January 1997 — Volume 2, Number 3
Newton 2.0 operating system
20-MHz ARM 610 processor
2.5MB of RAM; 8MB of ROM
Backlit LCD display; 320 by 240 pixels
PCMCIA Type II card slot
Serial port (LocalTalk and RS-232)
Price: US $600
PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) come in different shapes and sizes .and go by differing names, a.k.a. palm top computer, electronic organizer, intelligent communicator, etc. These little machines are about to experience a resurgence as Apple Computer and Microsoft ready new machines for release (Apple’s new machine, Emate, will be designed especially for the education market) in addition to existing machines from US Robotics, HP, Motorola, AT&T, Sharp and Psion. While not specifically a language teaching tool, PDAs hold a great potential for ESL instructors.
Apple, the originator of the term PDA, currently offers the Newton MessagePad 130 with the Newton operating system 2. The MessagePad, unlike other PDAs, does not have a built-in keyboard, relying instead on handwriting for input (a specially made keyboard can be attached to speed entry). Much maligned when first released, the writing recognition of the MessagePad is much improved and impressed me.
The MessagePad’s importance derives from its expandability. Unlike most electronic organizers, the MessagePad is really a small personal computer and is expandable through software. Newton software can be transferred easily from a PC (any platform will do). Hundreds of programs are presently available for Apple’s PDA. I have been using an MP130 for the past six months in my work as a business English (EFL) teacher and I continue finding new and interesting uses for it.
Newton’s most obvious application is record keeping. Grades and attendance can be kept using specialized software specifically for teachers or by using a spreadsheet program (spreadsheets can later be uploaded into Excel).
Class schedules and teaching notes can always be available as can extended amounts of text and graphics, in the form of Newton electronic books. Numerous Newton books are available on a commercial basis and on the Internet, such as _The Elements of Style_. Your own word processing documents can be formatted as Newton books, by using Apple’s Newton Press program, then downloaded [-1-] and carried about for instant access.
All the information saved on a Newton is printable on an Apple printer (standing alone or networked). In my own classes, I’ve created checklists, on the Newton, for giving feedback on students’ writing. while this is no different from using paper, the advantage is that no matter where I go, all three hundred of my students’ data is at hand, which can be especially useful during long meetings.
The Newton is a full-fledged computer with hundreds of programs and books available for it. Instant-on means that information is instantly available for viewing. Back lighting and good contrast create a display that is fairly comfortable to read. These features, however, do not place any limitations on battery life. Unlike its notebook cousins, the Newton uses AA size batteries (reusable batteries may also be used) which usually last a week. Even better, carrying a Newton around won’t make your shoulder feel like it is going to fall off since the MP130 only weighs about a pound.
The Newton OS is not able to run any of your existing Mac, DOS or Windows programs. After leaving home, and turning off a PowerPC or a Pentium, a PDA can feel like a step down. The Newton runs at a speed that is comparable with a slow 486 but at times can slow down even more. Finally, a price tag of over six hundred dollars U.S. means that this PDA’s functionality does not come cheap.
The potential of advanced PDAs in the language classroom is truly awesome. Sound recording and playback means students could all carry multimedia machines around in their pockets. While Apple’s Newton can demonstrate some animation and audio playback, these features are not yet mature. Combine this with the high price and the result is we won’t be seeing any classrooms full of PDAs this year (although Apple’s Emate is an attempt to bring that about next year).
Since I cut my computer teeth on a Mac Plus, I can’t help seeing the similarities between the new Newton MessagePad and the old Mac. The small screen, clean interface, speed and especially the stylistic design, make having a Newton like holding a Mac in the palm of your hand.
While the future has not yet arrived for the full potential of PDAs, the MessagePad is a good sign of things to come. Any teacher who can use a computer in his/her pocket, or just wants to [-2-] keep up with this rapidly changing field, will find the Apple MessagePad very useful.
Clyde A. Warden
Associate Professor, Business English
The Overseas Chinese College of Commerce (Chiao-Kwang) & Feng-Chia University
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