Networking and computers are intertwined in so many ways, it is difficult and pointless to separate out the specific contribution of networking. A prime example of this intertwining is the way in which ubiquitous networking may finally help small handheld computers come into their own. The network can reach handhelds through a simple serial wire, infrared, or wireless digital radio and turn them into Internet clients and servers. With this capacity, a student can hold the entire cyberspace infosphere. There is no need to possess hard drives for on-board personal files, no need to squeeze in an encyclopedia or huge databases, no need to have computational muscle; these capacities can exist at a remote server. The handheld need only be large enough to run a browser (which, granted, will be large).
It is important to understand the difference between today's reality, where students occasionally use a computer in school, often as part of a group, and the future, where they will always have their personal handheld computer available. Few students today have sufficient exposure to computers to become fluid with them, to begin to use them to enhance personal expression and understanding. For most students, the term "personal computer" is a misnomer; students use "institutional computers." Each class involves a different computer, so there is nowhere to store their work. In fact, for the casual student user, the computer, instead of facilitating thought, can have the opposite effect; it can inhibit expression and simply become another barrier to understanding. When a student stops having to think about the cursor, understands what the computer can do, mastered a few productivity packages, when everything the student has ever collected, written, drawn, or composed is easily available, then the computer ceases being a problem and starts being part of the solution.
Handhelds cost only a few hundred dollars now and will drop quickly as a mass market develops for models with Internet-browsing capacity. When this happens, each student can finally have a personal computer, one that can go anywhere and do almost anything. This, in turn, will begin to make it possible to realize the major changes in education that have been promised by computer advocates for so long. Educators will be able to utilize information technologies in ways that are difficult to imagine in today's computer-starved classrooms. Soon there will be schools where all students have their own networked computer that they can use year in and year out, at home, in school, on the bus, on vacation, and in the family car. For these students, education, especially science education, can be much richer and more interesting and meaningful. Networking will soon make these new uses possible with affordable handhelds, rendering these computers far more useful than they would be without connectivity.
Low-cost handhelds should help bridge the "digital divide" by putting affordable modern computational tools in the hands of all students. There is always the worry that some students will not take care of computers.
Several studies have shown, however, that if the incentives are set up so the kids feel a sense of ownership, computers that travel home with students, even expensive portables, are handled responsibly in even the poorest communities.
Over the next decade, handheld computers will change a great deal, so it is unreasonable to use the current models as a guide. What is now available will bear the same relation to the handhelds of the end of the decade that the Apple II does to the latest Mac. CPU power will increase by a factor of 100, as will networking bandwidth and memory capacity. Wireless networking will be common, so students will have the full resources of the world at any place. And because they are small and mass-produced, handhelds will be less expensive than desktop computers. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the most common educational computers in 10 years will be small, networked, handheld computers.
Bob Tinker, President, The Concord Consortium