An investigation of the usability of MOBILE devices in educational environments




Maria Luisa L. de Faria –
Adilson Marques Cunha –
José Silvério Edmundo Germano –

Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica - ITA, Divisão de Ciência da Computação e Divisão de Ensino Fundamental

Praça Marechal Eduardo Gomes, 50 – Vila das Acácias

CEP 12228-900 – Cidade São José dos Campos – Estado SP




Abstract: In the last few years, the expansion of the technology in the sectors of hardware and software, has been notable. According to experts, “The world grows dark with one technology and dawns with another.” The constant evolution of the information society  constantly increases the ability to acquire and utilize new technologies and knowledge.

This article aims to investigate the utilization of mobile computing device in learning and teaching. Such devices are generically called palmtops, because they are small enough to hold in the palm of your hand and are used with a single hand. Ever more sophisticated and exhibiting good execution time of tasks, the palmtops are being utilized by schools in Europe and North America. The success of their commercial expansion is due the facility of carrying them, since the user can keep the information at hand anytime, anywhere. This paper reports an investigation of the main benefits in using the palmtops in managing school work, in teaching and learning, in communication and collaboration between users. The problem here consists in endowing the educational environment with an investigation of the usability of mobile devices in schools of the first world, during the last two years.

The chosen solution was to investigate the usability of mobile devices in European and North-American schools, aiming to determine their main potentials, advantages,  disadvantages and impacts on teaching and learning process.


Key-words: mobile device, palmtop, mobile learning, teaching and learning.




According to Pownell and Bailey et al. (2001), mobile devices are at the forefront of the fourth wave in the evolution of technology. In the first wave computers were large, expensive mainframes, which were used in education to make administration and managerial tasks easier. The second wave started in the end of the 1970s, with the emergence of microprocessors and was prolonged until the 1980s with microcomputers. Since then computers became ‘personal’ and schools introduced computer literacy courses for students to learn about the technology and how to use it. The third wave in the 1990’s was characterized by the development of the internet and worldwide web, which highlighted electronic communication and collaboration. The fourth wave was said to be just beginning in 2001 and involves very small computers and wireless connectivity delivering ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere learning’. (Smith and Kent et al. 2003)


The problem here consists in endowing the educational environment with a systematic investigation of the usability of mobile devices in schools of the first world, during the last two years.


The chosen solution was to investigate the usability of mobile devices in European and North-American schools, aiming to determine their main potentials, advantages,  disadvantages and impacts on teaching and learning process.



Distance Learning – Technologies, Concepts and Evolutions.


e-learning is a natural evolution from d-learning and mobile learning, or m-learning, is the latest evolution of e-learning. Keegan (2000) traçou uma linha de evolução onde está subentendida a escalada tecnológica da EAD


From d-Learning to e-Learning to m-Learning


Para um bom entendimento dos limites de cada uma dessas modalidades são estabelecidos alguns conceitos.


d-learning: educational environment where the teacher and pupil are far from each other in time or location. The distance learning courses can be taken to remote places by synchronous or asynchronous line communications. In synchronous access, teacher and pupil interact during the learning, while in asynchronous access both teacher and pupil perform tasks at different times. As a support tool, d-learning can utilize the exchange of letters, texts, graphics, , videocassettes, sound, CD/ROM, videoconference, television and fax. For example In Brazil, one has the Telecurso 1º Grau, Telecurso 2º Grau and correspondences courses taught by the Instituto Universal Brasileiro. According Keegan 2000, d-Learning stands for distance learning.


e-Learning: the acquisition and use of knowledge distributed and facilitated primarily by electronic means. This form of learning currently depends on networks and computers. e-Learning can take the form of courses as well as modules and smaller learning objects. e-Learning may incorporate synchronous and asynchronous access and may be distributed geographically with varied limits of time. (NCSA e-Learning Group definition)  According Keegan 2000, e-Learning means electronic learning.


m-Learning: e-Learning evolving through mobile devices. Therefore, m-Learning is an intersection between mobile computing and e-Learning. According Keegan 2000, m-learning stands for mobile learning.


Note that learning concept tends to accompany the evolution of technology.


In the past and today, correspondence courses on teach have a vast number of adherents. The first school which used correspondence as a tool was founded in Germany in 1890. This kind of course became so popular that, in Russian, then Soviet First-Secretary Mickail Gorbachev, used the correspondence course as a tool, and graduated as a  Scientific Agricultural Economist, at Stavropol Institute of Agricultural. This information was extracted from the Instituto Universal Brasileiro website, one at the largest of this type of course in Brazil.


With the arrival of new technologies, the television set has also evolved over time. Today television is the most popular commodity item in Brazil, and for this reason  has a vast number of educational programs and even educational channels. The brazilian terms: Tele-curso, tele-aula, TV do Conhecimento, TV Educativa and etc, are becoming very familiar.


Certainly, distance learning has a big ally in TV channels. However, other technology also is obtaining good acceptability. Currently in Brazil, desktops are becoming ever more present in schools and houses. The Worldwide Web access changed the concepts of a computer. Ten years ago, a computer was a task maker only. Today the Internet provides a vast amount of information in all fields and computers are almost like a library, because Internet provide information in all areas of knowledge.


In this context, courses accessed by computers, or e-learning, appear to have high credibility and acceptability. Today exist a variety of technologies in hardware and software which make e-Learning attractive and effective. The Brazilian Government intends to increase e-Learning course option given their good execution.


In the last few years, Europe and North America have experienced a new wave of technology. The growing number of adepts of mobile based on technologies embedded on laptops, palmtops and smartphones which hold wireless connection and Bluetooth™ technology is notable. Several renomed research institutes in UK, like BECTA, LSDA, and Techlearn, and from USA like SEIR-Tec, are making available, at their portals, complete reports of how to use the new technology in teaching and learning. In Brazil, mobile technology still isn’t popular. The main users of palmtops are in business and industry. The same fact that occurred with mobile phones must occur with palmtops, they will gain users while their main function increase and the price drops. These devices tend to reach pupils at all levels. Schools and teachers must be trained to perform within this new scenario.


mobile computing device – Technologies, Concepts and Evolutions.


Becta 2003, in its technical paper, classify the palmtop as a mobile device that provides computing and information storage and retrieval, and that can be easily carried and used.


A palmtop must be small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, for this reason they are called palmtops. The first company to commercialize this type of device was Palm. Today many other manufacturers have gone on to produce their own versions.


Microsoft also produced a cut-down version of Windows known as Windows CE, which ran on a miniature laptop-style computers. These had screens about 20 cm wide but only about 8 cm high with a built-in keyboard – two-handed computers, therefore too big for the average pocket or palm but called handhelds nonetheless. Nowadays Windows CE has metamorphosed to the PocketPC and some devices have appeared using this system. (Becta 2003)


In agreement with Smith and Kent 2003, the generic term “palmtop computers” encompasses the following types of computer technology:


-          palmtop computers (eg the Psion palmtop computer)

-          personal digital assistants, or PDA’s (e.g., the PalmOS)

-          PocketPC-based handheld computers

-          Some specialized handheld devices: e-book readers, dictionaries and spell-checkers, graphical calculators.


Two years ago the palmtop’s main function was as a replacement for the personal organizer such as “Filofax”, with calendar, address book and other simple data storage applications such as a note pad – which became known as a “Personal Information Manager – PIM”. (BECTA 2003)  Today palmtops can execute more complex tasks because they have cut-down versions of popular office software including web-browsers. The major portion of the devices have Wireless connections and Bluetooth. They can as well show movies, take pictures, capture and record voices, etc. On the other hand, the so-called “phone-enabled PDA’s” are now being offered with built-in mobile phone communication (albeit at very low speeds). Microsoft has brought out a version of its PDA-based operating system that allows manufacturers to build mobile phone functionality into their PDA’s and to integrate these tightly with existing PIM functions. It calls this system the PocketPC Phone Edition, but they are generically called smartphone.


Palmtop’s data entry is achieved using a digital pen called stylus. Devices which have the PocketPC system embedded, achieve recognition of natural handwriting on a touch screen. Some devices have an integrated keyboard, some offer a removable keyboard. Most palmtops have some kind of extension facility via a SecureDigital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) slot. They are used in devices such as digital cameras, mp3 players, PocketPC  and Psion handhelds.


Finally all palmtops can perform automatic synchronization of the contents of the palmtop memory with the palmtop folder on the desktop and laptop.




Why use mobile devices for teaching and learning?


There is evidence that the use of mobile devices can help increase both collaborative learning and communication, and independent learning amongst students, owing to the mobility and capacity of the machines (Passey, 1999)


Another important factor is the opportunity of computing learning, Perry 2003 emphasised the general improvement in ICT capability that the PDA’s had brought to the children and teacher.


According to Learning and Skills Development Agency – LSDA, there are many  benefits and reason for use the palmtops for learning and teaching. The follow benefits are highlight among then: Palmtops are relatively inexpensive, compared with full-sized desktop and laptop computers, palmtops offer the possibility of ubiquitous computing, palmtops offer access to information and promote the development of information literacy, palmtops offer the possibility of collaborative learning and independent learning at the same time.


LSDA, in their report, note that the relatively low cost of palmtop computer makes it feasible when compared with desktop, or even laptop computers, this fact allow students without good condition economic to have access to computing.


Inkpen (1999) points out that palmtop technologies can provide access to computing at the places where children’s activities and learning occur, unlike desktop computers which are often segregated from other learning activities in the classroom. Flexible access means opportunities to integrate learning technology into children’s daily activities (eg the success of handhelds  toys like Gameboy and Tamagotchi), where the products themselves become part of the children’s culture.


Among the several research report highlight the American News-Wire, of SouthEast Initiatives Regional Technology in Education Consortium – SEIR-TEC, which listed 101 great educational uses for handheld computer. This list is divided in three groups: Administrative Applications, Communications and Collaboration Applications, Teaching and Learning Applications. That institute seems motivated in to emphasize the utility on several fields of educational environments.


SEIR-TEC’s report seems that writed by British Educational Communications and Technology Agency – BECTA, which separate its research results in three groups: Benefits in Managing teacher’s work, Teaching and Learning, Benefits for pupils.


At Managing teacher`s work fields, BECTA report that a number of senior managers in schools mentioned the importance of the information they used being up to date, and also that it should be precisely the same as that which their colleagues were using. In both these respects, information technology has enormous value. Palmtops, given their small size and portability, can be carried all the time and, therefore, present information anytime/anywhere as the quotations from seniors managers.


In teaching and learning fields, BECTA show the concept of ubiquitous computing. By ubiquitous computing BECTA mean “wherever, whatever, ownership” – carring a personal computing device with you and using it as a personal, dedicated resource without restrictions.


Personal ownership – by which BECTA mean exclusive, full-time-use – of any computing device pays dividends in the time required for, and extent of, the competence that users attain. These include a sense of belonging with the device, of personal commitment and confort, as well as very tangible abilities in, fo example, file management, computer sincronization, web connection and downloading, exploring audio/video, and linking to home provision. Only by becoming engaged with the computer does the user go beyond the necessary and play with it to explore its potencial. Sharing ownership, even on minimal occasions, can confound all this.


According to BECTA, a cheapest way for a pupil to usufruct all the benefits to possess the proper computer is acquiring one palmtop, which can be taken home, at school, at granny`s after school, or at a library during researchs. A further benefit of the small size of palmtops is that they can be accommodated in any classroom on a one-each basis whereas many schools are finding space a problem with increasing numbers of computers.


Advantages and disadvantages OF THE USE in the learning


Ted Smith (2003) highlight the advanteges of the use of mobile devices in general usage and in education.


Advantages in general usage

-          the hardware is now reasonably mature;

-          they are very useful for managing calendars and contact;

-          medical and nursing students find them very useful for recording patient information and medical reference and learning material on the ward;

-          when attached to a portable keyboard, they can be used for substancial data input;

-          students find them more convenient to carry around than laptops;

-          palm Os-based systems have better battery lives than PocketPC Systems;

-          sincronization with a laptop or desktop is straightforward; and

-          wireless communications are easy to configure and use.


Advantages in pedagogy

-          they assist with discussions when used in conjuction with exercises or lectures;

-          they provide a very useful means of accessing reference material;

-          they act as a study aid via interactive quizzes and exercises;

-          when associated with wireless connection, they can provide instant, in-class  feedback to tutors on understanding; and

-          they help to motivate students.


General disavantages

-          battery run-down can cause loss of data and applications;

-          back-up systems are required to restore configurations when this occurs;

-          battery life decreases dramatically iff add-on cards are used or life wireless communications are enabled;

-          stylus input is only suitable for short notes, simple diagrams and selecting options on screen;

-          users without a desktop or laptop computer have to be provided with sinchronising stations so that the palmtop can be updated with data or applications or both;

-          security of personal information is a major issue, particularly for medical and nursing education; and

-          they are easily damaged, lost or stolen.


BECTA highlight some areas benefited with the use of mobile devices in the learning. Amongst them the following ones are distinguished: Safety and security, learning, family learning, ICT capability, motivation, responsibility and personal organization, collaboration and ambitions.


According to BECTA the following characteristics are valued:

-          small size – always with you;

-          instant-on (no waiting for an operating system to ‘boot up’);

-          much longer battery life than laptops (especially the Palms);

-          the quantity of data they cold hold;

-          the ‘up-to-dateness’ (currency) of the data;

-          the ease of synchronisation and sharing of data by infra-red ‘beaming’; and

-          the price advantage over laptops (especially the Palms).


BECTA pointed out the following possible weaknesses:

-          small screens;

-          unstable storage leading to lost data (from flat batteries); and

-          the need for new routines to manage the devices effectively;


Other concerns included:

-          whether the palmtops were rugged enough for school use;

-          the complexity of synchronisation with laptop or desktop machines at home or networked at school;

-          the need for more comprehensive training;

-          the need for technical support; and

-          difficulties with printing.


Main benefits of the use of mobile devices reported by the News-Wire, SEIR-TEC.


Main benefits in Administrative Applications:

-          keep your schedule;

-          keep a list of all your important contacts;

-          take notes at a meeting;

-          access lesson plans; and

-          let students have constant access to their current grades.


Main benefits in Communications and Collaborations Applications:

-          send an e-mail;

-          send a fax;

-          make a presentation;

-          receive instant messages; and

-          access online educational events.


Main benefits in Teaching and Learning Applications:

-          read an eBook;

-          do research on the web;

-          take notes in class;

-          organize your assignments; and

-          do homework.