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PDAs in the Classroom:  Integration Strategies for K-12 Educators

- Beverly Ray, Idaho State University


PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) such as Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs have gone beyond the world of business and are now finding their way into the hands of K-12 teachers and students.  This article begins by discussing how teachers can use PDAs to facilitate anytime, anywhere course management.

The integration of PDA technology into the classroom provides teachers an opportunity to promote student centered learning. PDA integration strategies that promote technology integration and student-centered learning are offered.  Ideas range from the use of PDAs as creative and reflective writing journals to the use of PDAs as databases that store data and promote analysis.  The article concludes with a discussion of free and inexpensive PDA software programs available for teachers and students.


Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) such as Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs are handheld computers that serve as an organizer of personal and professional information. PDAs are now being broadly accepted in a variety of K-12 educational settings. PDAs come with software that allows educators and students to perform a range of tasks, including synchronizing data with desktop or laptop computers, accessing e-mail, managing appointments and course assignments.

Literature Review

PDAs have been used to augment and supplant computers in classrooms because they are readily available, inexpensive, and easy for educators to use.  PDAs are effective classroom organizational tools for educators (Ray, et. al., 2001; Scott, 2002). Pownell and Bailey (2000) agree, observing that PDAs effectively support how teachers work and use information in their classrooms. Soloway (2000) contends that PDAs "support cycles of doing and reflecting"(p. 1) by encouraging teachers and students to revisit their written work more often.  PDAs give teachers greater flexibility in managing classroom assignments and in creating student-specific instructional plans (Ray et. al., 2001; Soloway, 2000). They are also a fast and efficient method for accurately transferring data into a computer (Hecht, 1997; Stover, 2001).  Because PDAs allow teachers and students to readily share files and other information by “beaming” files from one PDA to another, collaboration and sharing of information and software is enhanced. This sharing and commenting on other's work leads to an increase in the quality of finished products, such as written drafts and reflective discourses (Soloway, 2000).

Instructional Productivity 

As PDAs become more available in K-12 classrooms, teachers must decide how best to integrate the devices into instruction. Integration is supported by the low cost and ease of use of the units. While the range of software promoting the integration of PDAs into K-12 settings expands daily, the majority of software applications continue to be developed primarily for business users. The dearth of educational software, coupled with the newest of the technology, means that the K-12 teacher who wishes to integrate PDAs into the classroom may need assistance in developing effective productivity and instructional strategies. What follows is an overview of various integration methods, including specific integration strategies, that K-12 educators can use to assist them developing their own integration strategies.

The Paperless Classroom

Teachers have the potential to have a paperless classroom by using a PDA. For instance, whenever parents request appointments, the teacher can input the date and time in the PDA's calendar (Ray, et. al., 2001). This not only records the appointment time, but it also allows the instructor to jot a quick note as a reminder about the topic of discussion for the meeting (Green, 2001). Follow up notes about the meeting can be added to the original note during or after the meeting. This feature is particularly useful when documentation or follow up meetings are required. These notes can later be synched to a stationary computer and copied/pasted into word processing or other software where the information is needed. (Synching involves taking the file from the classroom computer to the PDA). They can also be beamed or e-mailed to administrators (Pownell & Bailey, 2000; McFadden, 2001).

Beaming Assignments. Daily assignments, such as required readings, grading rubrics, and laboratory forms, can be quickly and easily beamed to individual students or to groups of students equipped with PDA(McFadden, 2000; Ray, et. al., 2001). Conversely, students can beam completed work, including papers and laboratory reports, to the instructor's PDA in seconds. The instructor then has the option of grading the assignments on the PDA or of synching assignments to another computer for grading or revision (McFadden, 2001; Hecht, 1997; Stover, 2001).  Teachers can also use the PDA to keep up with administrative tasks, such as progress reports, IEPs, and discipline reports, by synching the files to their PDAs (Ray, et. al., 2001; Scott 2002). For instance, the flexibility of the PDA may prove useful for traveling teachers who move from classroom to classroom or from to school to school on a daily basis. Rather than transporting paperwork in files and notebooks, they have the potential to transport important documents electronically using PDAs (Greene, 2001; Wright, P., Bartram, C., Rogers, N., Emslie, H., Evans, J., Wilson, B., & Belt, S., 2000).

Word Processing. Word-processed files such as a class syllabus and other course materials can be stored on the PDA for quick reference in class or in the field. This is particularly useful when explaining assignments and grading procedures to students who are engaged in complex tasks outside of the classroom. Student work can be beam back to the teacher’s PDA or synched to a stationary computer for quick grading (Ray & McFadden, 2001; Soloway, Norris, Curtis, Krajcik, Marx, Fishman, & Blumenfeld, 2001).

Database Applications. Teachers can inventory instructional materials using database software available for the PDA. Information in the database can be beamed to other teachers. Additional PDA databases can be used to store information on individual students (Scott, 2002). Information such as contact numbers, special health or medical needs, reading levels, or even student hobbies and interests can be stored in the PDA and quickly accessed as needed (Ray & McFadden, 2001; Soloway, 2000).

Spreadsheet Applications. Teachers are using PDAs to record grades in various spreadsheets, including Microsoft Excel. Keeping an electronic grade book on a PDA allows for quick reference when a student asks about a grade. It also allows the teachers to input grades into an electronic grade book stored on the PDA. This is particularly useful in classrooms where constructivist and cooperative group activities require teachers to engage in “on the fly” or alternate assessment of students’ work. PDAs are also useful for teachers who require students to present oral reports or to participate in class discussion sessions. Quick access to the electronic grade book is useful for keeping up with attendance and tardy arrivals, as well. Using the PDA allows teachers to bypass the stationary computer and still maintain an accurate grade book. PDA spreadsheets also can store attendance records and performance assessment charts (Ray & McFadden, 2001; Ray, 2001; Roblyer & Edwards, 2000).

Internet Access

Web-clipping.  Using a free web-clipping service, such as AvantGo, provides instructors access to information that may assist them in planning activities such as projects, lesson plans, and lectures. Online weather updates, maps, and tourist information can make the process of planning a fieldtrip less time consuming for educators. Also, web-clipping services allow users to customize and select the pages that they want to download and use in their classrooms (Buyukkokten, O., Garcia-Molina, H., & Paepcke, A., 2000; McFadden, 2000).

Wireless Web Publishing.  Teachers can design their own virtual fieldtrips--or course web pages…and then assign students to download the sites to the PDA for reference and class discussion. Individual teachers or schools can design web sites containing information that parents can download to their PDAs as well. This information can include syllabi, class rules, lesson plans, school and cafeteria calendars, faculty contact information, student academic handbooks, and other manuals that often fail to make it home in students’ backpacks.

Students and PDAs

Using PDAs allows students to take greater responsibility for their assignments. For example, when referring to the onboard calendar they can visually see what assignments are due. Knowing when a particular assignment is due allows them to organize their work, play, and study schedules more effectively. Knowing the details of an assignment, including its point value and due date, can help them set priorities. Using the PDA "effectively [gets] 'rid' of all the additional pieces of paper or additional notebooks" (McFadden, 2001).

Word Processing. PDAs assist students in the writing process. They can write, edit, and revise stories, papers, and journals. They can also use the PDA to take class notes. Students working in groups can beam poems or other writings to one another. Individual reading and writing exercises can be completed on PDAs as well (McFadden, 2001; Soloway, 2000; Szuchman, 2002).

PDA Integration Strategy 1. Students work together in small groups to create a poem, acrostics, biocrostics, or other creative writing tasks using their PDA’s memo software or word processing software. One students begins the writing activity by writing an entry into the file. This student then beams the document to the next student. That student adds an entry before beaming it to the next student for further work. Once completed, students can share the written work among the group before beaming the finished product to the teacher.

PDA Integration Strategy 2. Students use their PDAs to create, edit, and revise a reflective journal as they study a novel or work on a research project. The teacher then, at random, asks students to beam their journals to her PDA. The teacher beams responses or comments back to the students.

PDA Integration Strategy 3. The teacher creates text files that allow students to edit paragraphs for punctuation, capitalization, and spelling on their PDAs. The text files are beamed to individual students for revision. Once revised, students beam the file back to the teacher’s PDA (or print hard copies for submission). Over the course of a semester students create a document that contains basic grammar and punctuation rules and examples.  A variations on this activity would require students to sequence paragraphs in a story by using the cut and paste features.

Spreadsheet Applications. Students can create simple survey instruments that can be stored on the PDA. Students can use these surveys to conduct field research, including interviews, by recording data and other findings in a PDA spreadsheet, such as Tiny Sheet (www.iambic.com), or in Microsoft Excel. Completed surveys can be beamed to a central computer so that results can be tallied and discussed in class (Greene, 2001; McFadden, 2001).

PDA Integration Strategy 4.  Students use spreadsheet software on their PDAs to set up and manage financial information, such as stocks during a stock market simulation. Students obtain daily stock reports by clipping the information from CNNfn (http://www.cnnfn.com/) or the Wall Street Journal (http://wwww.wsj.com). Information, including the name of their stocks, the purchase price, the daily or weekly percentage change, and other information about the stock, is entered into the PDA. Students beam information to team members for discussion and decision making activities, such as what stocks to buy and what stocks to sell.

PDA Integration Strategy 5.  Working individually students collect, count, weigh, and sort recyclables or clean trash in their homes for an assigned period of time (Roblyer, 2001).  Each student records his findings in the PDA. Once the information is collected, students beam the data to the teacher for compilation. When all data is collected, the teacher in turn beams the data to groups of students who are assigned specific data analysis tasks. Groups hypothesize about what the data suggests for the local community. They also can use the information to make recommendations for action.

PDA Integration Strategy 6. Students use their PDAs to conduct and collect social science research using a simple survey instrument.  Groups of students fan out across the school to collect data from a variety of classes or grades. Once the surveys are completed the data can be combined into one file for analysis and discussion.

Database Applications.  Students can use databases to store, sort, and search through large amounts of information. Information can serve as the source of original research and analysis  (McFadden, 2000; Hecht, 1997; Roblyer, & Edwards, 2000; Soloway, et. al, 2001).  Students can merge individually collected data into a larger database simply by beaming or synching their databases.

PDA Integration Strategy 7.  Students work in groups to search through and analyze local census data (recent or historic) that the teacher has stored in a PDA database. Students began the activity by exploring the data and learning how to use the database software. Once they are comfortable with the software, they can begin to formulate questions that the database can help them answer concerning the local community during a particular time period (e.g., average family size, infant mortality rates, mortality rates, and other questions such as race and gender ratios.)

PDA Integration Strategy 8.  Students go into the field to investigate the relationship between the local community and the natural environment by collecting data on the type and number of birds observed in various locations. Students also record information about the setting (e.g., where the birds are located, the time of day that they are sited, date of the observation, and any other observable information that they discover). Variations on this activity include having students observe the diversity of  rocks (Roblyer, 2001), plant (e.g., hard wood trees), animal (e.g., small mammals), and insect species in the local area. Using the database students draw conclusions about the impact of urbanization on the natural environment.

Laboratory Settings.  In laboratory settings where each student or groups of students have access to their own PDA, students can conduct experiments, test hypotheses, and quickly record results A variety of probes, which attach to PDAs expand the investigative potential of the laboratory Software associated with these probes allows students to record and analysis scientific data from the probes. Using this data, students can also conduct scientific research in the field (Soloway, 2000; Soloway, et al, 2001).

PDA Integration Strategy 9. Students graph temperature changes over time in ponds (Soloway, 2001). Once the field experience is completed students beam the results to one another or to the teacher’s PDA for analysis. Variations on this activity include testing and recording CO2 levels in the local area over the course of a semester.

PDA Integration Strategy 10. Working in pairs students use a PDA to record the results of laboratory experiments. Findings and conclusions are then shared and discussed as a whole group activity.

Internet Applications

Web-clipping. Students and teachers can keep up with current events by clipping a variety of newspaper articles daily.  Primary documents that can be “clipped” include the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights (Bull, Bull, & Whitaker, 2001; McFadden, 2000).

PDA Integration Strategy 11. Students clip 9 (download) articles from assigned newspapers to their PDAs. Working individually or in groups, students go through the paper to select and read an article on a current issue. Once the article is read, students use their PDAs to write a summary and critique of the article using a writing prompt beamed to them by their instructor. A variation on this activity would have students clip articles on one topic or event from newspapers with different points of view. Once the articles are clipped, students read the articles and identify the content and point of view for each newspaper. Students come together for a roundtable discussion of the diversity of perspectives presented in the articles.

Additional Academic Uses

Reference Materials

PDAs with eight megabits of ram or more can store a variety of dictionaries, thesauruses, or other reference tools. Storing these materials on the PDA provides teachers and students a source for quick reference materials.

Dictionaries, Thesauruses, and Other Writing Tools. Several freeware dictionaries and thesauruses are available for download. For example, the Noah Lite English Dictionary (http://www.arslexis.com/), with 122,000 words is available as freeware. As students use the PDA---or another computer---for word processing, they can quickly access a dictionary and thesaurus on the PDA (McFadden, 2001). Teachers and students in foreign language courses, can find free or inexpensive foreign language dictionaries online from several different Internet sites.

PDA Integration Strategy 12.  Working together students create a customized dictionary of economic terms using word processing or other software. Once created, this one of a kind dictionary is used by students to assist them in completing homework and other assignments. A variations on this activity asks students to create a dictionary of geographic and geologic terms. Students use this dictionaries to assist them in locating natural features in the local area. 

E-textbooks. Many publishers are beginning to offer electronic versions of their textbooks. While many promote dedicated e-book readers such as the RCA REB1100, which can store up to twenty novels, textbooks can be stored on PDAs as well. Teachers and students can easily download and read a variety of free classic texts from the Electric Book Company (http://www.elecbook.com) and other sites on the Internet. Access to texts is no longer limited by what books are available in the school library.  Many online publishers, such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, offer electronic books for purchase and download to a PDA. Software like PeanutReader (http://www.peanutpress.com), Documents To Go (http://www.dataviz.com), and AportisDoc (http://www.aportis.com) supplement a variety of free text readers that are available online.

PDA Integration Strategy 13. Students supplement textbooks and available literature by downloading out of print literary works not commonly available in their libraries or in their local bookstores to their PDAs. Students read the literature on their PDAs and use their PDAs to keep a response journal. The teacher beams additional writing prompts to the PDAs and makes random checks of the response journal. 

Scientific Calculators. While scientific and other types of calculators are ubiquitous in math and science classrooms, the use a calculator on a PDA is efficient for students who already must carry a great deal of material in their backpacks. The use of a calculator on the PDA consolidates one or more calculators into one efficient device that has a variety of purposes.  If the onboard calculator does not meet students’ needs, more complex calculator software programs (e.g., scientific, graphing, and molecular), which are often free, can be downloaded for classroom.

PDA Integration Strategy 14. Students use a PDA graphing calculator program in concert with a PDA probe to sample and display change in air quality over time. Or as Soloway (2001) suggests, students can document changes in water quality over time.

Software for Educational Users

The variety of software available for PDAs makes it possible for teachers and students to customize their PDAs to reflect their individual course loads. Numerous titles promote instruction in a variety of setting. Online clearinghouse sites, such as Palm Pilot (http://www.palm.com) and Zdnet’s Palm downloads (http://www.zdnet.com), simplify the process of locating, downloading, and installing free and inexpensive software for educators. 

Course Management Software for Educators

PraestoGrade. This class management software allows teachers to insert grades, calculate grades, and generate reports. Information on the PDA can be synched to another computer as necessary. (http://www.aptustechnologies.com/)

Teachers P.E.T. This inexpensive software allows teachers to input, manage, and calculate grades on a PDA. Teachers can synch information to a stationary computer or print directly from the PDA to a printer with an infrared port. (http://www.coffeepotsoftware.com/products.htm)

ThoughtManager for Teachers. Classroom management software that allows teachers to manage tasks, homework records, and beam work such as outlines, activities, ideas, agendas, and lesson plans. Over 75 downloadable education resource outlines and templates make it easy to create and organize lesson plans and classroom activities. (http://www.handshigh.com/html/tmteachers.html)

Course Management Software for Students

Four.Zero. This software allows students to input and track their semester calendars, course assignments, and grades. It also allows students to perform “what if” scenarios that help them predict final grades. (http://www.handmark.com/products/fourzero/index.html)

A Plus. Students can record assignments due date, subjects from list, headline, contents, complete status and even scores obtained in A Plus. It also supports subject filtering. A handy memo pad is included in the program for quick notes taking.

Productivity Software

Documents to Go Professional. This software allows the user to create and edit Micosoft Word and Excel files on most PDAs. This process allows the teacher ---or student---to work on and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents. Teachers can write lesson plans, construct tests anytime or anywhere. They can grade electronically submitted word processed papers on their PDAs by synching students' work to their PDA. (http://www.dataviz.com)

Ibrite powerViewer. The software converts Microsoft PowerPoint 97 and  2000 presentations into a mobile format that includes images, bullet text and notes. (http://www.ibrite.com)

Ibrite iMaker. iMaker allows for the creation of course specific reference manuals, such as curriculum manuals, which can be shared with colleagues for review. Teachers can also create specialized dictionaries that address their curricular needs. These specialized dictionaries can be stored on student PDAs for quick reference while working on projects or homework assignments. (http://www.ibrite.com)

AportisDoc Mobile Edition. AportisDoc is free text reader software that works on most PDAs. AportisDoc's web site also offers over 3,000 free titles, ranging from Moby Dick to the works of Plato. (http://www.aportis.com/)

Tiny Sheet. This is a  popular spreadsheet program for the PDA. Tiny Sheet allows users to create and access multiple sheets, and input data on the PDA. (www.iambic.com)

ThinkDB 2.0. ThinkDB 2.0 is a shareware relational database manager that allows users to create, edit, and customize databases on the PDA. It is a flexible and easy to use program that supports custom views, resizable columns, and a form designer that lets users design their own record entry forms. (http://www.thinkingbytes.com/)

Internet Applications

AvantGo. AvantGo is a free web-clipping program that allows the user to download a variety of web sites to the PDA via the user's desktop computer or laptop. Entire web sites can be selected and downloaded daily. These selections can also be updated as class content changes. AvantGo provides teachers and students access to a variety of news sources, information about the stock market and financial markets, maps and weather information. Well known educational content providers include Scholastic, NASA, and MapQuest (http://mapquest.com). Current events can be examined via The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The Weather Channel, and many local sources.  (http://www.avantgo.com)

CoffeeCup Wireless Web Builder. This inexpensive software allows instructors to build or convert existing web pages---or entire web sites---into a format that students can view either from PDAs, cell phones, or other Internet devices.  (http://www.coffecup.com)

Additional Software for Educational Users

DiddleBug. This is a freeware program that turns a PDA's screen into a writing pad where users can write or draw electronic post-it notes. DiddleBug allows users to set an alarm function, so that the message will pop up as a reminder. (http://blevins.simplenet.com/diddlebug/index.htm)

Big Clock 2.8. Big Clock is a free clock with an alarm, world time, and timer/stopwatch. Everything is displayed with large numbers and the timer works even while the device is turned off. (http://www.palm.com)

Many other educational software programs are available for download via the Internet from Palm.com (http://www.palm.com) and other PDA software clearinghouse web sites.


PDAs can be personal productivity tools as well as instructional tools for both teacher and students (McFadden, 2001; Ray, et. al, 2001). PDAs prompt exploratory and constructivist practices in the classroom and in the field (Soloway, 2000). In the hands of students, PDAs can promote accquition of critical thinking and creative thinking skills (Szuchman, 2002). They also be used to promote a greater sense of responsibility among students.  However, issues relating to the readability of the PDA screen and the fragile nature of the devices must be address if PDAs are to be more fully used with students (Jones, Marsden, Mohd-Nasir, Boone, & Buchanan, 1999; Ray, et. al., 2001).


          Buyukkokten, O., Garcia-Molina, H., & Paepcke, A. (2000, June). Focused web searching with PDAs. Computer Networks, 33 (1), pp. 213 – 230. 

          Bull, G., Bull, G., & Whitaker, S. (February 2001). Web clipping. Learning and Leading with Technology, 27 (5), pp. 54 – 57.

          Hecht, J. B. (October 1997). Using a PDA for field data collection. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Mid-Western Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL. 

          Green, P. D. (2001, May). Handheld computers as tools for writing and managing field data. Field Methods, 13 (2), pp. 181 – 197.

          Jones, M., Marsden,  G., Mohd-Nasir, N., Boone, K., & Buchanan, G. (1999, May 17). Improving web interaction on small screens. Computer Networks, 31 (11), pp. 1129 – 1137.

          McFadden, A. (2000, December). This Tech's for You: PDAs-What, What for, and Why? Part II. International Education Daily. Retrieved April 8, 2002, from http://members.iteachnet.com/webzine/article.php?story=20001216181108911

          McFadden, A.  (2001, January). This Tech's for You: Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) Part III. International Education Daily. Retrieved April 8, 2002, from http://members.iteachnet.com/webzine/article.php?story=2001011514490321

          Pownell, D. & Bailey. (2000, April). The next small thing: Handheld computing for educational leaders. Learning and Leading with Technology, 26 (7). pp. 46 – 49.

          Ray, B. (2001, July/September). PDAs in the Classroom: Integration Strategies for Social Studies Educators. Computers in the Social Studies, 9 (3). Retrieved April 7, 2002, from http://www.webcom.com/journal/

          Ray, B.B. & McFadden. (2001, October). PDAs in Higher Education: Tips for Instructors and Students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education.

          Ray, B., McFadden, A., Patterson, S., & Wright, V. (2001, Summer). Personal Digital Assistants in the Middle School Classroom: Lessons in Hand. Meridian. Retrieved April 10, 2002, from http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/sum2001/palm/index.html

          Roblyer, M.D. & Edwards, J. (2000). Integrating educational technology into teaching. Merril: Upper Saddle River, NJ

          Scott, B. S. (2002). PDAs: An essential tool for the principal. Features. Retrieved April 7, 2002, from http://www.pdaed.com/vertical/features/Principal.xml

          Soloway, E. (2000). Supporting science inquiry in K-12 using Palm computers: A Palm Manifesto. Center for Highly-Interactive Computing in Education. Retrieved April 7, 2002,  from http://hi-ce.org/palm/solowayletter.html 

          Soloway, E., Norris, C., Curtis, M., Krajcik, J., Marx, R., Fishman, B. & Blumenfeld, P. (2001,  April). Making palm-size computers the PC of choice for K-12. Learning and Leading with Technology, 28 (7). Retrieved April 7, 2002 from, http://www.iste.org/L&L/archive/vol28/no7/featuredarticle/soloway/index.html

          Stover, D. (2001, March). Hands-on learning. ElectronicSchool.com. Retrieved April 7, 2002, from http://electronic-school.com2001/03/0301f4.html

          Szuchman, M. D. (2002). Palm Pilots and critical thinking skills in higher education. Features, Retrieved April 7, 2002, from http://www.pdaed.com/vertical/features/Principal.xml

          Wright, P., Bartram, C., Rogers, N., Emslie, H., Evans, J., Wilson, B., & Belt, S. (2000, June). Text entry on handheld computers by older users. Ergonomics 43 (6), pp.702 – 716.

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Last Updated on 14 December 2002