When it comes to parental inquiries about school, children generally respond with a shrug and, if they're lucky, an obligatory "nothing." Parents, of course, know better, and will soon be able to track their kids' abilities and smarts thanks to LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., the Emeryville, Calif., manufacturer of technology-based learning aids.
LeapFrog this week announced its new "Learning Path" strategy, which includes Web-based programs designed to guide children through the company's extensive lineup of devices for developing reading, math and other skills. Learning Path enables parents to use the Web to follow their kids' performance, download new games to LeapFrog devices as well as communicate with educators and even other parents through a community site.
Each time a child finishes playing with one of LeapFrog's USB-enabled toys—including the new Tag reading device or Didj handheld gaming system—parents will be able to view the results by connecting the toy to their PC or Mac and visiting the company's Learning Path site, set to go live in May. The site will reveal the games that each child plays, the number of times he or she plays them, and the skills they're designed to teach. It will also suggest activities tailored to individual kids' needs (for example, having children with trouble reading pick out particular letters or words on different food packages during trips to the supermarket).
The Learning Path Web site, as with all of LeapFrog's products, was designed using the company's proprietary "scope and sequence" methodology, created by its team of curriculum designers in conjunction with the company's 10-member educational advisory board. Scope and sequence, the company says, focuses on identifying what children learn as well as how and when they learn it, including their ages and stages of development. The advisory board includes Anne Cunningham, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education; Cathie Norris, a regents professor at the University of North Texas College of Education's Department of Learning Technologies, in Denton, Texas; and Jeni Leta Riley, head of the School of Early Childhood and Primary Education for the Institute of Education, University of London.
As with many things these days, though, this program walks a fine line between learning and privacy. On one hand, it enables parents to play an active role in enhancing their youngsters' education and, also, in keeping tabs on how they are spending their time, allowing them to identify potential trouble spots. But it also opens the door to parents becoming more like "Big Brother," potentially irking kids and discouraging them from using the products. (Any child who understands this reference, by the way, probably doesn't need the Leapfrog learning aids.)
The Didj system resembles the PlayStation Portable (at about half PSP's $170 price tag) and is designed to appeal to kids age six to 10. Using LeapFrog's Connect software and a USB cable, kids can use a computer to create their own game avatars; parents can customize the game's educational curriculum (specifying an emphasis on certain math skills or a particular spelling list), and then load all of this information onto the handheld device. The Didj, which hits the stores in July, runs on a 393 megahertz Arm 9 processor and features 32 megabytes of RAM, 256 megabytes of flash storage and a 3.2-inch (8.1-centimeter) LCD screen.
The Tag reading system, which debuts in June priced at $50, borrows from the company's FLY Fusion Pentop Computer (minus the handwriting-recognition capabilities) to provide an exclamation point–shaped handheld device that reads when its tip is touched against words in one of LeapFrog's children's books. Using an optical pattern system and digital processing techniques licensed from Sweden's Anoto Group, AB, the Tag reader can determine the precise location in any given book and any page as well. The device features a 32-bit computer processor as well as LeapFrog's proprietary operating system and software.