PDAs in Education

Earlier this week, Joe K'Odingo, a student at the Norwegian School of Information Technology, asked me my opinion about whether "mobile devices have a place in the learning arena." That's such a good question that I want to devote part of this week's commentary to it.

My answer is a qualified yes. The relatively low acquisition cost, light weight, and portability of PDAs and other mobile devices make them natural additions to the classroom. Also, applications such as eBook viewers have obvious applications in education. I worry, however, about schools at the pre-college level expending too much of their limited IT budget on an area in which technology changes so fast. Today's mobile device has great potential to become tomorrow's paperweight.

At the college level, the notion of using PDAs is a no-brainer, and quite a few schools agree with me. In particular, many medical schools not only tolerate PDAs but are beginning to require them. UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now require Palm-based devices for medical students. Programs involving PDAs are underway at North Carolina State, Stanford University, and Virginia Commonwealth University, among others. And Palm doesn't have a lock on the field: The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University requires Pocket PCs.

Why are PDAs becoming such a presence at medical schools? Because they're already in many physicians' pockets. Medical reference books are now available as eBooks that students can view on PDAs, and electronic-search capabilities makes researching relevant information a much faster process than paging through a physical book. I speak from first-hand experience: As a volunteer with LIGA International—a nonprofit organization that sends medical personnel to set up free clinics in Mexico—I'm a part-time pharmacy assistant about six times a year, and I've found Tarascon's ePharmacopoeia (a freeware pharmacy application for Palm devices) absolutely invaluable.

Last month, the Congress of Neurological Surgeons held its 52nd annual meeting and provided all 2400 participants with Palm i705 wireless handheld devices. Software on the devices provided a complete meeting program, abstracts of scientific papers, graphs, radiology images, floor maps to the exhibit area, and a membership directory. We're likely to hear more such stories as the technology matures.

Of course, medical students aren't the only PDA users at the college level. One of the most interesting applications I've heard of comes from the US Military Academy at West Point, where the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has experimented with a Java-based application to let forward artillery observers use a PDA to call for fire support. (I sure hope their security is strong!) At the following URLs, you'll find more information about mobile devices in education.


A major hole in Microsoft's enterprise strategy for mobile devices has been its lack of management tools for these devices. About a year ago, I heard that the next version of Systems Management Server (SMS) would fill this gap. This week, I found the following information in a Microsoft press release about the SMS 2003 (code-named Topaz) beta: "The most notable improvement for SMS 2003 will be the ability to manage the ever-growing mobile work force. Microsoft will further extend mobility support by providing asset management and software distribution for non-PC devices running the Windows CE, Windows Powered Pocket PC, or Windows XP Embedded platform. This includes devices such as handheld PDAs, point-of-sale devices, and Windows-based terminals and will be delivered one to two quarters after SMS 2003 is released to manufacturing."

The release doesn't say when the SMS 2003 release to manufacturing (RTM) will happen. I'm currently trying to arrange an interview with Microsoft about this topic and will report what I learn in the next UPDATE. Stay tuned!

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