Software companies target students

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Sat, Aug 25, 2001 - Page 24

The days of the Trapper Keeper are over. An icon for students of the 1980s, the three-ring binder included folders for organizing schoolwork by subject and featured covers of popular rock and movie stars, all enclosed by a handy Velcro flap.CFToday students are increasingly carrying hand-held organizers like the Palm or the Visor outfitted with software to track their assignments, help them prepare for tests and even help them conduct science experiments.

Already common among college students, Palm-based hand-held devices are now beginning to show up in some high schools, middle schools and even a few elementary schools, said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan.

"Games are going to drive kids to buy the Palm, and they're going to bring them to school," said Soloway, who has developed free educational software for the Palm operating system through the university's Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education. "Eventually, teachers will have to figure out a way to use them in the classroom."

So with a Palm and a Visor loaded with nearly two dozen educational programs, I decided to become a student for a week, keeping track of a packed schedule of class assignments and cramming for potential pop quizzes. While most applications involve a nominal registration fee, many are available in free trial versions so that you can see if the program is right for you. All of them work with any hand-held computer using the Palm operating system, usually version 3.1 or above.

One of the most common student uses of a hand-held computer is to keep track of assignments and grades. Due Yesterday (www.due-yesterday.com), US$15, and 4.0Student (www.handmark.com), US$19.99, are good replacements for pocket calendars. Both provide tools that allow you to enter information about courses, including meeting times, contact information for professors and assignments. They offer views of due dates that can be customized by the week, by individual course or with all classes included. Assignments and test dates can be exported to the Palm's datebook and to-do list with either program, allowing students to coordinate schoolwork with the rest of their lives.

Due Yesterday also includes a feature called "due next," which alerts you to your next assignment and how many assignments you have turned in late in that class (just in case you want to skip writing that English paper to finish studying for a chemistry exam). For the student who is always fiddling with a calculator to determine his grades, 4.0Student presents "what if" scenarios to predict grades through the end of the semester. It also calculates grade-point average based on grading policies for the class or the school in general. Data from the semester can be backed up and stored from any computer with Web access at fourostudent.net. (The Web-based service requires a subscription, which costs US$39.99 for one year and includes a copy of 4.0Student.)

Once your schedule is entered into the Palm, several programs can help with homework assignments or with preparing for the big test. A suite of programs called ImagiMath (www.imagiworks.com), US$39.95, includes ImagiCalc, a full-function calculator; ImagiGraph, for plotting graphs and even animating them; and ImagiSolve, a math worksheet that helps solve equations with a tap of the stylus. Students around the sixth-grade level can try Bubble Blasters (www.handheld.hice-dev.org), a free math game developed by Soloway's center at Michigan with floating bubbles that contain answers to multiple-choice questions about fractions, decimals and mixed numbers. The object is to choose the correct answer before the bubbles float away.

Another fun way to learn math and science, although much more expensive, is ImagiProbe, another ImagiWorks program, which sells for US$329 and attaches to the back of the Palm. More than two dozen sensors can be added to the probe, which allows a user to conduct science experiments. For example, you can measure the pH level of your backyard pool, the dissolved oxygen in a nearby stream or your heart rate while on a treadmill. The data collected over time can be plotted on graphs on the Palm, and notes and sketches can be added. When you finish an experiment, you can beam the results to other hand-held devices. Most of the sensors run from $30 to $70.

To prepare for quizzes or tests, students can look at BoneUP (www.palmgear.com), US$10. You can create multiple-choice, true-or-false and flash-card questions in a variety of subjects and decide in which order the questions will be asked and how the program should handle wrong answers (for instance, whether to give you the right answer). BoneUP also tracks the questions you answer incorrectly and poses them more frequently. Quizzes can be edited in Palm's memo pad and beamed among classmates.

If you're getting ready to apply to college or graduate school, Kaplan, the test preparation company, offers the student Kaplan-to-Go (www.kaptest.com.mobile), at US$24.95 to US$29.95.

It allows you to practice for the Scholastic Assessment Tests, Graduate Record Examination or Graduate Management Admission Test in specific test areas or take full practice tests. The software includes a glossary, in case you're a little rusty on integers or irrational numbers, and pop-up menus explain why an answer was incorrect.

Aside from tests, reports and research papers usually make up the remainder of a student's assignments. But using a hand-held device to type anything of substance is time-consuming, even if you have retrained your hands to learn the Palm's Graffiti handwriting recognition program. If you're planning to use your hand-held computer to write papers, it's best to invest in an attachable pocket keyboard, which sells for about US$100. I wrote this story on a Palm, using a collapsible keyboard and a word processing program called WordSmith (www.bluenomad.com),US$29.95.

Wordsmith is compatible with Microsoft Word and has the feel of a word processing program built for a computer, although it was designed for a hand-held device. Like all word processing programs, WordSmith gives you a choice of fonts and point sizes, the ability to align text to the left, center or right, and cut and paste. It also has the same kind of search-and-replace features that programs for desktops do and includes keyboard shortcuts. One major drawback of WordSmith is that it doesn't include a spelling checker. Company officials say they plan to include one in the next version, to be released this fall. Until then, if you're a poor speller, you might try WriteHere, a bare-bones but free word processor developed by Soloway at Michigan (www.handheld.hice-dev.org).

Finally, when you're ready to print your assignments, check out the program Printboy (www.bachmannsoftware.com), US$14.99 and up. The software allows you to beam almost any document directly from your hand-held device to an infrared printer. If you don't have an infrared-equipped printer, you can buy an adapter that converts your printer to accept beaming, or simply connect the Palm with a serial cable, or do it the old-fashioned way -- hot-sync the document to your desktop.