in itself takes a lot of resources, not least of which
includes a monthly electric bill and needs for hiring
computer experts to troubleshoot the simplest to most
complex of problems. It is an avalanche scenario, where
upon purchasing a regular PC system, especially for
younger people, requires spending a lot of time keeping
systems up and running, along with constant tech support,
which as any computer user may know, can stop all activity
should enough small things go wrong at once, making the
focus of the classroom, the computer, and not education.

With that out of the way, it is now appropriate to delve
a bit further into the concept of a PDA Student Computer.

2. PDA Student Computing

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, a PDA is also
known as a personal digital assistant. They have been
around for years, basically re-branding the electronic
organizers with scheduling and organizer functions into
miniature computing devices that are now capable of
running custom programs, such as astronomy, drawing,
language translation, and other programs.

The proprietary operating systems of these PDAs include
the Palm OS, Windows CE, and occasionally open-source
Linux with some models. The PDA hardware is made by a
diverse group of manufacturers, and a lower-end price-
point is near $100 US, with color screens in the $200-
$300 US range. Battery life is still an issue, but new
models oftentimes come with rechargeable batteries,
and most also include slots for removable digital
storage cards, and wireless networking capabilities,
for PDA-to-local-area-network and PDA-PDA connections.

Most PDAs use a touch-screen with a writing stylus,
which at times is the most efficient method of navigation
or data-entry, and other times a keyboard is needed. In
response to this need, a foldable keyboard industry has
sprouted up in response, and is a vital accessory which
can turn a PDA into a basic student computing system:

IMAGE 1: PDA student computing (25 kilobytes)
* temporarily online, please download if archiving.

All the issues inherent in traditional computer, from
price to size to portability, to troubleshooting and
tech support tend to a whole different approach to
student computing that- it is proposed- PDA Student
Computers are superior on most every level at which
students are prepared to use them in a cost-effective
way, in comparison with full-fledged computers whose
resources may never get used before they are outdated.

3. PDA Student Computer Hardware

As mentioned, with hardware available today, off-the-
shelf technologies could be used, or specifications
for an educational computer, designed to meet the
specific needs & requirements of educational computing
could be designed and mass manufactured on such a
scale as to bring the price-point down from those
of commercial models, through uniformity and bulk
purchasing, and possible leasing of these handhelds
until a major hardware revision is available to make
an upgrade cost-effective. Else, in such a system a
phased-in upgrade could happen in school districts,
or specific test classrooms, in order to experiment
with the PDA Student Computer as a model for digital
classrooms, and to explore their full potential which
today is being downgraded because the consumer market
is tending towards mobile phones with PDA functionality.

Yet, PDAs are unique as a small form-factor system
which could be put into a young person's backpack,
safely transported from school to home, and last for
several years, as a basic supplementary computing
system. The Hardware would not be designed for the
Internet, WWW, text messaging, or audio and video.
Instead, it would be like a notebook and textbook
and calculator and class-schedule and gradebook,
drawing pad, word processor, dictionary, translator,
science experiment kit, programming tool, and general
educational device, which young adults may begin to
learn the basics of computing with, and expand upon
this knowledge with larger and more powerful systems
on their own time or in a different lab with Internet
access, while the PDA computer could be stored away
and setup quickly during any class, for support work
in the service of learning, where it performs its
tasks as an infrastructure for various daily lessons.

And, as easily, this diminutive device can be ignored
even as it sits on a desk, or be left to idle without
having to worry about tech support or other issues
that would require an expert to fix on the spot. The
hardware could also be brought home, thus helping all
students have access to the devices, and possibly to
learning software, homework, and programs which they
can learn at their own pace, and in interests which
are particular to their learning interests, at a young
age, without requiring that all students do the same.

To do this would require a standardization of the
PDA Student Computer, and a competitive market for
various companies to develop better and better devices
so that as more schools sign-on to affordable digital
classrooms, they also benefit by technological advances,
and by lower prices and higher performance in contracts.

4. PDA Student Computer Software

PDA Student Computers need an operating system (OS) that
can use both proprietary and open-source software programs.
This is for two important reasons. One being that these
computers need to connect to larger PCs, from time to time,
and thus need an interface to do so which is cross-platform
and stable. A proprietary OS might be preferred by certain
commercial or pre-existing software companies who want to
cross-market PDA educational software in existing markets.
Whereas an open-source OS would enable custom programming
by schools and universities to be used, at no- or low-cost,
by thousands to millions of students in schools across the
world, without the worry of paying for software and constant
upgrades. The goal of the PDA Computer software is stability,
and the OS would not be constantly upgraded so as to require
upgrading all software, if at all possible. Only a major and
planned upgrades would be allowed for PDA Student Computing
hardware and software, to ensure longevity of systems, and
their stability, and benefits of large scale deployments.

It is possible that the US Military or other government R&D
labs have developed some technologies for field use that may
be beneficial to the software (and hardware) of PDA Student
Computers, and these would also be explored, as a way to
pool resources to do as much as possible with the least
amount of wasted resources.

An example of proprietary software that may be used in
various grade schools might be a language program which
helps translate meanings of certain words or sentences.
The best vendor for such programs may be a commercial
software maker who ports their program to the PDA as one
of many platforms. In each grade, or class, one or two
such programs may be critical, and could become 'leased'
or 'purchased' software, under some mutually beneficial
agreement which is cost-effective while getting the most
out of a specific product. Its contents may be a history
textbook, or mathematics training and learning programs.
And a private company may produce a superior product to
justify the investment, as part of a school's curriculum,
which may be stored on a permanent digital card, or may
be transferred to the PDA for a specific class, replacing
textbooks, paper, and handouts for some (but not all)
classes, and also allowing learners to bring their work,
and questions, home with them, and work on them there.

Collectively developed custom software would also be a
critical application for PDA Student Computing, and it
would be able to leverage millions of students and others
in middle and upper educational systems to create software
for younger students, as part of their education. So too,
young students using the PDA Student Computer could begin
to learn the basics of computer programming, along with
other areas of discovery and development, through their
own first steps in programming their own ideas in software.

For example, if a Linux or other OS was used, open-source
programmers could possibly develop programs that are both
school- and student-specific, for class or individual
projects, or science-fairs, say. Also, 'experiments' could
be designed and conducted virtually in PDA software, such
as with learning basic electronics, with an electronics
laboratory complete with breadboard for creating circuits.
Or, devices could be attached to the USB port on the PDA
Student Computers to use for measurements or other goals
in a lesson plan, in support of learning initiatives. Also,
many of the best resources such as dictionaries and other
devices exist in the open-source community which would be
superior in price and comparable in functionality to a
commercial product, and therefore, this open-design is
essential in the social-economics of PDA Student Computers.

5. The PSC Digital Classroom

The biggest challenge in bringing a PDA Student Computer
(PSC) into the present-day classroom environment, in terms
of technologically, would be finding a way to safely wire
a room for rechargeable power plugs available at each desk.
The form-factor of the PSC in creating a Digital Classroom
would enable current furniture to be used, no additional
hard wiring in existing building walls, and an ability to
store the devices safely in protective cases when not in
use. This means that, with today's technology, and a low-
cost computing budget, most every school would be able to
leverage whatever moneys are allocated for student computing
to greatest effect, at least expenditure, and with greatest
flexibility and utility versus a corporate PC or commercial
computing vision, sold as an educational solution when
almost all of its computing power will be wasted on all
but the most intensive users.

The Digital Classroom consists of a few basic features,
and this model is applicable for most every classroom in
most every grade in primary and secondary schools, assuming
that those older with use the PSC devices to greater effect,
and intensity, where full-scale labs may become necessary
for Internet-related work and audiovisual and other study.

Image 2: The Digital Classroom (94 kilobytes)
* temporarily online, please download if archiving.

The Digital Classroom consists of a few major components.
One is each student having access to their own PDA Student
Computer (PSC). Each PSC would have wireless capabilities,
and each desk would be equipped for recharging the devices.
The wireless network would be commanded from a wall-mounted
wireless base station, which could send PSC signals to a
wireless printer, or to the teacher's full-scale PC system,
which could then be put up on a classroom digital projector,
all in real-time, through local area network. Homework and
other resources, like learning materials or programs, could
be transferred onto digital storage disks and given to each
student to open, use, and take home to work on the materials.

In addition, the storage cards could be changed or updated
by the teacher through a card reader. Students could also
beam their work to the wireless printer for print outs and
other assignments, and with programmed software automation
such tasks could be done in an instant, through the touch
of a button, instead of having to manually collect, collate,
and store such information. More permanent works could be
archived via CD or placed on USB keychain drives for PSC
information to be transferred to home or lab computers.

This functionality comes on top of basic PDA software which
is either included in an OS or could be achieved with little
or no cost through existing solutions, and that is the basic
scheduling, to-do lists, word processing, calculator, alarms,
and other built-in programs which in many ways could help a
student acclimate to intensive information environments that
are inherent with computer passwords, URLs, names, dates,
notes, and other data which may be electronically organized.

In all, to summarize the PSC Digital Classroom as described,
it is an available, malleable, robust, affordable, open-
ended, upgradeable, efficient and perfectly sufficient
computer system for use in primary and secondary schools.
It has most all the functionality that makes computers
worthwhile in investing in, for student education, if the
goal is to supplement the learning process, and open new
horizons related to personal educational computing. Its
costs are a fraction of what commercial and corporate
computer systems cost, such as laptops, whose power a
student is unlikely to need or use to justify the cost.
So too, issues of software, hardware, and needed changes
or PC systems are not an issue with PDA Student Computing
systems, and the PSC Digital Classroom. With this approach,
the computer is not the focus, the student is, and students
have what they need to learn and explore, and if they need
more they can use their own resources to go further in depth,
but everyone would have access, versus only a few students
in a few schools, with basically equipment re-branded and
sold as educational computing rather than designed for it.

Please consider this idea as one possibility in the future
of basic educational computing, and one present-day way to
bridge the gap existing between those with computer resources
and those in need of gaining fundamental computer literacy.
If the priorities are clear enough, and the needs are able
to be standardized for group-bargaining, manufacturers and
others may be able to work together for such a device that
uses the best of public and private resources to benefit all.


Brian Thomas Carroll
Architecture & Electromagnetism
Research, Design, and Development
Electromagnetic Education Initiative

  the electromagnetic internetwork-list
  electromagnetism / infrastructure / civilization