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User Profile: "Professing" Made Easy by the HP Palmtop

User Profile: "Professing" Made Easy by the HP Palmtop

The HP Palmtop earns better-than-passing marks from this communications professor for its ability to track grades, attendance, tests, committee work, research and writing.

By Mary Rivers

Five years ago, when I finished my doctoral course work and began teaching, I started fantasizing about a small portable device that would organize my multi-task life. I wanted a device that could store references in a database, track student grades via a spreadsheet, and contain lecture outlines for teaching. The Sharp Wizard came out and I examined its capabilities: didn't like it. I checked out Casio's B.O.S.S.: didn't like it. Radio Shack's Infomator? Not! Then, in March of 1992, I discovered the HP 95LX. Certain that it would be a waste of money, just a cute gadget, I bought one on 30 day approval. In two days it had demonstrated such awesome capabilities that since then I haven't let it out of my sight, except when I upgraded to a 100LX. Since the HP Palmtop is one of the few tools in life that is actually within the economic means of the poorly-paid professor, I felt that others might like to hear about my experience.

Varied Activities to Track

As a professor at a small private university, I have extremely varied needs. I need to keep track of lectures, grades, attendance, tests, students for whom I am advisor, appointments, committee work, research in progress, and writing, as well as the appointments and records for my personal life. To add to my difficulty, I live 55 miles from my office. Computers are available in both places, but making sure that the materials I need are at the right location at the right time is tricky. The HP Palmtop has simplified this task immensely, making my life livable.

Teaching and Administering a Class with 1-2-3 and MEMO

The two Palmtop applications I use the most are Lotus 1-2-3, for grades and attendance (and our household budget), and MEMO, for all my lectures and tests. I have three spreadsheets, one for each course I teach. I have close to a hundred MEMO files containing my lectures, named to denote course and topic. I use system macros to automate the loading of these files, making them easily available.

At the beginning of each semester, I enter all my classes into my appointment book, along with the names of the relevant lecture files.

I enter the student names in spreadsheets, one for each class (see PROFF.ZIP [ON DISK]). I keep my lectures in individual MEMO files. Each lecture file is named to remind me what's in it. For example, the lecture on verbal communication in the basic communications course, is 100VERB.DOC. When it comes time to use that lecture in a specific class, I rename the file with the course number followed by "TODAY". So my lecture file for the verbal communications lecture in the Basic Communications 100 course, changes to 100TODAY.TXT.

Once my courses are finalized and I've scheduled my lectures, I attach a macro (a different macro for each course) to each class appointment (an idea I picked up from The HP Palmtop Paper). Ten minutes before class time, the macro automatically loads the appropriate lecture into MEMO and the proper grade/attendance spreadsheet into Lotus. When I step into the classroom and press (ON), the spreadsheet is ready for me to take attendance, and the lecture is one key press away. Once the lecture notes are used, I change the lecture file back to its original mnemonic name and rename the lecture file for the next class. The process repeats itself.

Here's the complete macro for the basic communication course, CO100:

{Memo}{Menu}foa:\teach\100today {Enter}{123}{Menu}fr100{Enter}

{Memo} starts MEMO; {Menu}fo--goes to the Open File dialog box; a:\teach\100today{Enter} -- loads file named "100today" located on my memory card in the A:\TEACH directory; {123} -- goes to 1-2-3; {Menu}fr100{Enter} -- loads the spreadsheet named "100" found in the 1-2-3 default directory. (Macro file PROFF.MAC archived in PROFF.ZIP [ON DISK].)

Create an appointment to run a macro as follows:

  1. 1. Press (F2) in APPT to add an appointment.
  2. 2. In the Description field, enter two vertical "piping symbols" (shifted backslash key, by the Esc key) followed by the number of the macro (i.e. ||10 for the macro Fn-F10).
  3. 3. Set the desired Start Time.
  4. 4. Make sure the Alarm field is enabled.
  5. 5. Set the Leadtime to 0.
  6. 6. Put a Q in the Location field.



You must create a separate appointment to run a macro. You cannot just add ||10 to the end of an existing appointment. For more on running programs or system macros with APPT, see page 13-18 in HP 100LX User's Guide.

I find it particularly advantageous to be able to alter my lecture notes quickly and efficiently, to make notes to myself about possible test questions, to note where I ended a particular topic or where examples or an exercise seemed to be needed. I do this right after class, and thus my revisions and additions for the next term are completed.

When it is time to create a test, I use FILER VIEW to review past lectures while I work in MEMO creating the questions. I can then either copy the test file from the Palmtop to the desktop PC or print directly from the Palmtop. If I've been particularly good and inserted test questions into my lecture notes at the end of each lecture, I just merge the lectures together and edit out everything except the questions. Either way, test making is simplified and secure -- the only test copy (other than the one the copy center uses) is on the Palmtop, which is with me at all times.

My students like having their grades and attendance records available instantly. The 100LX has a feature that I yearned for with the 95LX: the ability to insert the day's date in a spreadsheet cell. With the 95LX, I maintained a running tally of the number of absences for each student, but the 100LX lets me record the actual dates missed. I've created a simple system macro ({Date}{Enter}) that automates this for me. Since my appointment book tracks lecture topics and due dates, I can compare days absent with my calendar and determine not only how often a student has been absent but also what work/topics/assignments were missed as a result. And of course the spreadsheet makes it possible for me to do some "what-if" calculations to determine what grade a student needs on the next assignment to earn or hold a particular grade.

For instance, there are 500 possible points for a student to earn in my Fundamentals of Communication class. Grades are computed on a standard curve: 90% (450 points) equals an A, 80% (400 points) equals a B and so on. Let's say Joe would like to know if, having 150 points of assignments remaining in the semester, he can still pull a B in the class with his current 76%. I enter the following formula into a blank cell in the row with his current grades (which were entered as number of points, not letters or percentages).

400-@sum(cell range for his grades)

The result is the number of points Joe needs to earn in his remaining assignments (400-266=134). If the number is greater than 150, he can't get that B. In this example, I can tell Joe that he can make it if he really works hard, much harder than he has to date.

There's another scenario that frequently occurs. Often students with strong A's in a course want to know what they can earn on their final exam and hold the A. So if Lee currently has 376 points with 100 remaining for the final, I can calculate her lowest possible final grade with the same formula, in this case using 450 points, the minimum number of points for an A, as the first number. I can then tell Lee that she needs a C (74 points) on her final to hold her grade.

I can also do the computations to determine if it's worth a student's time to rewrite a paper for a better grade, or do some extra credit. I hate reducing intellectual growth to a final grade, but even students have to decide at times where their effort is most needed. Of course, students could do these calculations on their own if they kept track of their grades (my own children have refined this to an art), but it's rather frightening the number of college students who don't have the math skills to figure out how to do this. So I help them out, and in the process, they learn some basic math.

Using Note Taker and Memo for Writing Projects

When I first purchased the 100LX, I couldn't imagine a use for the Note Taker -- it seemed redundant. But now I use it extensively: to keep track of household tasks, Christmas gift lists, course changes in the works, committee tasks, and lists of good wines, good books, good quotes, and more. It is also good as an incubator for new writing.

Even though I don't work at a research institution, I do a considerable amount of writing. I typically begin a piece in a NOTE TAKER file, listing points I want to cover, literature to check, interesting ideas. Once I'm ready to treat a piece seriously, I move the material to MEMO. At present I have stored in my Palmtop a nursing home handbook, a mystery novel, a short story (which just won 2nd prize in a national contest!), a poem, a research paper, a project proposal, my curriculum vita, a workshop outline, and this article. I even download sections of larger documents to work on in the car or while watching a swim meet. I have found that my writing grows almost effortlessly because I can sit in a cozy spot (library, park, or in front of the fireplace) and work when inspired in odd little moments. Enough of those odd moments, and I have a substantial amount of work done.

Data Comm Facilitates Collaboration with Colleagues

Some of the work I do requires collaboration with colleagues at other institutions, so I use INTERNET extensively to stay in touch and to send files back and forth. There's a modem on my PC at home, but sometimes working from the porch or the bedroom is preferable.

I use a PCMCIA card Fax/ Modem with my Palmtop for communications. I am able to dial in to the huge library system at the University of Illinois and search their databases for necessary materials. I can keep in touch with people around the world (like my daughter at college in Pennsylvania). I log on to CompuServe for the latest market report, new tricks for the Palmtop (in the HP HAND forum) or weather forecast via CompuServe's National Weather Service reports. This was particularly useful this past December when we were driving to West Virginia to ski and concerned about the driving conditions.

Unfortunately, when I use the PCMCIA Fax/Modem, it occupies the memory card slot and I can't access my memory card. Because of this, the amount of data I can download at any one time is limited by the amount of internal memory on the Palmtop's C: drive.

Data Base Title

Databases have always seemed more effort than they're worth, but I'm learning that they can provide some useful support. I have two databases (in addition to the phone book). One maintains records of my tape library of C-SPAN programs that I use for one of my seminars. The other is an elaborate database containing records about each of the 25 students for whom I am academic advisor. Even though I can't dump the paper file (if a student changes major, his/her file must go to the new advisor), it's very useful to have that information available when I'm not in the office and someone needs a letter of reference or has a critical question about fulfilling graduation requirements.

I have yet to create a database of all the literature (books and journal articles) that I possess and/or use for my writing, but I hope to manage that this summer. Since this involves cataloging thousands of items, it's a pretty daunting task and will require huge chunks of time and nimble, tireless fingers. And I'd like to eventually complete a household inventory. The goals are there; the question is, will they be reached.

APPT: a Project Manager and More

I use Appointment Book's ToDo feature as a project manager -- listing major tasks to be done and using NOTES to comment on sections of each task. I track smaller daily tasks (get milk, call dentist, drop a test at the copy center), by creating an "event" called TODAY, whose associated NOTE contains a list of these smaller daily tasks. (An event is an appointment associated with a day but not a time. To create an event, begin like you're entering an appointment. Tab to the Start Time box and press (<Backspace>), causing the word None to appear in the box instead of a Start time.) Appointments created this way on the 100LX always appear at the top of the appointment screen.

Appointment Book Shows Events at Top of Screen: Graphic

 I consult this event throughout the day, deleting the individual tasks as they are completed. At the end of the day, the uncompleted tasks remaining in the list are moved to the next day. I have a macro that does this, automating the CUT-AND-PASTE process as well as the editing necessary to make it an event. I have a daily appointment set at 11:59 pm that automatically runs this macro. The full macro is as follows:

{Tab}{Copy}{Right}{Paste}{Enter} {Tab}{BackSp}{F10}

{Tab} moves cursor to top of calendar; {Copy} copies event to clipboard; {Right} moves cursor to next day; {Paste} inserts event into calendar; {Enter} opens up editing window; {Tab} moves cursor to Start time; {BackSp} changes start time to "none"; {F10} ends task. (Macro file PROFF.MAC archived in PROFF.ZIP [ON DISK].)

Warning: The macro does not work correctly if you have the cursor in the NOTE screen of this item. I've gotten in the habit of leaving this particular NOTE when I'm done at the end of the day. To circumvent possible unwanted losses, I use COPY instead of CUT to move this note from one day to the next. Then if there is an accident, the old NOTE is still available on the prior date.

Using "Boilerplates" to Write Student Evaluations

Ultimately, my needs are eclipsed by writing: lectures, papers, and student critiques. Students turn in a lot of material to be evaluated, and they expect useful assessment from the professor. Multiply 100 students by 5 or more assignments, and you can get a sense of the grading load we face each semester. I like to provide students with personalized assessment, but I often spend too much time saying the same thing to many students. My solution is a macro that inserts often-used blocks of text into documents created in MEMO (a process referred to as "boilerplating"). This frees me to devote my attention to comments about the unique features of a student's work.

I began by creating a series of MEMO text files each containing a comment I tend to use over and over again. I save these files in the COMMENTS directory of my A: drive, with filenames that indicate the content (PRFREAD -- proofread, POORSPL -- poor spelling, GOODORG -- good organization). The comments in these files are general enough to be useful regardless of the specific assignment.

I begin a critique by opening a new MEMO file and saving it with a student's name as the filename (making sure I'm working from the directory with the boilerplate files). When I want to insert a boilerplate, I type in the filename containing the desired comment and start the boilerplate macro. The macro highlights and CUTS the filename I just typed, opens MEMO's INSERT text mode (so I don't overwrite anything), goes to MEMO's Open File dialogue box, PASTES the CUT filename into the File to Open box, and merges the file into my document. Once merged into the document, I can edit the boilerplate text (by adding the student's name, or citing a specific example from the student's paper) or include additional comments before or after it. I can merge in as many of these boilerplates as I need. If I can't recall the name of the file I need, I use the VIEW feature of the FILER to check the file contents.

I usually create a special boilerplate that acts as a template for my comments.

Student Critique Template in MEMO:  Graphic

 It has spaces at the top for the student's name, the assignment, and some explanation of my grading criteria. If I am evaluating the assignment according to several dimensions (perhaps choice of topic, thoroughness of research, quality of group dynamics, writing competence), those criteria will be included as headings. The last item is a slot for the grade and perhaps another space for the current course grade. I simply arrow the cursor to the right spot, type my comments, insert boilerplate files as called for, and fill in the remaining slots and save the file. Piece of cake!

The full boilerplate insertion macro looks like this:

{Ctrl+Shift+Left}{Cut}{Shift+F9} {Paste}{Enter}

{Ctrl+Shift+Left} -- selects the just-typed word; {Cut} - CUTS word to clipboard; {Shift+F9} opens the INSERT window; {Paste} -- copies the CUT word into the filename slot; {Enter} ends the task. (Macro file PROFF.MAC archived in PROFF.ZIP [ON DISK].)

One nice by-product of this system is that I am able to retain a copy of my comments in the saved file, so if a student questions the grade, I can refer to my critique.

Backing Up Data;

Palmtop Accessories Like everyone else, I'm paranoid about losing data, so I kept my old 95LX to help me out with backups. It sits in its Sparcom docking station, permanently attached to my home PC. All my data is stored on a PCMCIA card, so I simply slide the card out of my 100LX and into the 95LX, and do a quick A: drive backup to my PC using the 95LX Connectivity Pack. Keeping the 95LX was cheaper than buying a second card and the backup procedure to the PC is easy and painless.

I have added a number of goodies to my 100LX. In addition to the 5MB FlashCard, I have two serial-to-parallel converters so I can connect to parallel printers at home and work. I have serial cables to connect to the PC, a PCMCIA fax/ modem, and AC adapters to conserve the batteries. I use a hiker's pouch from The Nature Company (see product information index, page 55) as a purse because it has a padded, zippered interior that's perfect for protecting the Palmtop from rough trips. The hikers pouch has an easy-to- access zippered outer pocket, and plenty of additional pockets for glasses, wallet, pens, lipstick, compact and keys. It has a unisex design with an adjustable strap that loops over the shoulder or fastens around the waist. My wish list includes a docking station for the 100LX, another FlashCard, a statistics program and a spell checker.

This article was written in spurts over three weeks, the final writing occurring in front of the fireplace in January. There is no other way I could take the time to do something like this with my hectic "publish or perish" job. Armed with the HP 100LX I'm far more efficient and organized than ever before, which gives me extra time to do what I want to do.

My HP Palmtop goes everywhere with me -- even though I don't always need to use it at remote campsites, ski resorts and luxurious hotels. Just as I cannot imagine writing a dissertation without a computer, I truly can't understand how the myriad of busy people I know survive without this little marvel. Gadget? Yeah, sure! And Michael Jordan isn't too bad at roundball either!

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