IT Infrastructure

‘Pen Top’ Computer Promoted as Tool for Learning

By Rhea R. Borja — October 25, 2005 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.’ ”

Related Tags:

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

IT Infrastructure From Our Research Center What the Massive Shift to 1-to-1 Computing Means for Schools, in Charts
1-to-1 computing has expanded at a rate few could have imagined prior to the pandemic, creating opportunities and problems.
1 min read
Illustration of laptop computer displaying bar graph.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
IT Infrastructure Internet on School Buses: FCC Eyes E-Rate Change to Expand Access
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal that would allow the use of federal E-rate funding for Wi-Fi in school buses.
2 min read
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year in the Texas school system.
A Brownsville Independent School District bus acts as a WI-FI hotspot for students needing to connect online for distance learning on the first day of class Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in the parking lot of the Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center in Brownsville, Texas. The bus is one of 20 hotspots throughout the city to help students have access to their online classes as part of the remote start to the school year due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP
IT Infrastructure Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk
Most K-12 district tech leaders rate common cybersecurity threats as just low or medium risk, survey shows.
4 min read
Images shows a symbolic lock on a technical background.
IT Infrastructure Spotlight Spotlight on Infrastructure Modernization
This Spotlight will help you grasp the reality of school infrastructure, parent privacy concerns, watchdog recommendations and more.