The technology kids want, versus what they need

Computers, cellphones, iPods: What do children require to thrive at school?

Once upon a time, in the old days (about 10 to 15 years ago, or "prehistoric," as my kids jokingly call it), the only technology you needed for school was a calculator. And that was only if the teacher would allow you to use it. Many a science and math teacher believed a piece of scrap paper for working out a problem was a better teaching tool. But we live in a digital world now, and a student's technology needs have changed. How much depends on the age of the child and whom you ask – students or teachers.

For the early years, say kindergarten through fourth grade, you can get by with no technology at all. Even if you have a computer, it's a good idea to get children familiar with libraries. At this age, trips to the library are like family outings. My 8-year-old daughter, just starting third grade, would go the library every day if she could.

But as you get closer to middle school, a computer with Internet access becomes more of a necessity. Teachers will often give assignments that require a student to use the Internet for research.

Last year, for instance, my son's sixth-grade science teacher gave the class an assignment that required them to research their favorite college basketball team as part of an assignment to learn about the physics of the sport.

It's a task one could still do in "prehistoric" times, but with the Internet it took an evening, not a couple of days.

What kind of computer do you want, if you don't have one? I'd argue that middle- and high-schoolers can get by with a desktop computer at home. (College students fall into the laptop category. )

So, Mac or a PC? Macs are good machines, especially for younger students, with their more intuitive interface. But if money is a big issue, PCs are cheaper and more programs are written for PCs.

You can get a good computer for about $700. If you pay an extra $100 or so for more RAM, the computer will run faster. Think about broadband Internet access as well. DSL broadband (via phone line) tends to cost less than cable broadband (via the cable outlet). DSL runs about $30 a month, cable about $40, depending upon where you live and what deals are offered.

After a computer and Internet access, technology choices for students become more of a toss up – especially when it comes to cellphones.

Kids will beg their parents for a cellphone, especially in middle school (some of my oldest daughter's friends in fourth grade had cellphones). For many parents, it's a safety issue: They want to know that their kids can reach them (or vice versa) quickly if necessary.

But many teachers despise cellphones. My brother, who teaches at a high school in Nova Scotia, gives high praise to the Internet and what it has allowed his students to learn, but he rails against cellphones.

"Kids don't need 'em," he says. "They're disruptive. You ought to hear some of the ringtones they have. Some kids even think they can have a conversation during a class. They text each other, take photos. I won't let them in my classes."

Texting also raises issues of cheating. Several articles I read while researching this topic mentioned that more schools are banning cellphones for this reason.

But if the safety issue is still a concern, you have a couple of options: A simple cellphone can be programmed only to call home or a relative's number. And you don't even need a plan for true emergencies: Any cellphone that still has a working battery can dial 911.

Some schools seem to be trying to find a way around the possible cheating problem and be more open to cellphones because of the safety issue. In Montgomery County, Md., administrators announced recently that middle-school students may carry cellphones, as long as they do not use them in school. (The decision wasn't driven solely by safety concerns: Parents wanted to be able to call children about pick-up times.)

Then there is the "coolness" factor. Many kids see iPods as an integral part of their "ensemble." ("Everybody else has one, why can't I?" is a common refrain.) iPods are great for music, but do they do anything for your child's education?

Maybe they do. That's the opinion of Doug Johnson, an educator for 30 years and the Mankato, Minn., District Technology Coordinator. Mr. Johnson is the author of several books on technology and students. He also writes "The Blue skunk Blog" at

Johnson says that educators should be open all new forms of technology in the classroom, including iPods.

"It's not like it used to be," he says. "Kids these days are social users and multitaskers. They learn in different ways that we don't."

Johnson also believes that if we really want our children to develop the skills needed in the 21st century, we need to be open to the way that they use technology, be it cellphones or iPods.

"Some do more with their cellphones than we can do with our laptops," he jokes. "I don't think we should be afraid. And the truth is that it's easier to change the way we teach, rather than trying to change the technology habits of an entire generation"

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