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Vol. 7, No. 9: May 15, 2001

UW-Madison Engineering Class Studies Functionality of Palm Pilot for Student Users

by Jennifer Smith, TTT Editor

Early in 2001, arrangements were made between Palm, Inc., and the University of Wisconsin System for UW faculty members to use Palm Pilot personal digital assistants (PDAs) for educational projects free of cost.  The Office of Learning and Information Technology at UW System Administration solicited research proposals from faculty members, and several proposals were approved for spring semester 2001.  Among the faculty involved in this learning experiment were Jeffrey Rosenthal of the chemistry department at UW-River Falls (who reports on his experiences elsewhere in this issue of TTT) and Leah Newman of the industrial design faculty at UW-Madison.

Leah Newman teaches a graduate seminar called "New Technology and Human Factors" (Industrial Engineering 859), in which students are encouraged to think critically about a range of issues involving new technologies, such as user-centered design, the social impact of technology and the "digital divide," and designing technology for older users.  With the Palm project, Newman's students conducted informal, qualitative research on the uses of a Palm PDA in an academic environment, including users' feelings about the device and how it could better suit the needs of student users.

The six students in Dr. Newman's graduate seminar had use of Palm Pilots, as well as nine students in the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program.  The EPICS students served as the study's focus group, which convened on April 11.  The fruit of the seminar students' labors was a group-written paper that will be shared with Palm, Inc., on the functionality and ease of use of PDAs.

The EPICS students who were loaned Palms were not given specific instructions on how to use them or for what purposes.  They were allowed to adapt the devices to both engineering-related and personal uses.  Student researchers considered, among other things, if the device's design is too small to be easily used and if the software available for the Palm meets student needs.

Dr. Newman's seminar students were Holly Bautsch, Stella Chia, Greg Hoskins, Farheen Khan, Vorakiat Tantivivat, and Todd Weston.  Focus group participants' usage of the device was largely limited to familiar Palm functions like storing addresses, keeping track of assignment due dates and grades, making to-do lists, logging work hours, and carrying out simple mathematical calculations.  Several students also enjoyed playing games on the Palm IIIx.  They did not end up taking class notes on their Palms.  Study participants commented that their usage of the device was limited by the fact that they knew they would have to turn their Palms in at the end of the semester; they did not enter as much information or invest as much time learning functions as they might have otherwise.  They did not wish to become dependent on a device that they would not have permanently.

While the research conducted was informal in nature and the size of the focus group was limited, the study did indicate some limitations of the Palm.  A couple of students found inputting information difficult due to the "Graffiti" system (which requires characters not found in standard English) and the small stylus.  A few had trouble synching the devices with their home computers and felt that the battery needed to be replaced too frequently.  On a related note, a few users lost data when changing batteries because they did not heed the device's warning to replace batteries within two hours of their being used up.  Users were divided on the size of the device; some felt its small size made it difficult to use, while one user claimed it was too large to be carried around conveniently.

Participants were also asked to use their imaginations and come up with a "wish list" of additional capabilities that could be added to the Palm IIIx to increase its usefulness to students.  Among the features the students brainstormed were a tape recorder, MP3 player, radio, wireless e-mail and instant messenger capability, voice recognition and conversion to text, headphone jacks, a digital camera, the ability to read PDF documents, and a graphic calculator for financial calculations.

Another "wish list" use of the Palms that the students came up with was a package for incoming freshmen with useful campus information.  As described in the students' report, "Freshmen could be given access to a downloadable file that would answer many of the questions that arise [for] a student who is new to campus life.  Maps of the university area could help students find their way to class or get familiar with bus routes and parking lots.  A list of frequently used phone numbers could be used to help arrange schedules with the registrar's office, get academic counseling, or even order a pizza.  A basic class schedule may also be part of the package to keep class times and academic building locations organized."

As an expansion of this freshman guide idea, students suggested a "My University" package available to all students that would have a calendar interface with campus events from art exhibits to music at the Union to football games.  The "My University" concept could also include campus directories and course catalogs.

While PDA usage has been booming in the U.S., the future of these devices among the emerging student market remains to be seen.  While traditionally a tool of businesspeople, devices like the Palm Pilot could make significant inroads among university students as long as students find that the devices respond to their unique needs and are within their budgets.

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