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CHICAGO (Reuters) - If Adrian Hartog has his way, college kids will be sporting tablet computers instead of backpacks loaded down with heavy textbooks.
The CEO of educational tablet maker mySpark Technologies (mysparktech.com) is among a growing number of entrepreneurs attempting to change the way students study, share and do homework.
"Everybody is learning how to use the digital form," said Hartog, a former executive with graphic chipmakers AMD AMD.N and ATI. "We're really trying to provide a comprehensive solution for students."
MySpark plans to market two versions of its tablet, based on the Android operating platform, priced between $200 to $350 and due to be released this spring, Hartog said. Aimed at the college market, the 10-inch devices will let students buy digital textbooks, sync school calendars, collaborate via instant messaging and run Android apps.
Using a special stylus, they can take notes or annotate text; there's even cloud-based backup in case the device is lost. Hartog is betting the device - still in beta testing - will push students to stretch beyond traditional textbooks toward interactive material such as online demonstration videos and Web-based coursework.
"People will get access to content they never would have before," said Hartog, whose company is initially targeting North America and India.
Hartog's Toronto-based startup is going up against a handful of other niche educational tablet developers, including Santa Clara, California-based Kno (www.kno.com), which makes a tablet under the same name. They face tough competition from industry leader Apple, whose iPad created the market for tablet computing, as well as Samsung's (SSNGY.PK) Galaxy Tab and new devices from tech giants Dell DELL.O and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ.N).
"Big players, little players, that's what's really exciting about all of this," said Warren Buckleitner, a child psychologist and editor of Children's Technology Review, which evaluates kids' tech products. "Everyone wants to build a better mousetrap for learning."
U.S. schools have been slow to pick up the new technology, but next year will likely see significant implementation of tablets in classrooms, said Buckleitner, who argues the iPad will prove a fierce competitor.
According to research firm Gartner, the worldwide tablet market is expected to reach 54.8 million units this year, nearly doubling those sold in 2010. By 2014, it could surpass 208 million units.
It's not just school-age kids capturing tablet makers' attention. Santa Monica, California-based Rullingnet, for one, is set on creating a device for toddlers. With soft, child-friendly edges, its Vinci Tab (www.vincigenius.com) provides storybooks, music videos and games to spark curiosity in young learners.
"We want to help kids build critical thinking skills," said founder and CEO Dan D. Yang, who reconfigured a Galaxy Tab to meet the needs of her young daughter.
"By 15 months, she was already able to play with apps on the iPhone," said Yang, a former fiber optics industry entrepreneur, who thought the iPad was not the right fit for toddlers. "It's too heavy, not safe. It doesn't let a child do some focused work."
Rullingnet, which has seed capital of about $10 million from Yang, is working on two models of Vinci aimed at reaching market by mid-year, with the primary device set to retail at $479, she said.
Other startups are seeking to cash in on the appetite for digital education-based content, with services that include conversion of text to online formats and the creation of student-focused online learning platforms.
ScrollMotion (www.scrollmotion.com), a New York-based startup founded more than two years ago, is working to enrich traditional print content for online readers. It has picked up customers ranging from Conde Naste to McGraw-Hill, and co-founder Josh Koppel said the educational field is among its most robust markets.
"Our job is to build compelling content that works well on multiple devices," said Koppel, whose company partnered with educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Even if students avoid the library, their natural tendency to socialize may be a benefit in a learning environment where collective input becomes the norm, prompted by social media.
"More and more we will see students working together," said Gio Hunt, CEO of Reston, Virginia-based Koofers Inc., which has built an online platform to facilitate virtual study groups and sharing of educational content. "There's such momentum around inter-collegial learning."
With a total of $7 million in outside investment, Koofers (www.koofers.com) has registered users from more than 3,000 colleges across the U.S. since its founding in 2008.
However the market shakes out, at the very least students may do themselves some ergonomic good by giving those old, heavy textbooks the slip.
"Maybe they're going to be a little healthier," said Hartog.