Monday, August 28, 2006

My fly pentop computer

So some weeks ago, I went to Toys R Us with the intent of buying the baby some blocks. Baby got blocks. I got Fly.

my fly

My spontaneous purchase surprised myself as I'm not usually one for electronic gadgets. I don't own a laptop or PDA and my ancient cell phone is a hand-me-down. But ever since I read about the Fly Pentop computer in WIRED Magazine, I wanted one mightily. I think I was captivated by the notion of a portable organizer that was easy to use and inherently fun. I justified the cost by telling myself that I was acting on behalf of my profession as I investigated the social ramifications of infusing computing technology into paper and pen.

And so, this review.

First off, the Flypen will not become my PDA of choice as you can only associate three words with each scheduled event. This makes it an appropriate reminding tool for students (PRACTICE MATH EXAM) but not grown ups who live in the land of acronymed sub-committees (UCRPLM PRESENTATION REVIEW). And since the Flypen is designed for students in grades 6 through 8, I'm hardly in a position to complain. So I will try to review the system keeping its official mandate in mind.

In short, the Flypen is an educational toy and as such, it is a slave to two masters. No one can serve two masters well, and when it comes down to it, the Flypen does a better job serving education as opposed to serving up fun. That is, certain kinds of fun.

One of the most mind-blowing tricks you can do with your Flypen is to draw a keyboard on some Flypaper and then "play" the piano (you tap the pen onto the drawn keys and the pen makes the appropriate sound). You can also draw a little drum set and play/record buttons and compose a little ditty. But making music is the only form of "unstructured play" that the current Flypen system provides. Most of the fun is provided in the form of games embedded in Flypaper that you have to buy.

I have only been able to play the Fly Games that came with my initial start up package and so I haven't been able to try some of the more intriguing ones. I've played the geography games, the matching games, hangman, and the quizes. Some of the quizes reminded me of the Invisible Ink travel activity books sold along highways (and they were just as disappointing). But the quizes that were simple personality tests really impressed me -- not because of any insights into my character -- but because the ability to embed the answer key in the paper means that there is no opportunity to cheat and the results take no calculation on your part.

So its not surprising that the ability to practice math, spelling, and even tests from standardized textbooks is the real strength of the Flypen system. I can see how the Flypen system could inject both instant and helpful feedback into rote learning and I think a child struggling with a subject could appreciate its infinately patient, non-human help. And if I was a student learning Spanish, I know I would love the pen's ability to identify words written in English and announce and spell its translation, since I learn best by writing things down. Whether Leapfrog will develop what I really would like - "Fly Through French" - I suspect depends on whether the Flypen franchise will, ahem, fly.

One of the things that I have learned from thinking about the Flypen is that having an amazing technology, unto itself, is not enough to become a successful product. The potential of pentop computing and smart paper is so massive and yet its unlikely to be realized because the technological change is *too* great. We have invested thousands of years into "normal" pen and paper and that's a lot of cultural inertia. Educational software may be the best way for this technology to get a toe-hold into our world. That's the strength of the promise of potentially better marks at school... which is pretty scary when you think about it.

No comments: