Macro or Micro: Teaching Fifth-Grade Economics Using Handheld Computers

Article excerpt

Imagine a classroom where students beam their assignments to the teacher instead of handing them in. Imagine a classroom where technology is ubiquitous yet nearly invisible. Imagine a classroom where all students simultaneously work together using technology. This is the reality for students in the fifth grade classroom of Jan Kelly, an elementary school teacher in Mogadore, Ohio, and one of the authors of this article. Kelly has been using handheld computers in social studies for more than two years for a variety of activities, including the study of economics by way of a simulated stock market, which is the focus of this article.

Technology Use in the Social Studies

Today, technology is playing an ever-important role in social studies education. Internet research, historical simulations, and multimedia projects are just a few examples of how current technology is making an impact in the social studies classroom. (1) In addition, there is a variety of support literature available for teachers, as evidenced, for example, by the annual April technology theme issue of SocIAL EDUCATION.

With the rising popularity of the Internet and the explosion in data collection, processing, and storage, there is a pressing need for social studies educators to teach students how to find, sift, process, and analyze data. Technology can be helpful in this process because of its potential to "support and amplify" activities such as data collection and visualization, meaningful thinking, problem solving, and reflection. (2) Therefore, it is more important than ever for social studies teachers to help students acquire the skills to deal independently and effectively with massive amounts of information. (3)

Recently, a new tool was added to the already varied arsenal of technology in social studies, handheld computers. (4) Leaders in the handheld industry, using initiatives such as the Palm Education Pioneer (PEP) program, have promoted the influx of palm-size computing devices in schools (see palmgrants.sri.com/awards.html). Initial evaluation reports have yielded baseline data indicating that a large majority of teachers consider handhelds to be effective tools in the classroom, and that handhelds can have a positive impact on student learning, especially at the elementary school level. Teachers have indicated that students are more motivated, spend more time using technology, collaborate and communicate more, and benefit from having a portable and readily accessible tool. (5)

The early evaluation findings are supported by academic research confirming the potential that handhelds have for teaching and learning as compared to desktops and laptops. For one, the devices seem to be more effective because of the potential--due to their lower cost and space requirements--for one-to-one computing. In addition, the nature of the technology allows for ready-at-hand computing, anytime, anywhere. (6) Furthermore, handheld devices enable users to transfer, or "beam," files and programs from one handheld to another using infrared technology, such as that used by remotes for televisions. Beaming and short-range networking capabilities enable computer-supported collaborative learning, and make it possible for students to represent individual or shared knowledge in a wider variety of ways. (7)

When it comes to cost, many school districts, especially the larger and poorer ones, cannot afford to purchase a desktop or laptop for every student. However, with an initial cost of about $200 and a much lower total cost of ownership (including software, support, and staff development), handhelds provide an affordable alternative. For example, when $5,000 buys approximately five to six desktop computers or twenty-five handheld computers the choice is an easy one, and we can finally achieve a one-to-one student to computer ratio in a class of twenty-five students.

Handheld Computers in the Social Studies

Handhelds can be used for a wide variety of activities, including brainstorming, writing, research, data collection, and multimedia projects. …