29 January 2008

Interactive Digital Reading... from the start

Bad news and good news.

"This week, LeapFrog pulls the wraps off the LeapPad’s successor, the Tag," says a New York Times article, "a thick, white and green plastic stylus that turns paper books into interactive playthings. LeapFrog is betting that the $50 Tag, which will be available this summer along with an 18-volume library that includes children’s classics like “The Little Engine That Could” and “Olivia,” will be the hit it badly needs. It calls the Tag its “biggest launch ever.”

"The Tag, officially called the Tag Reading System, works a lot like the LeapPad. Children can tap a word with it and the stylus reads the word, or its definition, aloud. They can tap on an image to hear a character’s voice come alive. Interactive games test their reading comprehension. At its simplest, the Tag can also act as an audio book and simply read a story from beginning to end.

"But while the LeapPad system required spiral-bound books to be placed on a clunky, laptop-sized plastic console with a pointing device attached to it, LeapFrog has put all of the Tag’s smarts into the inch-and-a-half-thick stylus. It works on books whose pages are imprinted with invisible dots that allow a small infrared camera at the tip of the Tag to recognize words or images on the page. That makes it far more portable and easier to use than the LeapPad, says Jeffrey G. Katz, the chief executive of LeapFrog."

What's good?
If "Tag" catches on it will prove what many of us have been saying all along - that digital reading software belongs everywhere in education, including at the beginnings of literacy.

What's bad?
Parents will pay for this stuff. Schools will pay for this stuff, rather than utilizing the technology that would already surround them if they simply opened their eyes (and took their ridiculous internet filters off). Instead of training students for life, parents and schools will (once again) waste a fortune on one-shot toys.

"Jane O’Connor, author of the best-selling Fancy Nancy series (Two of her titles are being adapted for the Tag), who described herself as “not a very pro-technology person,” was a skeptic at first, but has since come around.

'“Sometimes it might be easier for a child who is struggling not to have a parent breathing down their neck,” she said. “You get stuck, you tap a word. The only expectation is coming from you, the kid.”'Yes, of course. As anyone who has joined the Firefox Browser with Click, Speak and right-click definitions (and translations) already knows (all completely free and cross-platform). Or as anyone who has used Microsoft Reader already knows (completely free, Windows only), or even as those who have used Natural Reader (completely free, Windows only) already understand.

We also understand that, for less than the cost of a "Tag" you can add a Canon LiDE scanner to your computer (which comes with a "lite" version of OmniPage) and convert any of your child's (or students') books into digital form.

What these systems do - and the "Tag" does less well, at high expense, is allow all readers to get the support they need. Whenever an "issue" arises in the text, be it new vocabulary, a confusing word, an un-understood word - for whatever reasons, inexperience, dyslexia, second-language acquisition, cognitive problems, or simply "reading above your knowledge level" - students can turn to digital supports. Right-click and hear the word. Or right-click and have the word defined. Or right-click and have the word translated. It allows literacy to expand while independence expands.

What these systems do - and the "Tag" cannot do at all - is grow with your child. Leapfrog thinks new vocabulary acquisition matters while reading The Little Engine that Could. But I suspect it will matter just as much when we try to read Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Joyce, or perhaps your physics textbook.

If "Tag" succeeds, it will prove that what digital reading does is essential to young readers. But it will also prove that Americans, and their schools, are always happy to spend more and get less when it comes to educational technology.

- Ira Socol

Blog Alert!
- Over at jamessocol.com a series has begun exploring true web accessibility. If you have any educational website this is vital information that you must read...

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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