Renaissance Learning Inc., a Wisconsin-based provider of educational software, has announced plans to merge with AlphaSmart Inc., a maker of portable word processors for students. The $57 million marriage is just the latest in a swath of industry moves intended to advance the trend toward one-to-one computing in the nation’s schools.

Under the agreement, unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both companies, Renaissance will continue to provide AlphaSmart products to the more than 8,000 school districts already using the tools nationwide. The company also said it would begin looking at ways to package its suite of educational software solutions with the popular handheld devices, giving students in more than 67,000 schools the chance to access custom educational content in the palms of their hands.

“The addition of AlphaSmart’s exceptional product line and talented professional staff will strengthen and diversify Renaissance Learning’s position as a leading provider of learning information systems to schools,” said John Hickey, president and chief executive officer of Renaissance Learning. “Together, we will be able to provide unique breakthrough solutions to help educators develop student writing skills along with strengthening other Renaissance solutions, where limited computer access is a bottleneck to daily program use.”

Company executives said the merger would have no immediate impact on the products and services offered by the two companies and that existing leadership teams would remain intact. In the future, Hickey said, Renaissance will offer drill and practice programs for its latest writing intervention tool, as well as for its popular Accelerated Reader product, by way of select AlphaSmart devices.

Hickey said the ability to download the programs to a portable computer companion such as AlphaSmart’s Dana or Neo would help schools overcome many of the inequities that result from a lack of classroom computers.

Though educators would love to be able to provide a desktop or laptop computer for every student, he said, the reality is that most schools can’t afford that type of investment. With AlphaSmart, he explained, educators soon will be able to download information from their PCs or laptops directly to the portable devices, giving each student in the classroom unfettered access to the latest interventions. But customers, he said, aren’t likely to see these and other innovations until later in the 2005-06 school year.

Renaissance isn’t the first educational service provider to make overtures toward the handheld computing market. As educators begin to see the value of one-to-one computing in the nation’s classrooms, inking multimillion-dollar laptop initiatives and expanding the use of handheld devices such as the Palm and PocketPC, several ed-tech companies have formed similar alliances combining the ubiquity of handhelds with an overarching need for more individualized instruction and assessment.

In June, for instance, Roseville, Calif.-based PASCO Scientific Inc., a provider of instructional and lab materials for science classes, acquired ImagiWorks Inc., which specializes in science and math programs for the Palm operating system. PASCO executives said the merger was fueled by industry expectations that the number of handhelds in education would grow exponentially in the next two years.

Introduced in 1992 by a group of former Apple Computer engineers, AlphaSmart products, including the Dana and ultra-portable Neo, are intended to enhance students’ mastery of critical skills from writing and keyboarding to basic comprehension.

Renaissance Learning is perhaps best-known as the maker of Accelerated Reader, the reading software program reportedly used in more than 55,000 schools. Among the company’s various other offerings are solutions intended to boost math and writing instruction, as well as student assessment and teacher-parent communication.

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