Education via PDA Technology | digitalLEARNING Magazine
June 2006

Education via PDA Technology

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A Portable Digital Assistant or PDA is a small, hand-held device equipped with computer capabilities that nowadays often includes wireless network connectivity,  a mobile phone, a camera and a variety of add-on hardware and software extensions. For Attewell (2005), as the number of devices available globally increases, this technology will become “digital life” for many individuals. This tool potentially creates a spectrum of educational opportunities and a new type of student-technology partnership in learning. Equipped with multimedia capabilities this technology permits for delivery of all kinds of digital material such as video, audio, graphic and integrated multimedia presentation

Appropriately designed educational digital material church as learning objects could be effectively delivered to students via this technology any time and anywhere. Learning objects for educational applications via PDA technology must be designed around key benefits of this technology for learning as well as around its limitations. Key benefits of this technology are portability and being  able to act as personal companion to
individuals in variety of activities in productive ways. One of the key  limitations of PDA is widely considered to be associated with small screen  display area. The central focus of the study  reported here is to gain understanding of important design  consideration that will result in creation of better learning objects for  educational applications via PDA technology.

The study of the effective design of Learning Objects for PDA delivery
The preliminary qualitative study reported in this paper was designed to explore the following questions: 1. What types of learning objects  may be more effective for educational applications via PDA  technology? 2. What may be a more effective context for their educational  applications via PDA technology?
3. How can these types of learning objects be designed to manage  the challenge of the small display  area of PDA technology?  There are two stages in this study. In the first stage, a number of  educational professionals were interviewed. The condition for  including an individual for an  interview was that he or she be an
experienced education professional  who had previously used PDA technology for personal and educational uses.  The interviews were facilitated by a PDA device and demonstrations of different types of learning objects (as  classified above). Various learning objects were shown and their  educational possibilities for PDA delivery were discussed with the  respondents. These learning objects were selected to also permit demonstration of various media (text,  visuals, audio) and different kinds of interactions (buttons, hot-spots,  sliders, text-entry boxes) in order to facilitate further discussion leading to  an understanding of possibilities for dealing with the challenges of a small  display area. The design took into consideration  the possibilities for dealing with the  challenges of small screen as  identified from the initial stage of the study through involvement with ten educational professionals experienced with educational use of PDA technology. Students’ experiences of  using these learning objects are currently explored through  experiments in one primary and one secondary school classroom.

The study insights
Data from the initial stage of the study suggests that the respondents in general understood that effective learning objects for delivery via PDA  technology should be designed in a way that supports student-centered  learning activities, such as problem solving (e.g. troubleshooting,  strategic performance, case analysis, design or dilemma – for more detailed  classification of problem types). In particular, two types of learning  objects from the classification appear  to be favoured for delivery via PDA technology based on the perspectives  of the respondents: an information object and a conceptual model. As the study continued to involve students and their teachers in the classroom, a  conceptual model appeared favoured. In this paper, some discussion about  this particular type of learning object  is provided. All the respondents suggested that the small display area is a critical  limitation of this type of technology, a significant factor that affects the effectiveness of presentations of  learning objects, and a factor that might negatively impact general  acceptance of this type of technology in education communities. One idea to deal with the limitations of screen size  was  to provide a facility for students to zoom in on certain areas of the learningobject, while simultaneously having access to a thumbnail view of the entire learning object. Another idea that surfaced in the study was the use of a “moveable” pop-up area that houses navigation elements or  information. The movable screen elements could be designed in a way  to be semi-transparent to allow partial  visibility of the remaining screen behind them. One more idea that emerged was a novel way to utilise a  pointing device (that is, a stylus pen). The conceptual model as type of  learning objects is discussed here which seems as the most appropriate educational applications via PDA.  Conceptual models A conceptual model is a type of a  learning object that represents one or more related concepts or ideas,  usually in an interactive and visual  way. It might be appropriate to think of conceptual models as representations of cognitive  resources existing in the mind of  subject matter experts, as useful conceptual knowledge that aids  decision-making, disciplinary problem-solving and as key  concepts from a discipline representing knowledge as sociohistorical  heritage. Previous research with visual  educational material introduced a conceptual model (see Mayer, 1989. Mayer suggests that these improve  the ability of learners to  transfer their  learning to solve new problems, because learners have constructed  useful mind models that they are able to mentally manipulate when needed      technology-based representations, Mayer (2003) suggests that multiple  representations facilitate learning because different modalities are encoded and organised in different mind models which, when mentally  connected, lead to deeper understanding. Now we have  powerful technology-based tools that enable us to add critical dimensions to  the design of conceptual models – interactivity and modalities. For Fraser  (1999), these capabilities of contemporary technology provide unique opportunity for  communication of concepts to learners through representational pedagogical models. Fraser writes that “in the past, we relied on words,  diagrams, equations, and gesticulations to build those models  piece by piece in the minds of the  students… we now have a new tool –  not one that replaces the older ones, but  one that greatly extends them: interactive computer visualisation.” Models  were also discussed by  Gibbons (n.d.). Gibbon suggests that all instruction should be based around  three types of models representing instructional content: (a) models of  environment; (b) models of natural or manufactured systems; and (c)  models of human performance. However, these models appear to be  representations of reality and expert performance, rather than models of conceptual knowledge. Interactivity and modalities allow the creation of   conceptual models that potentially  represent conceptual knowledge and ideas (not a simulation or  emonstration of a performance). An example of a conceptual model, “Exploring Pulleys System”, is  presented here. This learning object is an interactive and visual representation of a concept  of mechanical transfer of power  through pulleys system. It allows students to manipulate a number of  parameters and observe impact of the  configuration on the pulleys system. In order for full educational potential  of this learning object to be realised, a  teacher needs to create a task within which students will be engaged in  inquiry and exploration of underlining relationships embedded the learning object. Uncovering these relationship should lead to deeper understanding  of the key concept represented by  the learning object. This deep   understanding in the longer run might be supported by perceptual  impressions and individuals cognitive  ability to recreate interaction in the  mind through imagination. However,  fundamental in this context of  effective utility of a learning object in learning is a task for student that is  developed by a teacher. PDA technology allows conceptual  models to be available to students in a variety of educational situations, any  time and anywhere. An unexplored  idea guiding my thinking at this stage  is that these conceptual models might  ct as mediating tools and external supplements to deficiencies in students’ knowledge within a context of intellectual activities which are at  the higher level of complexity than their current level of development.  Through provision of external  conceptual models, student problemsolving performance might be brought  to a higher level. Portable Digital Assistant technology  potentially creates a spectrum of  educational opportunities and new types of student-technology  partnerships in learning. The concept of the learning object opens the  opportunity for novel ways of packaging educationally useful materials for delivery using a variety  of technologies. Although the  learning object is defined in a variety  of ways that are often contradictory, the study respondents favour  conceptual models as the most suitable type for PDA delivery. The key limitation of PDA technology for  the delivery of learning objects is the challenge of the small display area.  The only way of dealing with this  limitation is to re-invent some  strategies for more effective design of learning objects and for novel ways of  interaction with screen display elements of this technology.

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