What is an Alphasmart®?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The AlphaSmart® is a durable word processing keyboard that is powered by a battery with a very long life. Production of these keyboards, made by AlphaSmart, Inc., is owned by the company Renaissance Learning, Inc. AlphaSmarts® are mainly used in schools for students who have dysgraphia (trouble producing written language) or other learning disabilities that make penmanship unreadable or difficult to produce. Keyboards have small displays that allow the user to see a few lines at a time, but material either needs to be printed or downloaded onto a personal computer into a word processing program to see larger areas of text and for more editing features.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

Some people call the AlphaSmart® a computer companion since it has few programs. The earliest versions made in the 1990s didn’t achieve full functionality unless they were plugged into a computer. Along the way, several programs have increased functionality of the device, including programs like Co-Writer, which may suggest words based on several beginning letters, lessening the need for typing speed and allowing students to write more fluently. Early AlphaSmart® versions only worked with Macintosh® computers, but later versions could be plugged into USB ports of either Macs or PCS.

While the main users of AlphaSmart® devices are children or young adults with writing disabilities, the low cost of the keyboard (about $200-300 US Dollars) and its portability have made it popular for people who participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMO). You’ll still need access to at least a printer to print out your work, and in order to edit large batches of text, you’ll really need to be able to look at the text in a word processing format.

Some students, especially those used to working on computers, find the AlphaSmart® less functional than they would like. The much smaller screen than that available on laptops can be challenging for some, and there may be a learning curve in getting used to using a word processing machine rather than a computer. For kids with learning disabilities, these devices may prove frustrating, especially when typing skills are not much better than writing skills, and when a student needs to heavily edit work before submitting it.

Along the way, AlphaSmart® devices have improved to offer more functions via programs that can be installed in the device. In addition to Co-Writer, the newest versions like Neo 2 can be used to take Accelerated Reader Quizzes, and the 2Know Classroom Response System, which takes the AlphaSmart® wireless so it doesn’t require plug in to a main computer. Technically all students could use an AlphaSmart® with this technology, or use smaller devices to speed up answering time during classroom learning.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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