Practice Planet

9/15/2007 By: Stephanie Gold

from Technology & Learning

New online software gives pre–high school students access to test preparation.

Company: Siboney Learning Group (under the Orchard umbrella).
System Requirements: Windows 2000, XP, or Vista; Macintosh OS X.
Price/Grade: Licenses start at $995 per subject/grade. K–12.
Pros: Online convenience; familiar test format; targeted skill practice; fun, interactive games.
Cons: Not all questions display high pedagogical quality; some dull passages and content errors.

Practice Planet

The software's skill segments offer feedback and rewards.

Siboney's Practice Planet software targets K–12 students, offering practice on the full range of math and language arts skills necessary to excel on high-stakes exams.

Customized by grade and state curriculum standards, this online offering also helps younger students get comfortable with the testing format.

The product includes a pre-test, targeted skill segments, game rewards, and a post-test. Addressed skills are comprehensive for each grade level. For example, for eighth-grade language arts there are more than 30 skills to practice—from capitalization and punctuation to literary devices—with 10 questions per topic. Weak spots include the pre- and post-tests, each consisting of 43 questions—sans feedback or hints—which students might find overwhelming or tedious. Targeted skill segments do offer feedback and explanations, though, with hints when users answer wrong and praise when they're correct, plus the added reward of a shot at online pinball or air hockey.

The teacher's home page is a useful time-saver in terms of preparation, scoring, and data analysis. It provides instant access to individual test scores and whole class test summaries, and has management features allowing educators to make class assignments, set game parameters, and choose the frequency and minimum score necessary for rewards—though the 10 questions per skill might not be enough practice for students who require more than a gentle reminder.

Bottom line: the repetition is particularly useful for some skills, the explanations provide effective reinforcement, and the game rewards offer good motivation. Downsides include some repetition of questions on the pre-test, practice, and posttest; some unnecessarily dull reading passages; and some seemingly arbitrary required knowledge (about things like tractor-pulls and the design of old-fashioned telephones). In addition, this first iteration is still buggy, with a few grammatical errors and flawed sentence constructions scattered throughout the tests.

Stephanie Gold is an education consultant and teacher in San Francisco, California.

Q1 Ultra

By Melissa Houston

Q1 Ultra

Company: Samsung; www.samsung.com
Operating System: Preinstalled with Microsoft Windows Vista or Windows XP Tablet Edition; supports all Vista applications.
Price: $799 and up.
Pros: Lightweight, high-resolution screen, long battery life, Bluetooth enabled.
Cons: Vista runs slow on the 800-MHz Intel processor with 1GB memory.

Ultra-mobile PCs have been struggling to find their niche in the marketplace—they're not quite laptops, nor do they have the capabilities of a tablet. Samsung has attempted to silence critics with the new, super-light, 7-inch touch-screen handheld Q1 Ultra, its second-generation UMPC.

No question, the Q1 Ultra is hard to resist. Wireless capable, complete with two cameras, and stylus pen–enabled, this 1.5-pound UMPC has plenty to offer someone who wants to be connected on the go without having the burden of a heavy tablet or laptop in tow. For ultimate anywhere computing, its four-cell lithium ion battery gets up to 4.5 hours of life on a single charge, and it even includes GPS navigation.

The Q1 Ultra can do just about anything a laptop can, but as expected it's a bit slower since Vista tends to eat up a lot of memory when loading programs. Still, we found the Ultra to boot up pretty fast, and its wireless connectivity is fairly strong no matter where we tested it. It also boasts sharp 1024x600 native resolution and a bright, LED-backlit LCD screen.

Could the Ultra be the new must-have classroom accessory? The base model is arguably affordable, but doesn't include the integrated cameras. And since most folks are enthusiastic about USPCs, in general, because of all the plug-in capabilities, Samsung offers an optional external USB keyboard—which is good, since we found the Q1 Ultra's QWERTY split thumb board slow and tedious, despite practice. If you're stuck navigating or note taking by stylus pen you may find the screen too small to do any meaningful work.

Melissa Houston is T&L's managing editor.

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