TeacherMate: This classroom tool only looks like a toy

Cheap and rugged, the device takes a gaming approach to elementary reading and math.

tony avelar/the christian science monitor
First-grade student Imran Shaikh uses a TeacherMate hand-held minicomputer during a lesson at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco. The learning device can be programmed and updated by his teacher, Sonny Wong (below).
tony avelar/the christian science monitor
The TeacherMate learning device can be programmed and updated by teachers like Sonny Wong.

Sonny Wong strides to the middle of her first-grade classroom at the Francis Scott Key Elementary School in this city's often-foggy Outer Sunset District.

"One, two, three, all eyes on me," commands the young teacher, prompting the room of children – mostly the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants – to pay attention to Ms. Sonny, as they call her, at least for a moment.

"What kind of voices should we have when we're on our TeacherMates?" she asks, after passing out what look like toy gadgets, à la Nintendo's Game Boy. "Soft," they respond in unison, as they fidget with the plastic minicomputers, switching them on and plugging in headsets.

These hand-helds aren't slick or fancy. They are simple, cheap, and rugged. That's the point, says Seth Weinberger, the Evanston, Ill., lawyer who invented the $100 TeacherMate and over the past year has gotten them into 350 classrooms across the country.

The device seems, well, elementary. Children peer at their small screens, playing basic math games or working on reading, vocabulary, and spelling exercises. They also read or say words into a microphone on the TeacherMate, which records and stores their voices so teachers can later assess their progress.

When the kids finish, their math scores and spelling results get plugged into the teacher's computer. Teachers can adjust skill levels – making it harder for kids who zip right along or easier for those lagging behind.

Mr. Weinberger hopes his gadget becomes the iPod of early education. He wants teachers to have that "aha" moment that so many people had when they first used Apple's music player. "The focus is on making the user experience for the teacher so great that they have to have it."

Weinberger, who started the nonprofit Innovations for Learning in 1993 to develop early-learning technology, recently left his law firm to focus on bringing TeacherMate to more classrooms ­– and, through a partnership with Stanford University, testing them in developing countries.

"This is universal. Kids love little hand-held gadgets. It's just something universally powerful about this form," he says.

Ever since computers became small enough for personal use, education experts have been thinking up ways to successfully integrate them into the classroom. Bulky desktop computers began showing up in classrooms more than 20 years ago, and more recently laptops have been given to students.

But the push to get computers into schools often butted against the reality of budgets, heavy teaching workloads, and the fact that kids have a knack for destroying things.

Years ago "we thought we'd have special [computer] appliances for students' desks," says Marilyn Jager Adams, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

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.

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."•

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