A Dana for Every Schoolkid?

Using Palm software, this device offers many laptop-like benefits at a fraction of the cost

Fans of technology in education have long believed that the ideal is a laptop for every student who's big enough to carry one around. While a few jurisdictions, notably the state of Maine and Henrico County, Va., adjacent to Richmond, have distributed laptops on a large scale, most rejected the idea as too complicated and too expensive, even back in the days when public school budgets were flush.

But what if schools could achieve many of the benefits of laptops at a fraction of the cost? The Dana from AlphaSmart (www.alphasmart.com) might just be the ticket. At $400 (with educational and volume discounts available), its initial cost is little more than a third the price of an inexpensive laptop. Furthermore, the Dana's rugged simplicity means it's less likely to have either hardware or software problems, increasing the savings.

Although it's built on software licensed from PalmSource, the Dana bears little resemblance to any Palm you've ever seen. It's a sturdy, two-pound slab of black plastic about 12 in. wide and 9 in. deep, with a full-size keyboard and a 7 1/2-in.-by-3 1/4--in. monochrome display that can show 13 lines of about 80 characters. A charge of its battery will keep the Dana running for a good 25 hours.

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Like any Palm, the Dana exchanges data easily with a PC or a Mac. A simple word processor called AlphaWord is built in, but it also comes with a copy of Cutting Edge Software's Quickoffice, which shares files with Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. A student can use a Dana to collect data for a science experiment, perhaps doing direct measurements with a temperature probe or motion sensor from ImagiWorks or Vernier, feed the results to a QuickSheet spreadsheet, then sync the information to Excel on a desktop for further analysis. Dana can run all Palm programs, but unless the application has been modified for the wide screen, only the middle third of the display will be used.

PowerPoint is widely used in instruction and student presentations even in many grade school classes, and the Dana can put on a slide show with a little help. A $249 accessory called Pitch from Mobility Electronics lets you use a video projector to throw the display from Dana (or any Palm, Pocket PC, or Nokia Series 60 handset) onto a screen. If the slides were created in color in PowerPoint on a PC, they will project in color even though the Dana is monochrome-only. The fancy multimedia features of PowerPoint, such as sound or video, won't work, however.

The Dana's biggest deficiency is its lack of Internet connectivity. You can get it hooked up through a modem, but given the limitations of Palm browsers and of the monochrome display, it's probably more trouble than it's worth. You can sync e-mail to the Dana from a PC, work on it, then sync back to transmit messages.

On the other hand, some limitations may be a blessing in disguise. Schools that have given laptops to students have had a constant struggle with kids installing their own software and downloading pornography, music, and other prohibited material from the Web. Henrico County has called in its more than 11,000 Apple iBooks twice to tighten security settings.

There are, however, a number of changes I would make in Dana. Its eight megabytes of memory is inadequate, and while it has slots for two SD memory cards, it needs better software for managing files and moving data between the cards and main memory. The built-in calculator program isn't up to serious math or science work.

The biggest improvement would come with a move to the latest Palm operating system, which would allow for a faster processor and, more important, a high-resolution color display. With falling component costs, this may be possible with no more than a modest increase in price. Battery life would suffer, but the gain in performance would be worth it.

I think getting a tool for writing and data analysis into the hands of every student is a great idea. But I'm not convinced that buying millions of laptops is the best use of the money even if budgets weren't in a fierce squeeze. Dana nicely fills the gap between inadequate handhelds and overkill laptops.

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