Note: This post is another attempt to think through, to consider, various perspectives about Wireless Generation’s continued emphasis on the use of handhelds for learning assessments, as opposed to developing a web application that works on technology districts have in place. The discussion began here, continued here and here, as well as here. I’m sharing it here for discussion, and if the reasoning is faulty, then hope that someone will point that out. The best solution is one that is arrived after vigorous discussion. I encourage educators and vendors to jump in and share their opinion.
The excitement about Web apps usable on technology devices school districts have, as opposed those they have to buy for specialized use, suggests the idea of developing a Pros/Cons chart.
Pros and cons are arguments for or against a particular issue. Pros are arguments which aim to promote the issue, while cons suggest points against it. The term has been in use since the 16th century and is a shortening of a Latin phrase, pro et contra, which means “for and against.” Considering the pros and cons of an issue is a very useful way to weigh the issue thoughtfully and reach an informed decision.
Source: WiseGeek’s What are Pros and Cons?
One of the struggles in this conversation (for me) is the temptation to setup one device against another (e.g. netbooks vs handhelds). I had to resist that temptation in earlier posts (in fact, re-wrote my original post 3 times to avoid it). It’s so easy to say this is about operating system or hardware.
The truth is, it’s about finding solutions that meet the needs of school districts rather than the vendor. In this case, the needs and perspective of the child of the District must take precedence. While a vendor may assert they are working in the best interests of the child, the District is the one officially tasked with representing that interest. And, when those interests are represented by a vendor, it is difficult to separate the desire to sell a product for financial profit vs what is beneficial for the child. It is a tightrope businesses must walk.
School districts obviously face a similar challenge. What technologies can be implemented that are manageable, sustainable, cost-effective for their organization AND meet the needs of the child? This question has repercussions for a variety of initiatives, not just technology-related ones.
If a hardware-poor district embraces a solution that is NOT manageable (e.g. handhelds with open source operating system and geared towards Web 2.0 tools that are banned on regular PCs), is unsustainable (cost of the device is equivalent to full-featured device like a netbook, so do participating teachers get both or just the one needed for the assessments to the exclusion of equally valid education functions?), and lacks cost-effectiveness (which device gives me more bang for the buck?), is that a wise use of limited technology funding?
I realize that the economic stimulus package is “coming” and that it may alleviate the spending constraints. However, let’s not forget that the stimulus package is DEBT, that we must not simply abandon wise spending practices hastily adopted in the face of a historic recession simply because the cash cow is allowing funding to flow. Districts must be judicious in their selection and integration of technologies and the tools they purchase.
If a District goes out and buys multiple devices for deployment in classrooms without considering the repercussions of replacement cycle cost, management and technical support, is it really doing right by students in selecting these expensive technologies that deplete precious resources for all?
I would suggest that unless a district has a coordinated cost containment plan for technology that aligns maximum usage opportunities with cost-effective technologies, it is wasting funding that could be used to enhance teaching and learning environments for our children…and it should be held accountable for those decisions. After all, a vendor does what is best for the bottom line to make a profit. A school district should have, at its heart, the best interests of all children it serves…and failure to calculate the short and long-term costs of expenditures can have dire consequences on those it serves.
But back to the issue of web apps vs handheld specific assessments. To keep it simple, I’m going to throw this into a simple bulleted list rather than a chart. What am I missing, either for or against?
PROs of Web Apps in lieu of Handhelds for Reading Assessments
- More cost-effective for school districts to use web apps on technology they have rather than buy separate handheld for specialized use.
- Districts don’t have to purchase a single-use device, and instead purchase a single device that does multiple jobs (e.g. gradebook and attendance, access to online district resources, professional learning opportunities, etc. that would be difficult if not impossible with even a handheld as functional as the Nokia N810).
- Simplified campus management of devices rather than having to juggle synchronizations for multiple handhelds in the care of teachers.
- Web apps work on any device that has Internet access, including netbooks, laptops, iPod Touch, iPhones, Nokia N810–as opposed to handheld apps that require a specific, unsupported operating system
- District chooses the device and operating system, rather than the vendor. This puts control of choice in the District’s hands rather than an external vendor.
- Districts can remotely manage devices–netbooks, laptops, desktop computers–using Web apps remotely rather than.
- Updates to Web Apps are done on the server side, not by the end user (obviously not including updates to Flash, browser, etc on the device since those are remotely managed by the District).
CONs of Web Apps in lieu of Handhelds for Reading Assessments
- Without a stylus or touch screen, assessors would be required to manually enter correct and incorrect results,
- Make notes using a very small keyboard,
- Rely on a series of shortcuts or mouse maneuvers and tabs to view classes, select students, administer measures, and review scores.
- Web apps on a netbook, computer, device other than a handheld, divert an assessor’s attention away from the student and toward the screen and small keyboard. Eye contact is lost, because the assessor must focus more on typing and moving the mouse, and a wall is created between the student and the assessor by the screen. These interferences take away from the ‘teaching moment’ that is created using handheld-based one-on-one assessments.
- Unlike handheld devices, netbooks may require the full use of both hands to record assessment results.
- Using a handheld, you have a portable device with you at all times as you move around the classroom.
What would you add, as Pros or Cons?
In regards to the idea of netbooks, I love these two questions asked at Usability News…but ask them with education in mind:
- Can netbooks play a unique role better than any other device you have? Are they a category distinct from laptops at the high-performance and usability end, while standing apart from handhelds at the lower range in performance and usability?
- Do netbooks fit into the overall school district’s Information Technology (IT) strategy? Do they add to or detract from the total cost of ownership?
These are questions that have to be answered for netbooks, much less handhelds like the Nokia N810. This is why a web app provides district’s flexibility rather than settling on one device over another.
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