Teaching children well

Companies debating the acceptance of self-service technology by customers or employees should meet Carol Brennan, 14. Brennan is a self-service wireless application user; she just doesn't know it.

To Brennan, having her Palm IIIc networked to those of 56 other freshmen at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco is cool and efficient. The concept of "self-service" never came up.

Every morning, Brennan points her Palm Inc. at one of three wall-mounted caching servers to get her class list, homework assignments and even classmates' birthday announcements. To Brennan and other students, such as Stephanie Gertz, 14, using the Palm with the wireless server is a no-brainer. It makes it possible to find out practice times for sports, as well as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of friends and teachers.

"It just makes everything easier," says Gertz, who received her PalmPilot in the beginning of August as part of a program initiated by Doug Grant, head of the school.

Benefits of the wireless system so far include easier communication, less paper, trackable assignments and general excitement and spontaneity regarding the self-service application, says Grant, who got the idea for the system while attending a San Francisco Giants baseball game last spring. At PacBell Park, seven caching servers wirelessly deliver game schedules, team lineups, news and a scorekeeping application to fans' PalmPilots for free.

At Sacred Heart, freshmen are responsible for getting the information they need to keep current with course work. For example, Kate Sylvia, 14, showed me the school's code of ethics and her latest history assignment. "There's no excuse for me to not do my homework," she says.

Teachers use the system to communicate with students throughout the day. Kate Jackson, the school's IT specialist and cross-country coach, says that as the gatekeeper for information going out from the caching server, she had to create some guidelines for teachers.

"I get daily updates from teachers but have to place limits on how many words they can write. [I] asked them to have all weekend homework assignments in to me by Friday noon," says Jackson, a refugee from two dot-com flameouts.

Jackson codes the communications in HTML and beams her PalmPilot toward the shoebox-size servers, and students are then able to get updates as they pass by. Indeed, Noel Pittman, 15, showed me a link to a Web site she got from a teacher after her morning download to her Palm unit.

While the freshman class and 20 teachers now use one server station, two others are planned one for the faculty room and a mobile unit to be used as needed.

The server is powered by a lithium battery pack and designed to beam information up to 15 feet in a 60-degree arc. Installation takes a couple of hours mainly for the wall mounting. The service costs $75 per unit, per month, with an initial cost of $200. Students' parents paid for the PalmPilots (they need to have a graphing calculator for math anyway), with volume discounts bringing the cost to $100 for each device.

But there's one thing the wireless network has yet to curtail: All of the students I spoke with said they still talk on the phone with their friends.

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