TeacherMate: This classroom tool only looks like a toy
Cheap and rugged, the device takes a gaming approach to elementary reading and math.
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Perfecting a computer for young students is not necessarily a technological feat, says Ms. Adams. The technology exists, but finding the right formula of hardware and software has been elusive. She says TeacherMate may have hit that right mix by giving teachers control over the technology and allowing them to customize it to fit different curricula.Skip to next paragraph
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Weinberger spent years developing education software for PCs before he realized that children need a different type of hardware. "PCs are just wrong for young kids," he says.
But more than that, he says, "Teachers literally freak out if you bring a computer into the classroom." They find them cumbersome, time consuming, and not particularly useful in teaching younger kids.
So Weinberger realized early on in the development of TeacherMate that for the venture to work he would have to convince teachers, the ones using the devices daily, that it was going to be an educational tool, not a burden.
"We call it TeacherMate for a reason. The concept is that this is supporting you, the teacher," he says. It was important that the tool supported what was already going on in the classroom and followed the school curriculum.
Where TeacherMate could really be revolutionary, though, may be in developing countries. That was certainly Stanford professor Paul Kim's first thought when he learned about TeacherMate.
"When you look at the extremely poor communities – kids don't even have books," says Dr. Kim, who is assistant dean and chief technology officer for Stanford University's School of Education. Imagine TeacherMate in a poor African school, he says, where suddenly students have access to more than 500 stories in their own language.
Currently, TeacherMate programs are available only in English and Spanish, but Kim is working on software in other languages.
Projects such as One Laptop per Child are already trying to provide cheap computers to poor children worldwide, with mixed success. But TeacherMate could do better precisely because it is not a full-scale computer and is limited to teaching basic reading and math.
Kim has started TeacherMate pilot projects in Mexico, Korea, and the Philippines. He is planning others in Rwanda, Uganda, and Sri Lanka. "Kids are kids no matter where they are. They are all very fast learners. If you give them these devices they can figure it out quickly."
Back at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, Owen John Boyle, a redhead whose smile has a gap in it from the front tooth he lost the night before, raises his hand in victory when he gets a math question right on his TeacherMate.
Ms. Sonny returns to the center of the room. She claps twice, snaps her fingers twice. The students reluctantly look up from their TeacherMates. "Unplug your headsets, put your handsets in the bag, and power down."•