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A LOOK AT... Software for Handheld Computing

By Charles G. Doe - Posted Nov 1, 2004
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You've learned the basic functions of your hand-held computer (or PDA—Personal Digital Assistant)—and now you're wondering what more you can do with it, or how you can improve its function.

You may be a K-12 educator who has just been told that your students are each going to get a hand-held computer—and now you're wondering what to do with the unit or what software you can use with it.

You may be a parent thinking that your PDA kind of looks like a small electronic hand-held toy—which has started you wondering if you can sneak in an educational activity with it.

So, what can you do with these devices and what's available to help you do it?

Knowing which software to pick—or even where to find it—can be a more difficult proposition here than it is with personal computers. As with PCs, there are two basic platforms to work with—Palm OS and Pocket PC (basically, the Windows version).

Now, this seems simple enough, but what about SmartPhones? Much of the available hand-held software can be purchased in all three versions. In this article, I'm going to focus on the Palm OS and Pocket PC platforms and ignore the SmartPhones and some of the other newer, lesser-known applications.

My district is more likely to purchase Palm OS handhelds for $100 than Pocket PCs that generally start at double the price. And, the many education-oriented programs available for Palm OS systems—programs like vocabulary drill, math practice, etc.—encourage our purchase decisions. It can be extremely difficult to find directly educational programs for the Pocket PC platform, although some are certainly on the way.

Far more software is available for Palm OS systems than for Pocket PC systems. This may be because Palm OS was on the scene first and the platform tends to be more affordable, attracting more developers.

Tool programs for both platforms are generally available. These programs have an "indirectly" educational benefit, facilitating educational activities in many ways, including the use of a word processor to write a paper or the use of a spreadsheet program to work on an activity involving math skills.

When making purchasing decisions about PDA software, what you'll probably notice first is that most of the software developers/publishers seem to be new on the scene. Of course, there are a few established companies with reputations for consistently good software which are providing excellent products for these platforms. Names that immediately come to mind are Tom Snyder Productions, Sunburst, and Scholastic.

Many free programs also are available. While there are some gems here, keep in mind that free programs tend to be not as thoroughly developed or reliable. Since most are available via download to your computer, these freebies also present a possible serious virus problem, especially when coming from lesser-known developers or sites.

Where to Look

According to some sources, there are more than 30,000 programs available, covering both platforms. This abundance certainly can be overwhelming.

Many program links are directly available from the manufacturers of hand-held hardware. In general, these companies are not recommending the software, just making the information available to potential users. For example, PalmSource [] presents 12 categories of third-party software (software developed by other companies). One of these categories—Reference and Education—is subdivided into eight sections, listing more than 3,000 programs.

In addition to the many individual company sites, Windows Mobile [
] and
[] provide a number of categorized links, many for software available for both platforms.

There also are a number of less "official" sites; I've found three excellent ones. The first is Donna McGauley's site [
, describing the 2003-04 Dekalb (Decatur, Georgia) County School System Palm project with fifth grade students. Along with a number of wonderful Palm OS resources, this site includes a small list of exceptional educational programs for use in the classroom.

EduPalm [] was created by Gary W. Ankney, a high school teacher at Greencastle-Antrim High School in Pennsylvania. This terrific site offers information for both platforms, including a discussion of different PDAs, reviews, programs, books, other sites, etc.

Power in the Palm of Your Hand [] from Kathy Schrock, contains an extensive collection of links for both platforms. This site, another example of Kathy Schrock's always excellent work, is extremely useful.

Hand-Held Computers in the Classroom

Of course, before buying software for your PDA, you need a pretty clear idea of what you want to do with it. The following are just a few examples of projects for hand-held computer users.

Outdoor science experiments allow students to record their observations to a word processor or to record specific data to a spreadsheet. Some classes have used variations of software that came with PDAs to log assignments and plan projects.

Vocabulary lessons can include entering words and definitions into a PDA flashcard program for later study. Drawing programs can be used to create pictures to accompany the words. Specially designed programs can be used for concept mapping.

Many programs have been developed for elementary instructional and drill use. These include math drill, graph builders, games, and more.

In some cases, special attachments are used with hand-held devices. A probe can be used to measure the oxygen content of water and many other physical characteristics of items. Keyboards, some of which are wireless, can be attached for typing.

Beaming, a form of wireless communication between equipped handhelds, and wireless connectivity can be used to send assignments or comments to students after an answer or question has been beamed to them. Assignments can be turned in by beaming. Students can work on educational activities involving beaming, such as "Match-My-Graph" and various drill and game applications.

For our first in what we hope will be an occasional series of PDA software roundups, we'll look at software divided roughly into two categories. The first category, Educational Software, looks at software in terms of general grade level and teacher divisions. The second category, General-Purpose Software, presents software not specifically designed for education.

Please keep in mind that this is a very general overview of the ways hand-held computers and software can be used in education. Remember that this roundup is a quick survey of currently available products and is not intended to be a thorough review of platforms and software.


Herbert and the Presidents

Herbert, an animated green insect, helps children learn about the nation's presidents. The journey starts in the Red Room of the White House with a variety of activities. The Roll Call of the Presidents lists the presidents in order of service and allows users to tap on a president's name to get more information about that president. Tic-Tac-Pres lets youngsters answer questions about the presidents to earn squares to win a "Presidential Squares" game. This activity has infrared beaming capability. In Sherbert's Scramble, Herbert's naughty little brother mixes up the names of the presidents for users to unscramble. Whack-a-bug allows youngsters to connect a president to his number (Washington is 1, Adams is 2, etc.). As with many PDA games, the graphics are a little crude because of memory limitations, however, the program is effective and fun for younger students. For any device that supports Palm OS 3.5 or later. $14.95, individual user. Educational group discounts available.

Beret Applications, 18 Sloane Court, Stony Point, NY 10980; E-mail:; Internet:

Missile Math 1.7

This is a variation of an older computer game that has been around for many incarnations. Students defend Earth's cities from enemy math missiles by correctly answering problems and destroying enemy missiles before cities are reduced to rubble. The game increases in difficulty the longer the cities are defended. The program covers basic math fact skills, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Includes color graphics and sound effects. $6, individual user.

AK Solutions, LLP, Internet:

The 2005 World Almanac for Kids

The World Almanac for Kids offers lots of facts and many illustrations. Although marketed for all ages, the title may limit its usefulness to middle and/or elementary school. The database includes statistics, historical dates, quizzes, and Index and Search features. This is one of a number of reference products developed by Town Compass, LLC. These hand-held products are necessarily smaller than those developed for personal computers, however, focused reference products of this type can be extremely useful. Many of the company's e-book and database products require free Town Compass DataViewer software. $11.95, Individual user.

Town Compass, LLC, 4257 24th Avenue W., Suite B, Seattle, WA 98199; Phone: 206/624-4714; Internet:

Trace 'n Write 1.1

This software, designed to help children learn to write upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet, is an interesting idea. The idea is simple and seems extremely effective and is great with pre-school and younger grades. Children choose a letter to practice by pressing on a letter of the alphabet, which is shown in rows at the bottom of the screen. The selected letter is displayed on the screen, the same as it would appear on ruled lettering paper, in both uppercase and lowercase. The letter has arrows and numbers indicating the order and direction for each pen stroke. Your child can trace the letters directly on the screen with the stylus, just like using pencil and paper. After a short period of time, the tracing disappears and the letter can be traced again. For Pocket PC. $9.95, individual user.

Tinker-Soft, Internet:


MRI Graphing Calculator

MRI Graphing Calculator software turns a Pocket PC into a graphing calculator. The program enables the calculation of more than 130 mathematical functions that include calculus, solving equations, financial math, matrices, number theory, probability distribution, sequences, and statistical functions. In addition, 11 graphing functions can be plotted, including bar graphs, box and whisker plots, curves of best fit, histograms, pie graphs, graphs of function, polar plots, parametric plots, graphs of equations, plot points, and graphs of inequalities. For Pocket PCs running Window/CE, Pocket PC 2002, and Pocket PC 2003 operating systems. $49.95, single copy.

Math Resources Inc., 5516 Spring Garden Road, Suite 203, Halifax, Nova Scotia; Phone: 800/720-1323; Internet:


4.0Student is an excellent coursework management program with many features. Teachers can create, modify, delete, archive, and share classes and coursework data using an optional account, then synchronize with 4.0Student on a Palm OS device. The program keeps class details such as instructor information, textbooks, grading policies, and detailed course information, as well as class time, location, instructor office hours, phone, and e-mail. The coursework management functions enable students to track homework, quiz and test details, including due dates, scores, textbooks, and even notes for coursework details. Grades can be tracked and accessed online with a account. $19.99, software, individual user. $29.99 with 1 year of included. Handmark, Inc, 105 East 5th Street #201, Kansas City, MO 64106; Internet:

World Book Encyclopedia 2004 Handheld Edition

This hand-held version of the World Book Encyclopedia features more than 25,000 entries and 3,500 graphics. This nicely done reference includes a built-in Index and Quick Find Auto Scroll to help locate information. Linked words allow users to tap on highlighted words to see related entries without leaving the record being examined. Since the file is more than 80 MB in size, this product is designed for handhelds capable of using a storage card/device. $49.95, Individual user.

Town Compass, LLC, 4257 24th Avenue W., Suite B, Seattle, WA 98199; Phone: 206/624-4714; Internet:

A-Lex English Dictionary & Synonym & Voice 1.65

A-Lex is a large and high-quality, easy-to-use 136,000+ word English dictionary with an extensive synonym database, pronunciation and voice synthesis extension, wildcard searching, easy cross-referencing, and root (stem) word detection. Optional add-ons are a synonym database, a pronunciation database for more than 55,000 entries, a database containing word usage examples, a speech or voice synthesis extension, and more. Requires the S 5 Sound Manager or Sony Clie Enhanced Sound compatible devices. Claims to be the only talking English dictionary for Palm OS, synthesizing 50,000+ words. $13.99, individual user.

Abstract R&D, available from

FlashCards 101

FlashCards 101 is a simple flash card utility that creates flash cards with questions and answers to assist in the study of vocabulary, chemistry, etc. The program stores hundreds of card sets in small files. The cards can be randomly shuffled; small images can be included with the questions. Card sets can be traded with other students. The program has a desktop companion for creating flash cards on a personal computer, then transferring them to the PDA. A free demo version is available. $11.99, individual user.

myPocket technologies, Internet:


KnowledgeWorx 2.1

KnowledgeWorx provides a set of tools to capture, use, and share knowledge by building sets of reusable information that can run on Palm OS and Pocket PC hand-held devices. The program's tools—Construx, HandiWorx, and DataWorx—can create surveys and questionnaires, data collection kits, quizzes and tests, diagnostic tools, text simulations and games, and training packages. All have an easy-to-use graphical user interface. This is a somewhat complicated process and an excellent program for dedicated teachers interested in developing PDA courseware of one sort or anther. For Palm OS or Pocket PC. $129.95, individual user. Volume discounts available.

X-Act! Software LLC; Phone: 402-323-6692; Internet:


Participate helps to track student participation in classroom discussions and group projects. The customizable seating chart presents all students on one screen; no scrolling is needed. A Who's Next feature shows who's next in line to be called upon. Teachers can tap on any student name to automatically give or take away points, or arrange students into groups and have the screen show seat locations. The program can track oral and nonverbal participation, group work points, students who are on task, behavior (positive and negative), and more. Features include elementary and secondary modes for class enrollment and the ability to add students from a memo pad list that can be made on a PC. For any Palm OS handheld with Palm OS 3.5 or above and 180 K free memory. $14.95, individual user. Site licenses are available.

Hands High Software, Inc., 1290 Cypress Street, East Palo Alto, CA 94303; Internet:

Handheld Learning Environment (HLE)

Based on classroom research at the University of Michigan, HLE supports the inquiry-based use of hand-held computers in K-12 classrooms, works with existing lessons and curriculum, and simplifies the management and assessment of student materials. The program allows teachers to back up student hand-held work and provides productivity applications designed specifically for K-12 education. For Palm OS and Pocket PC. The use of this program requires a $19.95 annual fee per user, or a one-time fee of $59.95. Volume discounts are available. This is definitely worth checking out, especially since the company offers an extensive amount of support.

GoKnow, 912 N. Main Street, Suite 100, Ann Arbor, MI; Phone: 800/203-3412; Internet:


These programs may be useful in educational settings, although not specifically developed for education.

The HandMap Network

HandMap offers a variety of maps, including U.S. (county and city maps are available), Canadian, European, and more—including the moon—for use with Palm or Pocket PC handhelds. Flexible purchase packages are available, such as four U.S. city maps for $9 or access to all city maps with a subscription fee of $24. Access to more than 3,000 U.S. county maps is available for a subscription fee of $22. A GPS (Global Positioning) plug-in and receiver also are available for purchase. HandMap viewing software, sold separately for $16, is required. This software includes access to a growing list of free "overview" maps, such as World Atlas 1.2. This world atlas provides detailed maps of the world, a zoom function, and shows land, water, population centers, and international borders. More than 3,000 city centers are included.


Scientific Advantage/Advantage Calculators

Scientific Advantage calculator software allows users to compute with and convert among more than 200 different units (feet, meters, pounds, etc.), including English/Imperial and SI/metric units. The software supports algebraic and RPN entry, includes advanced math functions, automatic solvers, statistics, timers, constants, chemical element data, and much more. Versions are available for Windows and Pocket PCs, priced at $39.95 each or $59.95 for both. The company also offers Advantage, a general-purpose calculator program, for $19.95. Both of these packages are fully functioned and useful.

Formative Software, Inc., 1914 Nolina Road, Knoxville TN 37922; Phone: 865/777-9763; Internet:

Pocket Slides 1.8

Pocket Slides, a presentation tool for the Pocket PC platform, enables users to create, edit, view, or play back presentations with a hand-held computer. Existing PowerPoint presentations can be copied to the device with the aid of the drag-and-drop conversion included in the program. Similar to PowerPoint, Pocket Slides can use animations, transitions, varied fonts, font sizes, and text colors. The program supports VGA devices and will simultaneously output the presentation to a Pocket PC and a VGA device for use with a monitor or projector for group presentations. $39.95, individual version.

Conduits Technologies, Inc., Phone: 813/907-2562; E-mail:; Internet:

Pocket Artist

Pocket Artist provides many of the features found with desktop image-editing software. Users can edit and retouch photos and images, add text and special effects, and create Web graphics and more in PSD, JPG, GIF, or BMP formats. For Pocket PC 2000, Pocket PC 2002, Windows Mobile 2003, and other Windows CE devices. $49.95, individual user.

Conduits Technologies, Inc., Phone: 813/907-2562; E-mail:; Internet:


SplashPhoto turns a Pocket PC into a mobile digital picture frame, allowing users to view and manage digital photos on their PDA. Images can be viewed in list or thumbnail format, or individually in a slideshow. Photos can be edited and uploaded with the included desktop software. Photos may be cropped, rotated, and enhanced in other ways. For hand-held models running Palm OS 4.0 or later that are capable of displaying 16-bit images. $29.95, individual user.

SplashData, Inc., 270 Eakin Dr., Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; E-mail:; Internet:

Travel Dictionaries 1.0

Travel Dictionaries provide instant word translation in two directions. Users enter a word to be translated and hit Find. An intelligent search function lists alternatives, in case the word is not found in the dictionary. All language dictionaries fully integrate into one program. The "copy to clipboard" function allows integration of translated words in e-mails, notes, documents, and more. Different language pairs available separately include English/French, English/Spanish, English/German, English/Italian, English/Portuguese, English/Swedish, French/German, French/Spanish, and Spanish/German. For Palm devices, color and gray scale, running Palm OS 3.5 or higher. $9.99, individual versions. $29.99, The Ultimate Travel Pack with nine languages.

AIM Productions, Antwerpsesteenweg 146, B-2550 Kontich, Belgium; Internet:

Final Comments

This is a very brief overview of only some of the wide variety of software currently available for hand-held computing devices. Much more is available and I hope that I've given you some ideas about where to go, what to look for, and what some of the possibilities may be.

As you look, remember that there are even more compatibility issues with PDA software than with software for personal computers. The compatibility issues include platform resolution, color support or lack of color support, beaming capabilities, and correct operating system versions. Check carefully before purchasing and, by all means, look and test before purchasing.

This is a new and exciting area of personal and educational technology, with new developments every day. It definitely deserves your time and attention!

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