Remember when the king of back-to-school technology was a No. 2 pencil? No longer. High-tech companies want to load down today's students with gadgets: computers, software, electronic diaries, and noise-canceling headphones.
The technology "reduces 70 percent of unwanted outside noises for quiet study purposes," explains a Sony spokeswoman.
Parents can safely ignore much of this hype. But educators note that big changes are underfoot in the classroom, pushed forward by computers and the Internet.
"Pencil and paper are certainly not out of style yet, but students equipping themselves with a computer and appropriate software packages will have some very real advantages," says Michael Badolato, director of learning-support services at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Even if parents don't buy the technology, they need to support it. "The important item is not necessarily to buy each piece" of technology, but to give students access to software that will improve their critical-thinking skills, says Melissa Spirek, a telecommunications professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Already, computers are in 1 out of 3 American homes, available to an estimated 13.7 million children. By 2000, that figure will top 30 million, estimates Forrester Research, a technology-research firm in Cambridge, Mass. Parents shouldn't be afraid to start early with their children, educators say.
"I think it's a good idea to start very young [teaching] children ... that there's an awful lot of information out there," says Yvonne Andres, president of the Global SchoolNet Foundation, a nonprofit education group based in Oceanside, Calif. "And a very important skill is to learn how to locate it."
Ms. Andres says that children should be exposed to an art program, which helps to familiarize them with a mouse and keyboard while they draw. If little hands have trouble typing, parents might consider buying a special children's keyboard. When children get older, say third or fourth grade, they should start learning to touch type on their own, Ms. Andres says. Several software programs teach typing.
John Koelzer, professor of mathematics at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo., recommends software programs such as Math Blaster, that make learning math fun. Possible add-ons include a low-cost scanner to scan in photos relevant to the child and a color ink-jet printer that will allow students to print out their work.
What kind of computer should parents buy? Ask the school, educators say. If the school uses Macintoshes, buy that; if it uses IBM-compatible computers, get that.
By fourth or fifth grade, students are ready for collaborative computing projects. One example is Global SchoolNet's ThinkQuest. In the program, several students form a team with an adult coach to design a learning activity that can be published on the World Wide Web, the graphical part of the Internet.
Before children venture into cyberspace, parents should consider buying an Internet-blocking program that shuts down access to the darker corners of cyberspace. (Educators also suggest that parents teach children proper etiquette on the Internet, and how to refer to on-line material without plagiarizing it.)
By the time students reach high school, they should have a full-fledged word-processing program, a presentation package, and possibly spreadsheet software for applied math classes. Another useful gadget: a graphing calculator that allows students to visualize math formulas.
But the same principle applies for high schoolers as it does for younger students: Ask the school before you buy any technology. Some math courses in Texas schools do not allow a graphing calculator because the state's basic skills test forbids it; others require it, says Joe Dan Austin, a professor of education and statistics at Rice University in Houston. "The best suggestion is to wait and see what programs or courses the child takes."
At the college level, computers are nearly a must-have. Many students view them as a necessity. An estimated 6.5 percent of the nation's 3,500 college campuses already require them. "Without a computer, you'd really be excluded from a lot," says Bill Brawley, spokesman for computing services at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., one of many universities requiring a computer. Professors use the campus computer network to distribute homework, and student groups set up meetings with electronic mail.
Often it makes sense to buy through the college because the system will be supported by campus technicians. Dartmouth, for example, is a Macintosh-based campus where 98 percent of the students buy Macintoshes. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., requires IBM-compatible notebooks. The $3,500 machines, equipped with a CD-ROM player and other high-end features, are factored into the student's financial-aid.
Appropriate technology is a tool for learning, educators say.
"But that's not necessarily making the student a better learner," says Joyce Moore, education psychology professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Attitude is going to be more important than technology."