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TI's show and tell: a new classroom network

Texas Instruments introduces a wireless network system for students and teachers, which rivals similar technology from Dell and Palm.

Texas Instruments has gone back to school.

The equipment maker on Wednesday unveiled its entry into the networked classroom business with a wireless system so sophisticated students don't have to raise their hands to get attention from a teacher.

The TI-Navigator, now being tested in a half dozen U.S. schools, is meant to take on Palm and Dell Computer, which have introduced their own networked classroom systems. All three are vying for a share of the $50 billion that the National Education Association estimates it will take to modernize America's schools in the coming years.

Michael Disabato of The Burton Group said TI's entry into this field is a natural evolution for the same company that invented the calculator. It's also a direct assault on the latest moves by Palm and Dell.

Of the three, Palm may have already fallen behind, he said.

"Palm has been making noise about a lot of stuff," he said. "But I don't know how they are going to bring anything to market because they don't have Bluetooth (which enables computers to talk to each other without wires)."

Dell's system is also different from what TI introduced Wednesday, Disabato said. Dell is selling schools stacks of computers that are Internet-enabled. The laptops can be reused from class to class.

But the Navigator is a wireless LAN (local area network) that lets the teacher interact and monitor each of the coupled computers.

The system, which costs about $9,800, does not come with an essential element, the actual handheld device that all the magic works on. The system only works, of course, on TI's handheld TI-83 Plus. The company says that nearly 50 percent of all students have the handheld device, and schools can always buy them to augment the Navigator system.

One of the more unique features is that the Navigator uses a browser so teachers can see, for example, if a student is on eBay auctioning off the TI-83 he or she just got instead of paying attention.

TI Vice President Tom Ferrio said this interactive element is a key development.

"It's a simple thing. Teachers can pause and, for instance, send three multiple choice questions to gauge if the students are paying attention," he said. "A lot of educators say they want to be able to monitor if their lessons are being understood."

While it's still in test phases, TI is already planning an upgrade to be released later this year that will let teachers beam homework assignments to their students' handhelds. When they next meet, the teacher can collect the work, all without a single piece of paper changing hands.

"The new excuse is going to be the dog ate my batteries," Disabato said.