IT Infrastructure

‘Pen Top’ Computer Promoted as Tool for Learning

By Rhea R. Borja — October 25, 2005 5 min read
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It may look like a pen. But it adds, subtracts, plays music and games, reads your handwriting aloud, reminds you to do your homework, and translates English words into Spanish. And oh, yes, it can write, too.

After months of industry buzz, LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the struggling division of the educational toy company LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., debuted what it is calling its Fly pen-top computer in stores last week. The company says it will start piloting the $99 device in school districts early next year.

LeapFrog, once a dot-com darling, has spotlighted the Fly at several recent education conferences. Officials of the Emeryville, Calif.-based company say that the gadget is not just a toy, but also a cheap, low-maintenance learning tool.

“It delivers over-the-shoulder coaching to build skills in reading, math, and science,” Jessie T. Woolley-Wilson, the president of LeapFrog SchoolHouse, said in an interview last week. Educators shown the chubby, blue-and-silver pen “were thrilled with the engagement factor and see it as a transformative technology in the classroom,” she said.

The battery-powered device works through character-recognition software and other technologies, including a tiny camera embedded near its ballpoint tip that reads what it writes on specially coded paper.

Whether the Fly actually takes wing in the K-8 market will be key to LeapFrog’s hopes of jumping back into the black after many money-losing months in its education division, say analysts and company officials.

‘iPod for Tweens’

John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, saw the Fly in action during a business conference. He likened it to a portable device for downloading music that has become wildly popular with teenagers.

LeapFrog SchoolHouse is pinning high hopes on what it is calling a pentop computer. Known as the Fly, the device is being marketed not just as a high-tech toy for the preteen set, but also as a low-cost tool for instruction in schools.

“This is the iPod for the tween group,” he said, referring to children in the upper-elementary grades and middle school, considered a lucrative market for retailers. “It’s a technology tool that would encourage children … to engage in a learning process that’s fun and motivational.”

Yet while some educational technology experts and educators agreed on the device’s gee-whiz factor, others say it’s too early to predict its usefulness in schools.

“It’s an interesting idea, the melding of old technology—paper, with new technology—computing,” said Elliot Soloway, an expert on K-12 technology and a professor in the schools of information and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“But we need a little more experience with this technology to know where it might fit,” he said.

Company officials say that unlike personal computers, the Fly is easy to use and cheap enough to buy for each student in a classroom.

While Mr. Soloway applauded the Fly’s low cost, he said it wouldn’t take the place of PCs any time soon. “You need a little more horsepower, a little more screen, more networking capability, more browsing capability,” he said.

The Fly could be a useful but limited classroom learning tool, said Monica M. Beglau, the director of Columbia, Mo.-based eMINTS, for “enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies,” a professional-development program that instructs teachers in using technology. “I’m not sure [it] can fully contribute to the level of problem-solving and analysis needed for 21st-century skills,” she said.

Custom-Designed Paper

On specially designed “Flypaper,” users can sketch a piano keyboard, for example, then use the pen to play the hand-drawn keys. They can also draw a calculator and solve math problems, and write a word in English, then hear it translated and spelled in Spanish.

On a map of North America included in a typical Fly package, users can tap the pen’s tip on a state and hear the name of its capital city, touch a country and hear its national anthem, and play timed interactive geography games.

Consumers can buy separate software—called Flyware—for math, Spanish, spelling, test-prep programs for math, science and social studies, as well as “Fly Friends Quiz Games,” in which players can shop in a virtual mall. Ms. Woolley-Wilson of LeapFrog said that for the K-8 market, the pen-top computer would be bundled with learning software.

She said the company would distribute the Fly to pilot school districts in early 2006, but she would not say which ones or how many.

LeapFrog Enterprises is pinning lots of hope—and money—on the Fly.

Problems such as a soft retail-toy market, increased competition, supply-distribution problems, the closure of established toy stores such as F.A.O. Schwartz, and patent-infringement lawsuits have caused the company to stumble, according to company documents.

Net sales fell 22 percent between the second quarters of 2004 and 2005 for LeapFrog SchoolHouse. That’s largely because consumer sales fell on its once-popular LeapPad, a computerized touch-screen literacy tool for prekindergartners to 3rd graders. Ms. Woolley-Wilson called the drop a normal phase in a product’s life cycle.

LeapFrog Enterprises’ stock dropped from a high of $46.54 in October 2003 to a low of $10.03 in May of this year. Since then the stock, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, has rebounded slightly, closing at $13.25 a share by the middle of last week.

The company put in place a three-pronged recovery plan early this year. Since then, LeapFrog has laid off more than 180 of its roughly 1,000 employees, which helped save $35 million to $40 million this year, the company says. Much of that savings, company officials and documents state, is being plowed into its SchoolHouse division—and especially in the research, development, and marketing of the Fly.

Input From ‘Quantum X’

Product developers created the Fly with the help of 55 children ages 9 to 14, known as the Quantum X team. Over six months, the children gave their unvarnished opinions on everything from how the device looked and felt to what kinds of games it should include and what color it should be.

Autumn F. Cullen, an 11-year-old 6th grader at Windsor Middle School in Windsor, Calif., was one of the students on the Quantum X team. She said she brought her Fly pen to school recently.

“My language arts teacher thought it was cool, and so did my math teacher,” Autumn said in a telephone interview last week. “She said, ‘Oh, my gosh, where can I get that?’ And she was like, ‘You better not use it during class.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘Pen Top’ Computer Promoted as Tool for Learning

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