Students start their school year buying computers Machines in class may not be ideal

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

September 07, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

Adults know that personal computers can be powerful productivity enhancers in business. It would seem to follow, then, that computers can raise a child's productivity in school.

With this aim, many parents start the new school year by shopping for a PC, either for a younger pupil's use at home or for a college-bound offspring.

For some parents, shopping for a computer can seem as daunting as algebra or physics. There are several ideas to keep in mind to make sure the computer allowance is wisely spent.

VTC It is always a good idea to call the school to find out whether one type of computer is preferred. Especially in higher education, class assignments and reports may be based on a certain type of software, and some teachers like getting completed assignments on diskette.

For the kindergarten through high school, it is also important to know what computers the child is using at school.

"There are two kinds of families that have computers," said Anne Wujcik, principal of Wujcik & Associates, an education-market research and consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. "There are people who have computers at home because they use them themselves, so the child uses what Mom and Dad use."

Because children have an amazing ability to shift with ease among many different types of computers, like Macintoshes, DOS machines, Nintendos and Segas, it is no big problem if the child uses an Apple at school and a DOS machine at home.

"But if you're buying a computer specifically for the child," Ms. Wujcik continued, "other things being equal, it makes sense to choose the same type of computer that your child will be using in school."

The caution here is that some schools are using outdated computers that are not necessarily the wisest choices for the home computer buyer.

For example, the most common computers in elementary schools are the venerable Apple IIe or Apple IIgs models, which have long since been supplanted by newer technologies and software.

According to QED Inc., a market research company in Denver that tracks national trends in educational technology, Apple II and Apple IIgs machines made up at least half of all computers used in kindergarten through 12th grade last year.

The next most common computers already in use, according to QED, were those using the DOS operating system. Such computers are also called IBM compatibles.

Although computers made by the International Business Machines Corporation are the most popular of these, "IBM" is also sometimes used as the generic term for computers made by other companies, like Dell, Tandy and Zenith Data. A more appropriate term for such computers is DOS, which refers to the operating system software that all of them use.

Apple Computer Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., still makes the Apple IIe and IIgs models, and many schools still buy them. However, the schools are probably buying the Apple II systems simply because they have substantial investments in Apple II software and teacher training for those machines.

For current purchases, most schools are replacing the older Apple II's with newer Macintoshes, which are not compatible with Apple II's. The Macs offer superior software, higher performance and other advanced features.

The same holds for other declining computer models, such as older Commodore, Atari, Franklin, Texas Instruments and Radio Shack computers. The child may use them in school, but they are outdated by current standards.

For example, the Tandy Corp. used to make the Radio Shack brand, which was not IBM-compatible. It now sells Tandy-brand DOS computers, which are increasingly popular.

The paradox is that DOS computers are more widely used in business, while Macintosh computers appear to be the most popular current purchases in schools, especially the Mac LC II.

Just as some children find black-and-white television boring, students seem more likely to use color computers. The whole point is to get them to use the computer, so color should be a high priority.

"The Mac is becoming the computer of choice" in education, said Kip Kransdorf, a researcher at QED.

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