AlphaSmart's Dana Wireless

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AlphaSmart's Dana Wireless (www.alphasmart.com; $429) is an extremely reliable, durable laptop alternative that addresses the dream of ubiquitous computing - computers anytime, anywhere in the hands of all children. This simple, powerful tool can be used to perform most of the same tasks that are usually done on a full-size computer. Unlike most computers, however, the Dana Wireless is portable and inexpensive.

The Dana Wireless runs on the Palm operating system and is roughly the size of a student's loose-leaf notebook. It has a full-scale keyboard and a screen that is large enough to display an entire paragraph. The screen view can be rotated so that students can hold the Dana sideways like a notebook and enter text. In addition, the devices are simple to recharge, which can be accomplished overnight with a classroom set by using a USB cable to plug each Dana into a mobile cart. We recharge after every 15-25 hours of use, which amounts to once or twice each week.

We use Danas for everything from high school physics lab reports to occupational therapy for elementary students. In the minilab, they are used to teach computer skills and handheld skills such as beaming and text entry with a stylus. While Danas will run most of the more than 20,000 software titles written for Palm OS, several new pieces of software have been written to take advantage of their much larger screens, including PiCoWrite, AlphaWord, Quickoffice and UltraKey 4.

Using PiCoWrite from Hi-CE, which offers the free download at www.palm.hice-dev.org/beta.php, students plan their writing using a variety of graphical maps tailored to their purpose for writing. Combined with AlphaWord, a fully functional word processing program included with the Dana, learners can plan, write and beam their writing to a peer or teacher for editing; then, wirelessly print their work from an IrDA-enabled printer.

In addition, with Vernier probes for data collection and Margi's Presenter-to-Go, it is simple to set up a temporary computer lab in the science lab for a day's worth of data collection and presentations. And unlike most portable computing devices, the screen image d'esn't disappear outdoors in direct sunlight, making field activities possible. Also, use of all functions on a set of Danas is easily controlled with management software supplied by AlphaSmart. This allows teachers to turn applications on and off easily, which helps keep students focused on their specific daily tasks.

However, Danas are not perfect for all uses because of their limited graphic capabilities, especially since images are displayed in shades of gray. Though this is not an issue when students are doing word processing, it limits their usefulness for purposes that require detailed images. I have also noticed that the wireless access is fairly slow and places greater demand on the battery, increasing the need for recharging. But overall, the Danas are adequate for e-mail and text-based pages, especially those optimized for handheld access.


AOL@SCHOOL Integrated into DanaWeb Browser

AlphaSmart is now integrating AOL@SCHOOL's educational search engine into its DanaWeb Browser, the Internet browser included with the Dana Wireless for the K-12 market. This partnership allows students and teachers to quickly and easily seek out safe, age-appropriate online content from their desktop or any learning environment. To access the Internet from the Dana platform, users simply tap on the DanaWeb icon, which immediately presents them with a search box. Unlike traditional search tools that identify thousands of sites from a single keyword request, AOL@SCHOOL returns a targeted list of prescreened educational sites that have been reviewed and selected by education experts. "We are excited to expand the reach of the industry-leading AOL@SCHOOL service beyond the traditional desktop environment," says Mark Stevens, the newly appointed director and general manager of AOL@SCHOOL. "By combining the connectivity and portability of the Dana Wireless with AOL@SCHOOL's targeted education search engine, we are giving students a convenient one-stop-shop for Web research and report development."

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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