Peek inside any backpack and the latest must-have gadgets show that for the in-class crowd, the biggest questions are: How can I take it all with me? And, how can I combine more of my work with play?
Technology is providing the answer by combining in a single device all those "shun" words that conveniently rhyme with fun: education, organization, communication, and recreation.
High-powered, ever-smaller handheld devices such as cellphones, personal digital organizers (PDAs, such as Palm Pilot and Handspring), and the proliferating portable gaming devices such as GameBoy and Cybiko are driving this trend. Gadgets that used to do just one thing are beginning to offer full menus.
Now teens can check their e-mail or research Thomas Jefferson on their cellphone or PDA, translate Spanish homework with their Cybiko, and play games or listen to music while they do all the above.
Whether or not this is a good thing may be moot because the technology is making it, in a word, inevitable. And, say the experts who study the industry trend, this generation is being shaped by massive multitasking to such a degree that those who don't participate will be left behind.
"All this technology has produced kids who can do lots of things at the same time and do them well," says Don Wisniewski, president of Cybiko.
Most of his employees are in their 20s, and multitasking is essential for them. "In the workplace, kids are going to be asked to multitask more and more, so the way they're using technology today is getting them ready for the workplace of tomorrow."
Needless to say, administrators and parents have a concern or two. "I worry about monitoring where they go online," says Janet Wolf, a first-grade teacher and mother of Allison, a high school junior in Los Angeles. "The additional cost for Internet access is also an issue."
Monitoring is an issue schools are just beginning to handle as portable, multipurpose devices crop up in classrooms, says Craig Barrows, headmaster of the Berkeley Hall School, which educates children up to ninth grade.
"We've had to ask kids to take the games off their PDAs or leave them at home," he says, but he acknowledges that policy may not work for long. Sooner, rather than later, students will be toting single multipurpose organizers/calculators/cellphones. When that day comes, says Mr. Barrows, the policy will be simple: "As long as they learn to keep the distracting stuff [like games] under control, we'll be OK."
Teen Allison Wolf says the future will have arrived when she and her friends can go online anywhere.
"The Internet is what we all want to use," she says. "When that comes on all our other devices, that's when it will all explode."
Some of the top items that might be in tech-conscious people's backpacks this fall:
Cybiko Extreme: A streamlined organizer/game-playing unit. It has a full qwerty keyboard and boasts multiple educational as well as entertainment functions: a scientific calculator, a dictionary, and multiple language translation system, not to mention calendar and note-taking software. The Cybiko Extreme is not interactive with the Internet, although it has a 300-foot range to "talk" to other Cybiko handhelds. Players can, however, download games from the website to keep the gameplay current.
Palm m125: This is a good student-priced PDA. For $150 (they can be purchased used or refurbished for less), it offers all the organization tools such as calendar, word processor, and wireless Internet connection as well as games, a memory-card expansion slot, bonus software, and full compatibility with peripherals of the upper-range models.
Sony's Micro Vault a great way to carry around your digital files, this external storage unit comes in a variety of capacities, from 16 to 128 MB. As small as a pudgy pen, it plugs into the USB computer port and allows students to load homework or whatever and carry it around in a cargo pants pocket or purse.
The monthly New Media feature will also include reviews of some of the latest interactive games, DVDs, and accessories. In the back-to-school spirit, this list starts with two new releases for the younger set:
"Barbie as Rapunzel." This animated fairy tale, out on Oct. 1, is the second in a series of interactive DVDs featuring the Mattel doll. The first, "Barbie In The Nutcracker" won the Video Premiere Award for best animated film. In this follow-up, Barbie/Rapunzel uses her artistic ability to paint her way out of the tower, rather than wait for a prince. Actress Anjelica Huston and singer Samantha Mumba help keep the action more fun than hokey, but the best parts are the interactive tour of great works of art and profiles of young artists.
This week, Nintendo released the e-Reader for Game Boy Advance, a card-swiping tool designed to breathe new life into its Pokémon franchise. Parents may view this as a bane rather than a boon, but for those kids who've poured their hearts into Pokémon, this relatively inexpensive ($34.95) new hardware and even cheaper games ($1.95-$4.95) will be welcome.
Here are my picks for the Top 10 current games, by platform Computer (PC), Nintendo GameCube (GC), Sony Playstation 2 (PS2), Microsoft X-Box, or Game Boy Advance (GBA). The games are rated EC (Early childhood), E (Everyone), or T (Teen).
1. "Super Mario Sunshine" (Nintendo)
It's the latest outing for the classic Nintendo figure Mario, and this colorful and fun game is a winner. The action is quick and easy, and for those who tire of endless warfare between characters, Mario's goal is to eradicate a mysterious pollution that has fallen over an otherwise pristine and colorfully rendered island paradise. Rated E.
2. "Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader" (LucasArts)
Space races and space battles at a whole new level of color and authenticity especially the asteroid field in the Prisoners of Maw level. This game really takes the GameCube technology out for a ride. Not too much educational content, but it is the closest game yet to navigate the far reaches of deep space. Rated T.
3. "Pikmin" (Nintendo)
This unusual game is the brainchild of legendary game developers, Shigeru Miyamoto. He dreamt it up while watching his garden through the window. You play a spaceman stranded on an odd, but dangerous world. The little gumdrop characters called Pikmin will help you find your missing ship parts so you can return home. The universe you navigate is colorful and lush with a range of puzzles that are just enough fun to be both challenging and satisfying. Rated E.
"NFL2K3," "NCAA2K3," "NBA 2K2," "Soccer Slam" (Sega)
This is a machine that works really well with sports titles, and all of these titles play well. There's lots of action, and most are modeled on the real games and athletes. "Soccer Slam" takes the game into a no-holds barred arena of fantasy sports play, which is fun to play as well as watch. Rated E.
"Final Fantasy X" (Square/EA)
Universally regarded as the best role-playing game available, this latest installment in the popular franchise has players excited by the graphics ("awesome"), the deepened story lines, and the character's personalities becoming more fully rounded. Rated T
6. "Madden NFL 2003" (EA)
The entire Madden series has gotten what most players call an elegant refinement by now. The characters move well, the game play is smooth, and for football lovers, this is the franchise to play. Rated E
7. "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3" (Activision)
Another popular franchise that just gets better in terms of smoothness of game play, variations on the course, and sophistication of the controls. Rated T
8. "FIFA: Soccer 2002" (EA)
While not perfect for the smaller screen, this is a popular and fast-paced game for the kids on the go. Rated E
9. "Puyo Pop" (THQ)
A classic puzzle game, this is a series of challenges and mazes to complete before you get back home. Rated E
10. "Neverwinter Nights" (Bioware, Atari)
The latest online role-playing game that has generated a remarkable following in the few months since its release this summer. It builds on two classic games, "Dungeons and Dragons" and "Forgotten Realms." Fantastic graphics, sophisticated movement, and interaction over the Internet guarantee that the latest installment in this world building gameplay will have a large and dedicated fanbase for some time to come. Rated T
"Dora the Explorer, Backpack Adventure"
An edutainment title, this Nick Jr. collaboration brings songs, games, and early reading in Spanish and English as well as gameplay. Rated EC
"Backyard Baseball 2003"
Kids can create their own teams and game areas and begin to learn real sports action. Rated E
"Blues Clues Preschool"
The title says it all, another Nick Jr. collaboration starring the TV character. This is a good edutainment title for the preschool set. Rated EC
"Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius" (THQ)
Another collaboration with the TV channel, Nickelodeon, this fun game features the movie and TV character Jimmy using his brilliance to solve the many problems of his day. Rated E
"Lilo & Stitch"
A fun offshoot of the film, this takes you through Hawaii with the two main characters, from the Waikiki trails to Area 626 as well as a hula lesson. Rated E
* The New Media monthly column will include regular reviews of some of the latest interactive games, DVDs, and accessories.