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Ready, Fire, Aim: Action research with ultra-portable computing in a primary school[1]

Barnard Clarkson
SCIMS, Edith Cowan University
Educational change sometimes happens without due consultation. Another perspective is to involve the stakeholders enough to allow continued 'aiming' after they decide to get 'fired' up about a project. At Scotch College (WA)[2] the School Council, which had proved willing and able to make courageous decisions in the previous decade, were interested in action. After some research on palmtop and laptop computers, Scotch's IT (Information Technology) staff persuaded their School Council that the laptop path was more rugged than the laptop itself, and less suited to their needs. Thus they embarked on four years of literacy-focussed learning with palmtop computers. This paper describes the process and some of the action research involved.


Back in 1983 Scotch College (WA)'s School Council began a series of courageous decisions when they decided to appoint a full-time computing coordinator. A few other independent schools had full-time computing staff at the time, but most of them followed the EDWA approach of teaching computing (or even 'computers') as a subject. From the start Council supported a relatively novel policy of intra-curriculum computing. This willingness to do what seemed educationally right rather than following others continued for another decade at Scotch.

Council and the Headmaster embraced IT policies on networking, e.g. the whole primary school was networked by 1985; they installed mini-labs of 1, 2 and 3 computers in classrooms for over a decade starting in 1985; they saw international e-mail facilities to selected staff and students installed starting in 1989; supported inter-campus linking of the Junior and Senior school intranets in 1990; and began a Year 5 ultra-portables trial with two different computers in 1993. By 1995 a Year 6 class used their palmtop computers and a mini-lab of desktops to win the primary division of the WA Newspapers in a Day competition. Along the way the school regretted eschewing the Australian MicroBee computer, but only briefly, and installed their first networked mouse-using GUI computer in 1989, when other schools were upgrading their MicroBees for 286 machines. Those first computers were still being useful in mini-labs around the school as the author went on long service leave in 1996, when some were sold for $600 each.

READY? Questions to be answered

Tossing the topic around was easier to do than the hardware; laptops had a reputation for fragility, but it was their mobility which appealled to everyone. Our IT policy tried to be educationally led rather than technologically driven, and the emphasis was on providing computing at the point of need via a network rather than central labs; and providing support structures like flexible option class timetabling and bookable support staff. Teaching staff liked the principle of literacy as the aim for any IT facilities (Dench, 1992). Palmtops came to our attention; it transpires that laptops are cut-down desktop computers, which explains their fragility; and palmtops are derived from grown-up calculator technology. Retrospective statistics support the reliability of palmtops compared with laptops (detailed below), but this data was not available in 1993. Instead it we reviewed the sorts of questions to which we needed answers.

Any computer can be used somewhere in a curriculum. This does not mean that one should buy any computer. Schools want to maximise their educational dollars, and make the best use of what is still, even today, limited technology. Our aim was to minimise the technical challenges while at the same time maximising the educational ones.

1. Do they support contemporary theories of learning, especially literacy?

One reason to consider palmtops in classrooms is the positive effect they have on the classroom learning milieu (Nanlohy & McLean, 1994). As educators we are learning more and more about how learning occurs, for example from cognitive and social psychology and researchers and writers like Piaget (1954), Vygotsky (1963) and Ausubel (1960). Writers like Papert and his colleagues have popularised this material with Logo, and the Sunrise project was an implementation of this philosophy (Neville, 1994) but the principles can be applied more widely. It appears that classroom computers are often associated with changed instructional styles, and enhanced learning. Whether this is a cause or a consequence is an interesting point (Oliver, 1994, p.67), but may still allow one to conclude that IT has at least a catalytic effect.

Contemporary writers suggest at least two perspectives: students constructing their own learning, as characterised by constructivism, and the issue of different learning styles. One modern perspective says that students learn through the process of constructing their own knowledge, known as constructivism. In a constructivist classroom the aim is higher levels of cognitive activity among students, and hence enhanced learning. Effective constructivist learning environments include factors like collaboration, personal autonomy, generative learning, contextual engagement and motivation, and the point is that computers are often associated with these (Oliver, 1994, p.69). A second approach is to utilise the research on learning styles, which shows how different students learn in different ways; and how computers in the class actually help with this process (Nanlohy & McLean, 1994). Would it happen that simply by adding palmtops, teachers would later report a more productive, student-centred learning setup?

2. Will they meet our educational aim for access?

Parents liked the 'IT skills' rationale, but we were interested in literacy and curricular value. Access is as much an educational stance, as it is a practical one. Does it mean one computer per student? After all, children all carry pencils (usually!), and we don't keep our pencils in a laboratory. Just how much computing power do you need to give students to meet your chosen educational needs?

3. Will they disadvantage our students writing and reading skills?

Teachers were concerned that students would lose handwriting skills, and that they disctract students from 'being taught', and Council were concerned that the school might be following a dead end. A number of staff and parents mentioned the need for keyboarding and touch-typing skills, and felt that tiny keyboards would leave users disadvantaged. IT staff were interested to observe whether recently published research (River Oaks, 1993) on students' improvement in writing with a computer would be replicated.

4. Will they continue to be an approriate tool tomorrow ?

The literature was suggesting that palmtops were appropriate, but the stakeholders were not convinced.

We take it for granted that portable computers are going to come into schools in large numbers over the next few years. (France, NCET Managing Consultant cited in Flipping the lid, 1994, p.3)
The long-term pundits suggest that HANDHELD computers are going to be the norm by 2002AD (The Australian, 1993) which is when the first Year 5s from 1993 will enter the workforce; probably by then these computers will be full communications tools. Nokia have announced a web-phone, with a small screen for browsing and email, due for release next year (EduPage, 27 Aug 1997). If it is important to prepare our students for their future, then it seems that using palmtops may not disadvantage them.

5. Technically, wIll they prove reliable and cost effective? What special advantages would they have?

Parents were worried about costs but were quick to see benefits for their children in terms of IT skills. Would they prove solid enough? What about theft and loss - they looked very 'pocketable'.

Reliability and robustness

Regular users of any computer know all the magic runes needed to work it, no matter how complicated, simply because they use it so often (Barrett, 1994). So, even though ease of use may not be critical, the average user SHOULD be insulated from unreliability. The computer's existence should be 'largely transparent' (Spender, 1995). Predictably, students' frustration levels quickly rise as the reliability drops (Schibeci & Kissane, 1995). For them not ease-of-use but reliability is most important; and reliability has been one of the bugbears of most portable computer users.

Loss and theft

Are they too pocketable or losable? This is another common question asked of all portable programs, and even though the common experience over many years was simply no, there were serious reservations. Formal procedures were conceived of, and ways to address the possible problem. It was argued that it would help that ALL students in any year group were to own one.

Cost effectiveness

Although their raw cost is lower than laptops, perhaps a half or a third, they are less powerful too. Even though the latest Sharp Zaurus in Japan (due out Sep. 97) comes with a colour screen and a digital camera, most of the palmtops are not intended to be full multi-media desktop machines. Is the loss of power sufficient to militate against them? Listening to reports and reading about many laptop programs, it seemed that the most common tool is word processing. Will that be enough? If our concern is for a literacy machine, will the other tools be an expensive distraction?

The size advantage

Palmtops were small enough to sit in a pocket or on a hip. Will it take so little room on the average desk that it was readily available at all times, without having the 'get out your ...' routine? As a consequence will it become a natural part of the teaching process? On the other hand will the smaller keyboard than normal be its downfall?


Can we avoid the chargers on trolleys, and lockers with chargers? Will the advantage of cheap $2 batteries be the only advantage of a palmtop? How realistic is the 40-80 hours battery life reported for palmtops?

FIRE! Planning and implementing with the stakeholders

Comparative research: July - December 1993, confirming a decision

Our questions were many and the reservations large. After investigating about 10 contenders, we felt confident but knew we had few answers. We began our initial research in May 1993. Staff agreed that Year 5 was a good starting point, and it suited the teachers involved. A small trial in Year 5 of a 'notepad' word processor and a palmtop was conceived, and generously funded by one of the school's parent groups. the tuckshop committee. We invited staff from the Dept of Education, Murdoch University to observe and report (Kissane & Schebeci, 1994). We compared two machines - one was the Amstrad notepad, an A4 sized keyboard with a pillarbox-hole-shaped screen, the other the Acorn Pocketbook (see table 1). We had been watching the literature and other schools' adoption of portable computers, and had already concluded that the cost of purchase and maintenance was going to be a huge problem for either parents, or the school; and we were certain even then that student ownership was a key feature of successful programs, whether owning calculators or bicycles.

Table 1: Comparison of palmtops, notepads, and an example laptop (February 1993). Note that the Acorn PocketbookII was launched September 1994.

PocketBook I
PocketBook II
A4 notepad
A4 laptop

Technical features
wt (w. batteries) 275g275g950g2.8 kg
screen resolution 240 x 80480 x 160210 x 25480 x 640
screen size 40 x 8 linesup to 80 x 25 lines80 x 6 lines80 x 25 lines
battery life 40 - 80 hr40 - 80 hr20 hr2-4 hr
battery cost 2 @ $12 @ $13 @ $11 @ $45
rated drop height 1 m1 mn.a.n.a.
size (WxDxH) 165x85x22 mm165x85x22 mm300x210x25 mm300x205x40 mm
approx. cost $475$675$290$2750

Built-in software (selection only)
word processor yyyeditor only
spreadsheet yy
database yy
integrated spelling yyy
thesaurus y
plotting software y
programming lang. y (OPL)y (OPL)y (BASIC)y (BASIC)

In planning meetings the staff in the Junior School had reservations about small keyboards (would their students learn to touch type, learn key placements etc.) and whether handwriting would suffer. These were probably the two most common questions by visitors, as well. These two issues were therefore major ones addressed in our research which compared two Year 5 classes in the second half of 1993. Despite the range of other features available, our focus in the initial trial was on a literacy tool.

By comparing two different machines it is fair to say that one can make broader conclusions about the idea of a portable computer, rather than the specific characteristics of one make. Users observed that the smaller the machine the less desk space lost; and the more likely it was to remain to hand during the day, and therefore be able to contribute to the learning environment. We also observed that the simpler the connection process between the desktop and palmtop computers the more the students were disposed to use it. Although both machines had technical problems, one had far fewer, and this was also the smaller, more robust, and easier to use computer. In the end staff felt that the decision over which to choose was relatively easy.

After the trial (Kissane & Schebeci, 1994), feedback supported the smaller more expensive computer; but parents appreciated the low cost of the palmtop solution, especially for multi-child families. Hence negotiations led to the $500 Acorn PocketBook palmtop as a booklist item for all year 5 and 6 students in 1994. This progression continued after the release of the $700 PocketBookII, with all new students between Years 5 and eventually Year 8 purchasing palmtops up until 1997, when usage becoming optional after the arrival of a new Junior School principal (see fig.1)[3]

Over the years a combination of some thoughtful mentors (including Chris Dawkins of the Felsted School, Essex, UK) and key literature have helped guide the philosophy of educational computing at Scotch. In the context of palmtops, Sheingold's (1991) article about critical mass of technology and expertise helped to clarify and focus our thinking on technology as a curriculum tool. Only when '...we have enough technology and enough expertise in its effective use for learning and teaching ...[can we].. think through and implement the structural, organisational and curricular changes that … [we] ...wish to make'. A critical mass of technology is ' …not defined solely by numbers of computers or of other machines, but also by their location, who has access to them, and by what they can be used for'. We extended the notion of critical mass to include ease of access; unless resources are widely available a critical mass of expertise will not develop. One corollary is that you cannot make progress without buying the tools you need; but you can't buy the tools until you know where to progress. This irony, encapsulated by title READY-FIRE-AIM, as well as reminding us to plan, suggests that planning with IT should happen at all phases of the process.

AIM: Ongoing action research and observations

Maturation of concerns

It is interesting to note the changes that developed over time as the palmtops have become a normal part of the education process in the Scotch Junior School. The issues of typing and handwriting skills became non-issues; they are still important, but if they are important then they should be addressed regardless of the computers that students are carrying around; and by the end no teacher was doing more than addressing these items within the normal classroom in the normal way that they have always done. Interestingly, although there was concern expressed about the need to teach touch-typing on the computers in the main lab (the small keyboard palmtop is more satisfactory for keyboard awareness) the use of the main computing lab did not increase during the trial, nor did its usage increased at any time afterwards, although the machines were not upgraded over the period either.

What became more important for teachers was how to make even better use of the technology as a learning tool. Where they began asking about grabbing a graph from the palmtop spreadsheet and printing it, they started asking about moving three graphs at once. The reservations about writing gave way to increased interest in text readers and text adventure programs. Potential parents and other visitors to the school were surprised to ask the same questions about handwriting and keyboard size that we had when we were outsiders to the program, and find that we had dismissed these questions and moved on to more educational issues.

Teacher development

Some teachers ran timed typing trials on the PocketBooks and had students reach speeds of 40 and 50 wpm. They argued that there are sufficient skills to allow typing and therefore quality creative writing without the need for further skills development. Furthermore the way they taught writing changed; the emphasis was now on legibility and speed rather than a copybook style. More recent observations include the quality of creative writing, which is judged to have improved noticeably (Dench 1995, p. 2) and the ease with which spelling can now be addressed; and also the effect it is having on the whole classroom learning environment. This issue was commented upon quite often in discussions the author had with the teachers. The 1995 survey indicated that no teachers from the palmtop program at Scotch wished to return to the pre-palmtop days (Dench, 1995).

A video was made to show to parents, about and with boys using PocketBooks in a variety of ways, and the IT staff made presentations to four state or national conferences, as well as numerous formal and informal presentations over the period. All this writing and observation appeared to have an effect on the Junior School staff involved. For example, teachers were watching what their students were doing with their palmtops and adapting that use to suit their lesson plans. As a result the definition of a literacy tool was broadened as time went by - the database and spreadsheet tools became more often used, for example and one teacher felt that he was making at least as much use of the spreadsheet in his Year 5 class as the word processor (Herbert, 1995). Typical use included investigating number patterns, making tables practices and simple databases, and problem-solving activities in maths classes along with graphing (using the spreadsheet) in Geography, Maths and Social Science.

Unlikely support: Research on other schools' programs

In 1995 the writer conducted a telephone survey of a small number of independent schools in WA using portables. All the schools surveyed had at some time a well publicised laptop program for its students. The sample size was only four, but the trend was reasonably clear - technical problems. Speaking honestly, they used phrases like 'horrendous problems', 'reliable enough - just', 'the computers were not up to the concept'; 'charging AND battery problems'. Clearly hardware issues became significant, and all but one school dropped their original portables program. That school, which admitted sizeable costs, was of the opinion that the machines were so well used that it was easy to justify their continuing usage. One key feature that school shared with Scotch is that students have full time access to their computer, even to taking it home if they want. It is not the cost alone that determines the success of portables.

The Scotch plan from the very beginning sought a literacy machine, even though we were aware of other potentialities. Our objectives became i) to ensure student ownership of ii) a cross-curricular tool that was both educationally and cost effective and had iii) easy connection to the school network via iv) the mini-labs in classrooms. One staff member wrote in 1995:

Considering our initial objective of using word processing as a tool for developing literacy, we decided that access to a keyboard for every child is preferable to having numerous children share a limited number of high-powered desktop machines. After three years of the project, we have found our decision to be a great success. (Herbert, 1995).

Reliability results

The only published data the author can find indicates a laptop program in a girls' school had a 66% repair rate per year (Newhouse, 1995), compared with a Scotch survey indicating 34% repair rate over FOUR years (McConnell, 1996) which suggested an average repair rate about 17% pa, since some machines were new each year. The Scotch experience was that the Pocketbooks were reliable enough to justify their selection.


Of course the palmtop programs aims were no more than a laptop program would be expected to achieve. Moreover, one could argue that this is a backdoor way to change our 'mug and jug' classrooms, and eventually whole schools. This technology is not a sine qua non for the new generation classroom, but it ap pears to help.

A temporary teacher two years ago, who stood in for one of the Year 6 teachers on long service leave, understood the purpose. From knowing nothing about them, and calling himself a computer-illiterate, he was making very satisfactory use by the end of his term. On the last day he was asked to comment on the place of palmtops in the classroom. He responded

They are the most amazing machine for a classroom teacher who wants to focus on literacy and writing... and spelling... and graphing too. The boys love them, and even though I knew nothing about them, all I had to do was ask them. I am going to suggest them to my next school, where I know they could not afford laptops. They are brilliant. (Ramsay, 1995)
The final word belongs to one of the teachers involved in the first trial:
Ultra portable computers are just another tool in the learner's kit, but they are a very powerful tool - one that makes success easier for students to experience. It is not a case of technology driving the curriculum, but of technology being used to enhance learning and prepare students for the future. (Herbert, 1995)


  1. Phrase popularised by Dr Michael Fullen, professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and author of The new meaning of educational change (1991).

  2. Scotch College (WA) is an independent Uniting Church School for boys, in Swanbourne WA and founded in 1897. It has around 1000 enrolments, approximately 270 of them in the Junior School.

  3. Figure 1 was not available to the HTML editors at the time this file was prepared.


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Author: Barnard Clarkson, PhD student, SCIMS, Edith Cowan University. b.clarkson@cowan.edu.au

Please cite as: Clarkson, B. (1997). Ready, Fire, Aim: Action research with ultra-portable computing in a primary school. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/clarkson.html

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