- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2008

Once upon a time, the best portable learning device was a textbook, but in today’s world of plugged-in students, technology offers so much more. Take the case of LeapFrog’s latest palm-held device, the Crammer($59.99, requires three AAA batteries and an Internet connection).

Don’t get caught up in the terrible name. This unit offers a proactive way for students 8 to 14 years old to quickly access more than 16,000 questions on math, science, language arts and social studies, culled from actual quiz curriculums.

It’s lightweight and uses an 81 MHz processor, 2.5-inch-wide gray-scale screen and 1 gigabyte of onboard Flash memory.

Students click through the eight-icon navigation menu using a pair of buttons and a plastic screen that tilts when pressed. The method is a bit clunky and takes a while to get used to; I would have preferred a real touch-screen option with stylus.

The key to the system is content downloads requiring use of a PC or Mac and the LeapPad Connect software interface. A quick installation on the computer with the Crammer attached via a USB cable leads to the ability to create flashcards and download those precious quizzes.

The connection can be a bit tricky because the Crammer often dropped out of sync with the computer, resulting in confusing error messages. My suggestion is always make sure to eject the unit using the LeapPad Connect option, even if it looks as if it has been disconnected.

Developing flashcards is painless, using forms and drop-down computer menus. Students enter a topic name and compose a question and answer that will flip when the student tries it. Additionally, those taking Spanish can easily translate words, often with an audio pronunciation included, in a flashcard series. Let’s hope more languages will be available soon.

The quiz portion is even easier. Just pick from a mind-numbing selection of detailed topics, ranging from data analysis and probability to world history and grammar usage, then hit the download button.

Quiz packs loaded to the Crammer are a fantastic mix of dozens of multiple choice and true/false questions that include a hint on each and two difficulty levels. The system keeps tracks of wrong answers to redo the quiz and statistics to help a student improve.

Let me state for the record, the quizzes are challenging. Try nuclear chemistry and exploration in the Americas to see what I mean.

Crammer is billed as a “study and sound system” with definite appeal for the multitasking student in the family. As a student, I would have appreciated the Crammer for its music playing options — I always found blasting multiple media sources helpful when studying. The system conveniently plays (only through headphones) about 10 hours of tunes (with an obligatory shuffle function) while junior attacks the questions. MP3 songs are painlessly loaded via the LeapPad Connect interface right from a user’s computer.

The Crammer’s functionality also is extended with two onboard games to cool the brain down. The first, Domino Madness, mixes Tetris with tile matching. As the dominoes fall, players must maneuver the pieces so sides with the same number of dots line up so they can be removed from the board.

Wheeler Dealer is a bit more complex. It tests entrepreneurial skills as junior business folk manage a scooter rental shop, working their way from employee to tycoon. The action requires setting a balance sheet to determine how many scooters to put out, how much to charge for a rental, etc., watching fortunes rise and fall over a 30-day span.

Crammer’s glaring miscue is with the monochrome screen that lacks backlighting. That is not the future of edutainment, and I can’t see any tween or young teen jumping aboard the Crammer bandwagon if any of his peers own an iPhone, Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation Portable.

Despite that, the price and educational content are major pluses and the combination makes for a potent package for the motivated student.

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