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Parents Need a Back-to-School Checklist for Educational Technology

Parents Need a Back-to-School Checklist for Educational Technology

(ARA) - New clothes that strike a balance between appropriate and cool? Check. New school supplies that include the latest backpack style? Check. New ulcer caused by your teen’s impending first day of high school? Check mate. You may not be ready for it, but you’re pretty sure they are. You’ve raised them to appreciate an education, you’ve taught them everything you know and you’ve given them all the trappings of the 21st century teen. But have you given them an edge?

Technology has dramatically altered the classroom in the last decade, allowing students to achieve a deeper level of understanding of their schoolwork. The “calculator” you used, which probably offered a one line screen and had only basic math functionality, is now as antiquated as the abacus. There is a new breed of educational handheld devices more akin to handheld computers. They make the word “calculator” woefully inadequate to describe what is possible for your teen. This new technology is not a calculator at all, but closer to a portable and personal handheld computer. It leverages software algorithms and micro-technology and offers functions beyond mere mathematical calculation to enrich the learning experience across a spectrum of subjects. It gives a child the edge that the hippest clothes, the coolest school supplies and even a parent’s best intentions can’t provide.

But your VCR still flashes 12:00 a.m. You know as much about the latest technology as you do about the newest boy band. So how do you know you’ve given your child the best tool to succeed? What should you look for in an educational handheld? There are three elements to consider in the checklist for this back-to-school purchase: educational value, lifecycle and price.

Educational Value

Perhaps the most important factor in choosing an educational handheld device is the company that makes it. Are they focused on education? Some companies are marketing their business handhelds, or personal digital assistant (PDAs) as educational handhelds. However, these are often not created with the student, or learning, as the priority. The best devices are developed after rigorous research and testing with educators. Teachers should be involved in developing the products as they offer significant input on what capabilities are necessary to heighten the impact of the coursework. Teens are also often asked what they would like to see integrated into the handheld. The devices themselves are even tested in the school environment, having to survive a “crunch test” in a book bag that simulates the wear and tear the average teen can inflict. The best way to research a company to make sure it meets this educational criterion is by asking your child’s teacher or looking on the company’s Web site.

Another way to evaluate the educational value of these products is to look at the additional software applications that are offered. These applications extend the capabilities of a handheld device into different subject areas. Some companies, like Texas Instruments, have developed educational “apps” that are easily downloadable via computer from their Web site. Again, ask your student’s teacher what applications will be used in class, but also know that many apps can be used as student-driven study aids. They add functionality, flexibility and fun to the learning process, and top-of-the-line devices allow you to choose from an array of subjects.

Obviously, students still need the traditional math and science functions that allow them to explore equations for algebra, plot graphs, determine coefficients and perform the higher arithmetic functions, but many educational devices leave off there. There are, however, devices on the market, like the TI-83 Plus Silver Edition, that also enable students to graphically analyze data for biology, offer spreadsheet capabilities, and timelines for history, social studies, and other classes. It can even be used as a personal organizer to keep class schedules and important contact information. Educational handhelds like this can connect with computers for software app downloads as well as operating system upgrades that can further extend its usability through the school years.

Some devices even have capabilities to review electronic flash cards for any subject, including foreign languages. The best devices for learning are allowed for use on standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, and even required for some state exams. This gives your child a decided edge in the testing environment, as these are often the same tools they use in class.


A handheld’s “lifecycle,” or how long its technology is up to date, is another important factor when deciding on an educational device. Always check the applications. Do they cover a variety of educational subjects? Do they actually offer anything new that will help your child succeed? Beware of superficial changes and your child’s desire to simply have the coolest looking model, regardless of its value in the classroom.

The second thing to understand is that we live in an age of software. Downloads should be readily available at a company’s Web site and should offer a wide range of options that extend the use of the product through multiple subject areas and different educational levels.


Obviously this “lifecycle” is an important distinction when pricing handhelds, as is the educational value. This is an investment that you are making for your child’s future. A good handheld should take a student through three or four years of learning, with the average device costing between $100 and $150. When one thinks of the school supplies bought every year (remember those designer tennis shoes?), an educational handheld’s cost is negligible when spread out over its entire lifecycle.

Make sure you’re getting what you paid for. Does the device add value by delivering more apps across a wide spectrum of subjects? Was it developed with input from educators? Will it withstand the pressure between a chemistry and English book? Can they use it for standardized testing? Can the lifecycle be extended through downloads saving you multiple purchases?

As your teen begins his or her high school years, you can be confident that their learning experience will be enriched with the right educational handheld device. It is one more tool and one more edge you can give them as they enter that brave new world. As you look for the right device to fit your needs, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you now know more about educational handhelds than you ever thought you would. Boy bands and the clock on the VCR are still a mystery.

Information on TI products can be found at

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