Gauging the gadgetry

Technology: While kids having access to technology is key for learning, some say, the question becomes what's help and what's just hype?

Family Matters

September 02, 2001|By Kathy Boccella | Kathy Boccella,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Antoine Brown, 19, knows he doesn't really need a cell phone, digital camera, laptop, CD burner and all the other high-tech paraphernalia that increasingly is pitched at kids heading back to school.

But like most students, he craves it all.

"A lot of it's just to show off, to make yourself look good," said the Norfolk State University sophomore who lives in Philadelphia.

Computers, two-way pagers, super calculators, handheld organizers, encyclopedia software -- an ever-increasing array of electronic gadgets has become as much a part of student life today as paper and pencils were a generation or two ago.

But parents shelling out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to equip their kids for school may wonder: What are these things, and how many do my children truly need?

Do all these devices really make students better, smarter, more successful, or are they a teen version of the new kiddy lunchbox that your youngster must have because everyone else does?

"Access to technology is critical for students," said Karen Smith, director of Tech Corp, a national network of professionals who volunteer to work with schools. "But the magic is not in the gadget. The magic is in helping students to use the gadget to have a positive impact on learning experiences."

They may yearn for an MP3 player so they can download favorite tunes and listen to them on the bus. But they'd be better off with something that enabled them to do research on the Internet.

"Gadgets that connect to the Internet, are portable so they can take them in all kinds of environments, and are low cost are going to benefit them the most educationally," Smith said.

Experts say that by high school, most students depend on some form of technology for schoolwork. Laptops and electronic organizers, staples in college, are becoming top picks for middle and high schoolers, too.

Mark Collins, principal of Neshaminy High School in the Philadelphia area, said within five years he expects every student to be equipped with a laptop at school. "Some of our more savvy kids are carrying Palm Pilots," he said.

While students need to be technologically competent, Collins said, "there are some things that can be educational tools and some things that can detract from education."

Which is why Game Boys, cell phones, beepers and headphones are off-limits at most high schools.

So what and how much do kids need to be good students without breaking the bank?

Jeff Maccarella, a freshman at Cherokee High School in Marlton, N.J., likes the new multipurpose calculators. Not only do they have periodic tables and spreadsheets, "you can play games and download things off the computer," he said.

But the No. 1 must-have, can't-live-without-it, but-all-my-friends-have-one e-student gadget is ... a cell phone.

"Five years ago it was a luxury. Now it's a necessity," said Drew Neider, 22, who works at the AT&T store at the Plaza at King of Prussia, and has sold phones to kids as young as 13.

Robin Raskin, author of the newspaper column, Internet Mom, and former editor of Family PC, said that by the time students enter first grade, "they really should have a computer of their own."

Children as young as 12 bring laptops to school, she said. The novelty factor and portability are good reasons to get one; at $1,000 and up, expense and theft are reasons not to.

The Gateway Solo 1200 ($999) is a good choice for young students, she said.

But Raskin warned that computers could be major distractions, as well as all-purpose entertainment centers. "I tell parents to watch. They think their kid's on the computer doing homework all night and they're downloading songs, instant messaging," she said.

Youngsters who have trouble keeping track of busy schedules "can really do well if you give them an electronic organizer like a Palm," Raskin said. "It's a toy for them to play with and it keeps track of their schedule, homework, everything."

The Palm m100 ($129) features interchangeable faceplates in a variety of colors. Add-on attachments let you shoot digital images of school events, listen to music on the way to school, or take notes on a foldable, full-sized keyboard weighing eight ounces.

Graphing calculators are a hot new item showing up as early as the middle-school years, though they are primarily used for advanced math and science.

Texas Instruments' new TI-83 Plus Silver Edition ($130) includes an organizer application to keep track of assignments and appointments, plus the periodic tables and spreadsheets.

Home PCs are essential these days, as is a multimedia software encyclopedia such as Microsoft Encarta ($79.95) that has an atlas, thesaurus, current-event updates, and lots of Web links, according to Raskin.

"If there's a bombing in a mosque today, you can find it on the Encarta site. If a country changes its name, you'll know about it. It's a great way for kids and parents to keep current," she said.

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