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PDAs add new dimension to distance learning

Madison, Wis. - Forget a computer on every desktop - the future of learning is a computer in the palm of every hand.

It's learning that can engage diverse audiences - from uncommunicative high school students to members of the Armed Forces - in methods that can blend reality with artificial scenarios.

That vision of a fully mobile future was one of the topics discussed at the recent Distance Teaching and Learning conference here. Researchers presented how the personal digital assistant (PDA) can be used as a valuable teaching tool.

PDAs, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Kurt Squire, have several benefits over traditional computers. They offer improved social interactivity since they are mobile and can be networked with each other, and they possess context sensitivity, thanks to GPS and Internet connections, providing information based on geography.

That context sensitivity is especially important, Squire says, because it can create an "augmented reality" where the real world is combined with a digital one. A combination of films, maps and audio recordings place users in their own role-playing games, where they can interact with other PDA users playing different roles.
"It's literally taking a piece of the real world and making it your game board," Squire said. "What we're trying to do is create a virtual space that modifies the actual space."

Squire was at the conference with fellow UW-Madison researcher Ming-Fong Jan to outline Mad City, an augmented reality game developed by the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab. The game, which takes place in the heart of Madison, gives players the goal of dealing with toxic spills and unexplained deaths.

Read more about Mad City and other educational video games

Jan and Squire walked through a test of Mad City done with high school students, who were investigating a death that appeared to be accidental drowning. Teams of three students were given PDAs and took on the persona of government officials and scientists, accessing digital interviews that were viewed depending on geographic location and assigned role.

The game was designed so the players could not finish unless they worked together on it, according to Jan. Each of the team members had access to different information and interviews that they needed to share with the others to get the whole picture. As the game progressed they had to come up with a hypothesis for the cause of death.

The results of the program were better than expected - each of the students, even the typically uncommunicative ones, got into the roles and changed their ideas continually through the game, Jan said. Since it took place in a real-life situation, they drew on their real-life experience, such as knowledge of mercury poisoning in the lake.

Squire said they want to keep building on such real-world knowledge, rewriting the scripts so it reflects the roles better, and upgrading interactivity with the real world.

"You can see them building their hypotheses on the fly and trying to listen," he said. "We wanted there to be questions they could ask."

Pocket campuses: digital learning without the Internet

While PDAs can be used in elaborate ways, they are also useful as simple teaching tools without Internet access or multiple partners. Pam Northrup, a professor at the University of West Florida and director of the Academic Technology Center, described a partnership the university opened with the U.S. Coast Guard to provide distance learning.

The arrangement the Coast Guard was interested in, Northrup said, was finding a way to provide classes on human performance technology (HPT) to sailors who were stationed on ships and bases near Key West and Miami. Their geography meant they would be unable to have a basic class, and due to security reasons they could not log onto the Internet for online courses.

UWF decided to tackle that program with a "pocket campus" approach: using PDAs which had their Bluetooth and wireless options removed. The PDAs contain a full class outline with a comprehensive list of slides and reports which the Coast Guard members then study and take notes on, which then leads them into PDA quizzes and proctored exams.

"It's not interaction, but it's better than reading PowerPoint slides online," Northrup said. "We really tried to take a step back and see what works in online learning and put them, as best we could, to a PDA environment."

The courses were meant to be fully adaptable, and Coast Guard members taking the course could do it in pieces. The PDA records which lessons have been viewed and which quizzes have been taken, allowing them to pick up the PDA whenever they wanted to or even take courses in person once they returned to the mainland.

Northrup said one of the features they tried to emphasize in the course was the customizability of the PDAs, making sure each student felt familiar with the content and could directly answer questions posed to them. They tried to bridge that gap by using Flash movies to introduce each section and providing quizzes on the material they could take multiple times.

"What we wanted was to get them to an understanding of knowledge they should get from the regular course," Northrup said. "They really used these quizzes to guide them until they were knowledgeable of the concepts."

Les Chappell is a writer for WTN based in Madison. He can be reached at

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