High-tech tool leads to school concerns

Some in Howard fear students are misusing handheld computers

November 11, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Modern technology is making it possible for students at River Hill High School to hold the world in the palms of their hands.

The Internet, a thesaurus, dictionaries in three languages, literary texts, calculators, the school's code of student conduct - all are encased inside personal digital assistants distributed by the school to the freshman class, to be used for research, homework and projects, class assignments and teacher feedback.

Some of the tech-savvy teens, however, have discovered that the hand-held devices are useful for other things: e-mailing friends, playing computer games, chatting by instant messenger - and cheating.

Freshman Rhea Udyavar, 13, said she doesn't cheat, but added, "It's really easy to do, actually. ... You turn it on, you press one of the buttons and you're on the Internet, and teachers wouldn't even notice. It's so easy."

River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer, alerted to the misbehavior, warned his teachers to be more vigilant about the activities of the wired freshmen.

"Beware of student cheating using iPAQs," Pfeifer wrote to faculty in an online newsletter last month, referring to the devices by their brand name. "A parent shared with a board member that `cheating is rampant' using the iPAQs at River Hill."

Pfeifer said during an interview last week that he hadn't personally heard from teachers or students that some are using the minicomputers to cheat, but, he said, it is "a classroom-management issue that teachers need to be aware of."

Technology experts across the country say the issues at River Hill are germane for anyone using individual computers in the classroom.

"This technology, it's almost like someone bringing a cell phone into the class, but to a much higher degree. You have access to anything, anywhere," said Michael J. Vertefeuille, director of information technology at the University of Connecticut School of Business in Storrs, Conn.

Business students at the University of Connecticut are required to have laptops, and professors there have "network-level control" over how the undergraduates use them during class, he said.

"What we can do is, we can actually dynamically filter out specific types of traffic. ... We can say, `I don't want you to go to any Web traffic, any e-mail servers. I don't want any instant messages going across this server,'" he said.

At River Hill, the PDAs can be controlled in a similar way.

Because the devices are wire-less, for example, students have Internet access only within the school - they can't investigate inappropriate sites on school buses or inside their homes at night.

And Mindsurf Networks, the local company that is providing the PDAs and accompanying software to the high school as a part of a pilot project, has provided a tool that allows teachers to check on students' PDA activity, keystroke by keystroke.

"Teachers can, in the course of the class, see everything that a student is doing," said Brenda Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the company, which has school partners at more than 80 schools across the country, including Baltimore's Hamilton Middle School.

The program, called "Discourse," is being installed at River Hill, Wheeler said. However, Pfeifer said, because teachers are being trained slowly, it is not fully operational - which might be why some don't quite have a handle on students' surfing the Web, sending instant messages or sneaking a peek on their PDAs.

"Anytime you take a foray into new technology, there are a lot of start-up issues," Pfeifer said. "We are making progress - it's just slower rather than faster."

In addition, Pfeifer said, students are required to sign a technology ethics agreement at the beginning of the school year before they receive their iPAQs. "If they misuse the technology, there are disciplinary measures," he said.

According to freshmen at the school, however, some students don't seem worried about being chastised for playing on their hand-helds.

"During school, they'll be sitting there playing games and getting on the Internet," Rhea said, explaining why she thinks the PDAs aren't being used to their full potential. "It's so useless."

Freshman Mitali Thakor - who said she's never seen or heard of students cheating with PDAs - said she thinks it would be difficult for her peers to use the devices to cheat, in part because many teachers don't incorporate them into daily classroom activities.

In the classes that use them regularly, however, some enterprising freshmen have found ways to use their iPAQs with less-than-honorable intentions.

"I have heard about it where you can make programs to aid you in tests," said Lindsay Meney, 14, who also said she doesn't cheat. "Like vocabulary, you can have the definitions right there in front of you, and nobody would know the difference."

Wheeler, of Mindsurf, said students sneaking out an electronic device to cheat isn't any different than slipping a note in one's sleeve, or kicking open one's textbook under one's desk. It's just more high-tech.

"If a kid wants to cheat and doesn't want to be honest, and they want to sneak a peek at a book, well, that existed when I was in school, and it probably existed when my grandfather was in school," she said. "That's not a software issue; that's a classroom-management issue."

With regard to River Hill's situation, Vertefeuille agrees with Wheeler's assessment: "With this technology, you could employ filtering technology, by eliminating the ability for students to talk to each other. But in those other situations, you'd still need a proctor just to see what students are looking at on their screen," he said.

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