THE NEXT BIG THING: THE NEO by Valerie Strauss

Say Bye to School Notebook Scribbles

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

There's a whole lot of "gee whiz" in the fast-moving, high-tech, high-fashion, highly weird world of tomorrow. If you've already heard of this Next Big Thing, congratulations, (and e-mail us quick with the latest Next Big Thing at pagethree@washpost.com ). For the rest of you, here it is.

You are (unhappily) one of the tens of thousands of Washington area kids sitting in summer school instead of playing outside, and, to add insult to injury, your arm is cramping as you clutch your pencil to scratch down every single math formula your teacher writes on the board.

"There must be," you mutter to yourself, "a better way."

There seems to be.

It's called a Neo, and it's not quite like anything that Anna Pierce, 13, had ever seen before it was introduced at Four Oaks Middle School in Johnston County, N.C.

Hundreds of thousands of students across the country are using it -- including in the Washington area -- and many say they would rather not live without it.

What is a Neo?

It's not a desktop computer or a laptop. It is essentially a mini-word processor that students say is much easier to use than paper and pencil -- or anything else. It has a spell-checker, search function and dictionary and can be programmed to grade tests so students can get instant feedback. But it won't find square roots or give directions -- the device is all about words.

Neos are small (9.75 inches by 12.4 inches and 1.75 inches thick), lightweight (2 pounds) and rugged (kids drop them all the time and nothing happens, teachers say). They are far less expensive than a traditional laptop: Four Oaks paid $150 to $200 for each of the dozens that their sixth-graders use.

A Neo can go anywhere because it runs on AA batteries. Turn it on, and up pops the last thing you were working on. It could be a report for school, notes or a test -- multiple choice, essay or fill-in-the-blank -- that your teacher downloaded.

"It's really easy," said Anna, a seventh-grader, "and I can get more done than regular writing because I can type faster. It's more fun than writing."

Bill Reeder, coordinator of Integrated Technology Services for Fairfax County Public Schools, said Neos have been a hit in many Fairfax schools because teachers can easily integrate them into the classroom instead of dragging students to a lab to use complex computers for the simple task of word processing.

Neos are made by a company called AlphaSmart. A spokesman said 1.4 million AlphaSmart products -- mostly the Neo and its predecessors -- have been sold worldwide, and 60 percent of the nation's school systems have some. Fairfax has thousands of AlphaSmart products, Reeder said. They initially were bought to help students with special needs, but principals began requesting more for other students.

Why doesn't everyone have one?

Replied Reeder, who uses a Neo every day: "That's a good question."


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