I definitely have a steep learning curve when it comes to new technology. I finally got a digital camera a year ago, and that was only after being laughed at by a teenage drugstore employee when I asked if the store still sold film. I am still rocking an aging Blackberry for a cell phone. It's not smart (the phone or me).
But I can't bury my head in the sand, because my kids are going to need me to have at least a minimal understanding of what's available for them. Not for their entertainment and social purposes so much, but for their education.
Our school division, York County, is one of a growing number locally and nationwide that are introducing "Bring Your Own Technology/Devices" (BYOT or BYOD) programs. In York, students from 5th grade on now are allowed to bring in certain approved personal electronic devices for academic use in the classrooms. Teachers get to decide when and where they're in operation, and there are plenty of rules and restrictions about how kids can use them at school. Yet the possibilities seem to be ever-increasing.
From what I could tell, only a minority of my son's 5th grade classmates brought in eReaders for a pilot program this past spring. Those students used the devices to read books when they finished regular classroom work with time to spare.
However, I've talked to some kids at the middle school level, and they say iPod Touch, smartphone and occasionally tablets are increasingly finding their way into the classroom. One of my son's older friends, a rising 8th grader, has used his smartphone to research a range of topics and create electronic flash cards for his history class. He also looked up definitions for words in his French class. At one out-of-state high school I read about, teachers were letting students text reactions to a book and projecting the comments on the wall for everyone to see. What a great idea for shy kids.
Obviously, what a parent should consider for purchase depends on individual kids, school policies and finances (note: schools say they will build a stash of devices for everyone to use, and will never require a student-owned device for any assignment, so that low-income kids won't be left out).
But is there at least some general advice that can help us weed through everything?
Recently, I went to Best Buy and talked to some school technology experts to get a short tutorial on what are the basic choices for parents for BYOT/D. Here are the consensus groupings: smartphones, small portable devices such as iPod Touch, tablet computers (iPad being the most popular), eReaders and, to a lesser extent, laptops. There are lots of choices within those categories when it comes to brands, prices and features.
Laptops are great because they can run full operating systems such as Microsoft Office Suite and Windows. However, they're often more expensive and way bulkier than other options and can get a little heavy for kids to carry. Maybe not so great for BYOT/BYOD... which is why most schools don't expect to see a whole lot of them, especially at the middle school level.
Tablets are lighter and can still run a range of applications. Students can put their agendas and notes on them, cutting down on paper clutter, and also download textbooks. "Definitely, tablets are more popular to bring to school than laptops," says Alexis Ford, mobile sales lead for Best Buy's Newport News location. "They're much more simple to use, and they crash less often." Apple and Android products are most in demand, she adds.
EReaders such as Kindle Fire and Nook are marketed as similar to tablets, but they have a smaller processor compared to high-end tablets. That means they will slow down over time and don't offer as many options for applications, Ford says. The upside is that they're significantly less expensive ($199 or less, often, compared to what can be hundreds more for a tablet). Still, saving money upfront may not pay off in the long term. "Parents often will come in wanting an eReader, but when they tell us what they want to do and what the school wants them to do, they decide to upgrade to a tablet," Ford says.
An eReader can be great for simply encouraging kids to read more at school and home, especially reluctant readers, says Bill Johnsen, director of instructional technology for Virginia Beach Public Schools. "They have 'extras' like letting kids highlight text, or neat read-aloud functions," he says. "Those things can really draw kids into books."
Then there are the smaller devices, iPod Touch and smartphones. Both can do a lot in terms of assisting with online research, running applications and allowing kids to update assignments and notes. With an approximately 4-inch screen compared to a 7- or 10-inch tablet screen, they can get painful to use, with lots of zooming and scrolling to see text and images.
Yet, as Johnsen points out, many kids don't mind the small screen. The devices also are highly portable and -- since kids want cell phones anyway -- somewhat of a "kill two birds with one stone" deal. In fact, York County's recent survey of what kind electronic devices are coming to schools found smartphones and iPods were easily the two most common at both the middle and high school levels.
James Maxlow, supervisor of instructional technology and innovation for Newport News Public Schools, says a smartphone could be "slightly more useful than a tablet in terms of 'bringing it to school', but not necessarily for working at home." Ideally, he says, a student also would have a general-use computer and broadbend Internet at home, in the form of a desktop or laptop, although of course not all families can afford it.
Asked for very basic general advice, Ford says this: "In elementary or middle, I feel you can most likely get away with a 7-inch eReader. By high school, I feel like a larger tablet is the way to go." And my saavy 8th-grade source says this: "Most of my friends use the smartphone. They work really well for school." I guess we all just have to shop around, talk to our kids' schools and ask lots of questions.
So what does my son have? At the moment, an iPod Touch. We don't have any plans to upgrade yet, but it's good to know a little more about what's out there -- assuming it doesn't change too quickly. I'll just have to keep fighting to keep up.