Harvard Graduate School of Education  

HDUL Homepage | Overview of HDUL | Getting Started with WHDs | Selected HDUL Publications

This WebPage provides an overview of the Handheld Devices for Ubiquitous Learning Project (HDUL), the promise of ubiquitous computing, a brief history of handheld computers, an overview of wireless handheld devices, exemplar examples of educational software designed for handhelds, general information about probeware and peripherals, and exemplar uses of handhelds in education. Please use the diagram below to navigate through the page.

Copyright © 2006 President and Fellows of Harvard College | Web-site Related Comments | Last Updated 11/01/2006

Overview of the Handheld Devices for Ubiquitous Learning Project

The Handheld Devices for Ubiquitous Learning (HDUL) project is an exploratory study that seeks to determine how wireless handheld devices (WHDs) can enhance learning and teaching in university settings. Our motives for investing in HDUL are based on the devices people own and carry, society’s cultural and technical movement towards ubiquitous computing, WHDs’ potential for harnessing situated and distributed cognition capabilities, and emerging media-driven learning styles. During the 2003–2004 and 2004–2005 academic years, HDUL integrated WHDs into eight diverse courses at both the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and the Harvard Extension School (HES) as summarized in Table 1 below.  

Table 1 Summary of Courses, Implementations and Sessions


WHDs Used For:


distributed learning course

participatory simulations: 2003 – Environmental Detectives (Klopfer, 2003); 2004 – Virus (MIT Teacher Education Program, 2005)

2003: Face-to-face class meeting consisted one 2-hour session; 2004: Face-to-face class meeting consisted a 1-hour session

emerging technologies pedagogy course

creating and sharing concept maps

Face-to-face class meeting consisted of one 90-minute session.

math methods course

learning and teaching math; comparing and contrasting WHDs with graphing calculators

Brief informational meeting with individual students while they signed out and picked up WHD. Face-to-face class meeting consisted one 2-hour session

online learning course

surveying and analyzing data in the field and in real time

Face-to-face class meeting with whole class consisted on two 45-minute sessions. The first session introduced the devices and the hands-on task. The follow up session allowed participants to discuss their experiences with the devices and the results of their surveys.

qualitative methods and interviewing course

capturing digital audio interviews and images

Face-to-face class meeting consisted of one 45-minute session.

science methods course

learning and teaching science; investigating probeware with WHDs

Face-to-face class meeting consisted of one 90-minute session

team learning course

building collaborative capacity and completing real time polling exercises

Face-to-face class meeting consisted of one 2-hour session.

technology and assessment course

creating and sharing animations, evaluating commercial assessment applications, and completing real time polling exercises

Face-to-face class meetings consisted of one 30-minute informational session and one 2-hour session.

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The Promise of Ubiquitous Computing

In the late 1980’s, Mark Weiser began writing and discussing the potentials of ubiquitous computing –– computing in which computers are no longer seen and resides in the periphery of our daily lives (Weiser, 1991). Since then, ubiquitous computing (UbiComp) has become an area of study in computer science and electrical engineering (see for example Abowd & Mynatt, 2000). Furthermore, UbiComp is changing the way that people see and use computers.

The computer-human interaction trajectory, according to Weiser (1996), can be thought of in three waves. The first computing wave tied many people to a single mainframe computer. Users of such computers had highly specialized skills that were not representative of average citizens. The second wave connected individuals to desktop and laptop computers, thus providing a one-to-one computer-to-human ratio. The third wave is the era of ubiquitous computing, whereby many computers interact with one person, or many computers interact with many people. Using the foundation of UbiComp, Chris Dede suggested the potential of UbiComp in education through the characters of Alec and Arielle as they explore a museum with their handheld devices (Dede, 2002).

Vignette 2 Alec and Arielle strolled through Harvard Yard on their way to the museum, to collect data for their class assignment. Each carried a handheld device (HD) that softly pulsed every time they walked past a building in the Yard. The vibration signaled that the building would share information about its architecture, history, purpose, and inhabitants, using interactive wireless data transfer. Sometimes Alec would stop and use his HD to ask questions about an interesting looking location. Today, he was in a hurry and ignored the pulses. Inside the museum, Alec and Arielle split up to work on their individual assignments. When Alec typed his research topic into the museum computer, it loaded a building map into his HD, with flashing icons showing exhibits on that subject. At each exhibit, Alec could capture a digital image on his HD, download data about the artifacts and links to related websites, and access alternative interpretations about the exhibit. His HD automatically supplied information about Alec’s age and background to ensure that the material he received was appropriate in native language, reading level, and learning style. While the museum-supplied information was interesting, Alec always enjoyed the comments posted about each exhibit by other kids. Sometimes, he added a few remarks of his own to the ongoing discussion. Seeing a cool artifact related to Arielle’s topic, Alec paused to link to her HD, sending a digital image of the exhibit and information on its location. Alec’s favorite exhibits were those augmented by virtual environments. For example, at a panorama showing the bones found at a tar pit, Alec’s HD depicted a virtual reconstruction of the dinosaurs that were trapped at that prehistoric location. In the virtual environment, he could assume the perspective of each species and walk or fly or swim through its typical habitat. Other types of exhibit-linked virtual environments enabled “time travel” to show how a particular spot on the earth’s surface had changed over the eons. For each epoch, Alec used virtual probes on his HD to collect data about temperature, air pressure, elevation, and pollutants. Walking back from the museum, Arielle and Alec shared what they had found. Both wondered what learning was like before augmented reality and ubiquitous computing, when objects and locations were mute and inert. How lifeless the world must have been!

In addition, Dave Keefe, Phoebe Farag and Andy Zucker's (2003) "Ubiquitious Computing Project: A Brief History" summarizes the histories and findings of various initiatives and how they played out in educational settings.

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The History of Handheld Computers

Video footage of early examples of handheld computers developed by Mark Weiser and his research group in the early half of the 1990's have survived and are available as short QuickTime movie clips

Please note that the images to the right are only a sampling of the many handheld devices that have been released over the years.

  • The "Little Professor" calculator produced by Texas Instruments and introduced in 1976.
  • The TI Graphing Calculator produced by Texas Instruments and introduced in 1990.
  • The Palm Pilot PDA produced by Palm, Inc. and introduced in 1996.
  • The Toshiba Pocket PC e750 produced by Toshiba and introduced in March 2003.
  • The Palm Tungsten C produced by Palm, Inc. and introduced in April 2003.
  • The Samsung SCH-i600 Smart Phone produced by Samsung and introduced in November 2003.
  • The Samsung SPH-i700 Pocket PC Phone produced by Samsung and introduced in November 2003.

For more information regarding the history of handheld devices, please see Ken Polsson's (2003) "Chronology of Handheld Computers."


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Wireless Handheld Devices

While the literature on ubiquitous computing is purposely device non-specific, wireless handheld devices (WHDs) offer many of the features theorized by Weiser and discussed by Dede. As a broad class of devices, WHDs include but are not limited to cellphones, personal digital assistants, handheld gaming devices, and portable music players. Despite their dissimilarities, WHDs share five commonalities: 1) Connectability – they connect to the Internet wirelessly via wireless fidelity, or WiFi, 2) Wearability – they are wearable and therefore always at the fingertips of the user, 3) Instant Accessibility – they turn instantly on and off, 4) Flexibility – they can collect data by accommodating a wide variety of peripheral extensions, and 5) Economic Viability – they have much of the computing capability and expandable storage capacity of laptops at a fraction of the cost (Dieterle, 2004).

If you are interested in learning how to operate a wireless handheld device, please visit the HDUL Handheld Computer Getting Started page.

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Educational Software for Handheld Devices

Table 2.1 Examples of Commercial and Research-based Educational Software



Operating System

Application Information and Link to Download


The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education

Pocket PC

Cooties is a virus-transfer simulation program designed for Pocket PC handheld computers. Cooties supports socio-kinesthetic learning, incorporating social interaction with hands-on activity. Teachers determine variables such as incubation time of the simulated virus, individual immunity levels, and the number of initial carriers in the simulation. The program is appropriate for students from Grades 3 and up and can be used in science, anthropological, and mathematics activities.

| Download |  Documentation (PDF)


EasyTrac Public Consulting Group, Inc. Palm Using Public Consulting Group's EasyTrac, special education clinicians can quickly and efficiently document health services delivered to special needs students via handheld devices. After collecting information in real-time and on site, it is then uploaded to an online database, which is easily accessible to authorized parties through a web-based interface. In addition, service log data may then be aggregated and used to compare services prescribed in a student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to the services actually delivered, to bill third party insurance companies for services rendered, and to assist in making data-driven decisions. Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) is a consulting firm that serves public sector clients, including nearly 1,000 public school districts across the country. Information on PCG’s Education Services Practice Area can be found at http://www.pcgus.com/espa.asp


GraphData Dr. Russell Herman, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of North Carolina at Wilmington Pocket PC GraphData is an application designed to plot experimental data from Pocket Excel and fit the data to a variety of mathematical models. | Download | If you have a Windows Mobile 2003 device, you will also need a copy of the eMbedded Visual Basic Runtime.


MRI Graphing Calculator MathResources Inc. Pocket PC MRI Graphing Calculator software makes use of a menu-driven interface. It is capable of calculating over 130 mathematical functions and plotting 11 different graphing functions. MRI Graphing Calculator is designed for middle school, high school, and college math and science courses. | Download Shockwave Demonstration  | Documentation


MIT's PDA Participatory Simulations MIT Teacher Education Program Palm Games include:  Big Fish - Little Fish | Discussion | Live Long and Prosper | Sugar and Spice | Tit for Tat (Prisoner's Dilemma) | Virus. Click here to learn more about each game.


Pencil Box 1.1 Mental Motions Pocket PC Pencil Box is an extremely light and simple drawing tool for your Pocket PC. It does not have tons of features, however, it allows to create really nice pictures, quick and easy! Pencil Box consist of only necessary things: eight pencils, eraser and canvas to draw on. | Download



The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education

Pocket PC

PiCoMap is a concept-mapping program that enables you to express the connections you see between ideas. A Concept Map is a set of concepts linked by directional links. You may elaborate about your concepts and your Map by taking notes, or share these Maps with your peers through the power of infrared beaming. | Download |  Documentation (PDF)


PLE (Pocket Learning Environment)

The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education

Pocket PC

PLE is the Pocket Learning Environment, a new step in educational software, where you can organize and access all of your files from one screen. PLE works similarly to PiCoMap (a concept mapping application), using nodes and links to illustrate concepts, except with PLE, you can attach files to these nodes, making them viewable and editable in one tap. This means you can move between files easier than ever before on the Pocket PC. | Download | Documentation (PDF)


RDcalc Graphing and Programmable Calculator 1.9 Raven Digital Pocket PC Turn your Pocket PC into a Programmable Scientific Calculator with algebraic expression entry. Give the trial version a spin to see if it meets your needs. | Download



The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education

Pocket PC

Sketchy is a drawing and animation program that features many pen options, geometric objects, numerous frames, and an easy-to-use interface. Helpful features such as duplicate, insert and delete allow for easy animation creation. |  Download |  Documentation (PDF)


Table 2.2 Handheld Drivers and Systems Software



Operating System

Application Information and Link to Download

ActiveSync 3.7.1


Pocket PC

In general, synchronization software allows your handheld device to freely communicate with your PC desktop or laptop computer. Microsoft's ActiveSync 3.7.1 is the latest synchronization software for Windows Mobile-based Pocket PCs (as of April 26, 2005). While Microsoft's website suggests that this process is straight forward and that you will be able to install ActiveSync with as few as six mouse clicks, please contact Ed Dieterle if you are having problems. | Download


Data Harvest Probeware Data Harvest Educational Incorporated Pocket PC Drivers for Data Harvest Probeware. | Download



PocketTV Classic Pocket Gear Pocket PC MPEG Movie Player. | Download


Remote Display Control Microsoft Pocket PC With the Remote Display Control application, you can display actions on a Pocket PC, including user input, remotely on the display of a desktop or laptop personal computer. | Download


Veo Photo Traveler


Pocket PC

Drivers for the Veo CF Camera.| Download


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Probeware and Peripherals for Handheld Devices

Table 3.1 Peripherals and probeware for handheld devices. (Prices as of March 9, 2004)


Operating System

Cost Range

Information and Review

Digital Camera – Veo Photo Traveler for PocketPC CF Memory Slot

Pocket PC 2003


External digital camera for Pocket PCs. Homepage | Software Drivers for Veo Photo Traveler for Pocket PC (EXE)

LCD Projection Adaptor –Colorgraphic's Voyager VGA CF

Pocket PC 2003


Margi versus Voyager comparison chart developed by Colorgraphic.  Homepage

Printing – Bachmann Software

Palm OS and Pocket PC 2003


Bluetooth printing solutions for Palm OS and Pocket PC devices. Homepage

Probeware – Data Harvest Educational Incorporated

Pocket PC 2003

$159.00 for the logger and software.  Prices vary for each probe

External scientific probeware. Homepage | Easy Sense Flash Logger |Probes | Software for Pocket PC 2003 OS | Photo of peripheral | Images of handheld with probes (1) (2) (3) (4)

Table 3.2 Probeware base units and probes. (Prices as of March 9, 2004)


Operating System

Base Unit

Light Sensor




Startup Cost

Data Harvest

Pocket PC 2003







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Exemplar Uses of Handheld Devices in Education


In "A Report Card on Handheld Computing," authors Jean Shields and Amy Poftak (2002) first provide a short history of handheld devices before examining their potentials for schools. By striking a balance between the strengths and limitations of handheld devices, Shields and Poftak portray handhelds objectively as they pertain to education. At the end of their article, they provide a variety of resources designed to help educators sort out different devices, find useful applications, and develop an implementation strategy.

HGSE's Technology in Education 2004 Open Seminar "Ubiquitous Handhelds: Sifting Knowledge Through Our Fingertips" with Chris Dede, Ed Dieterle and Hal Kingsbury. | Streaming Video

The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education’s "Stories From The Classroom." | Promotional Video

The Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education’s "Air Quality Experiment." | Promotional Video

palmOne has produced three short online movies showing how administrators, grammar schools, and higher education can use handhelds for teaching and learning. Learning in Hand: Administration | Learning in Hand: Elementary | Wharton School of Business (currently unavailable)

"Environmental Detectives Simulation" at the MIT Teacher Education Program. Using wireless handheld devices, students physically explore the MIT campus in augmented reality conducting virtual interviews and collecting simulated data of a theoretical oil spill.| Promotional Video

Robust Classroom Examples

Tony Vincent's fifth grade class from Willowdale Elementary School, Omaha, Nebraska uses handheld computers throughout their lessons in various ways.| Link to Mr. Vincent's Classroom

Dr. Charles R. Ward of the UNCW Chemistry Department began integrating Pocket PC into the laboratory sections of his general chemistry classes back in 1999 after becoming dissatisfied with the 3-to-1 ratio of students to laptops. Since then, he and his chemistry colleagues have constructed a 1-to-1 student to Pocket PC ratio for each semester’s 35 chemistry sections. | Link to General Chemistry Labs

Examples of Handhelds and Assessment

Classroom Wizard Homepage. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.classroomwizard.com/

Discourse Homepage. (2003). Retrieved November 3, 2003, from http://www.ets.org/discourse/about.html

eLearning Dynamics Homepage. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.elearningdynamics.com/

LearnStar Homepage. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.learnstar.com/

Quizzler Homepage. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.pocketmobility.com/quizzler/quizzler.html 

Wireless Generation Homepage. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.wirelessgeneration.com/web/

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Additional Resources

Abowd, G. D., & Mynatt, E. D. (2000). Charting past, present, and future research in ubiquitous computing. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(1), 2958.

Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education Homepage. (2003). Retrieved October 29, 2003, from http://www.handheld.hice-dev.org/

Dede, C. (2002). Vignettes about the future of learning technologies in 2020 visions: Transforming education and training through advanced technologies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Dede, C., & Dieterle, E. (2004). Ubiquitous handhelds: Sifting knowledge through our fingertips. Seminar presented at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Technology in Education Open Seminar, Cambridge, MA.

Dieterle, E. (2004). Wearable computers and evaluation. The Evaluation Exchange, 10(3), 4–5.

Dieterle, E., & Dede, C. (2006). Straightforward and deep effects of wireless handheld devices for teaching and learning in university settings. Paper presented at the 2006 American Educational Research Association Conference, San Francisco, CA.

Dieterle, E., & Dede, C. (in press). Building university faculty and student capacity to use wireless handheld devices for learning. In M. van ‘t Hooft & K. Swan (Eds.), Ubiquitous computing in education: Invisible technology, visible impact (pp. 303–328). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dieterle, E., Dede, C., & Schrier, K. (in press). “Neomillennial” learning styles propagated by wireless handheld devices. In M. Lytras & A. Naeve (Eds.), Ubiquitous and pervasive knowledge and learning management: Semantics, social networking and new media to their full potential. Hershey, PA: Idea Group, Inc.

Keefe, D., Farag, P., & Zucker, A. (2003). Annotated bibliography of ubiquitous computing evaluations. Retrieved June 25, 2003, from http://www.ubiqcomputing.org/Reference.pdf

Klopfer, E. (2003). Environmental detectives simulation. Retrieved February 10, 2004, from http://education.mit.edu/ED/EnvDet.mov

Klopfer, E., Squire, K., & Jenkins, H. (2003). Augmented reality simulations on handheld computers. Paper presented at the 2003 American Educational Research Association Conference, Chicago, IL.

Polsson, K. (2003). Chronology of handheld computers. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from http://www.islandnet.com/~kpolsson/handheld/

Shields, J., & Poftak, A. (2002). A report card on handheld computing. Retrieved August 13, 2003, from http://www.techlearning.com/db_area/archives/TL/2002/02/handheld.html

Vincent, T. (2003). Planet 5th homepage. Retrieved June 25, 2003, from http://www.mpsomaha.org/willow/p5/index.html

Weiser, M. (1991). The computer for the twenty-first century. Scientific American, 265(3), 94-104.  

Weiser, M. (1996). Ubiquitous computing movies. Retrieved November 10, 2003, from http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/UbiMovies.html

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Copyright © 2006 President and Fellows of Harvard College | This page was last updated 11/01/2006