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May 31, 2007

What Tech Gadgets do K-8 Grade Students Need?

Computer2 I received an email from the website Back2School2007 asking for some input regarding what technology K-8 grade students need. My oldest is a 2nd grader (and my twins are in preschool) so I was very interested to look into what the future holds. I thought that being a techie mom would mean that I have all the knowledge to help my son with his primary school technology needs. I was very surprised to find out that even I have much to learn.

My citizen journalistic investigation centered on technology needs for students K-8. I have to add that, being a mom with three young boys, my time and resources were limited. I decided to talk to kids, parents and some technology professionals from my son's Silicon Valley (CA) school district as a good start. If I were a real reporter, I would be able to spend some time looking at the relevant Pew Internet Studies, talk to students, teachers and school districts around the country and understand the digital divide between students that have computers at school and those that don't. So please forgive me if my findings are not balanced. I am hoping that the blogosphere will fill in the details with their own experiences.

Findings from a typical Silicon Valley School District:

SUMMARY: In Silicon Valley the age range of the "tweens" phase starts at 8 and goes to 13. It is the tween phase when kids really start becoming interested in computers, MP3 players, and using the Internet. Although some do start earlier. So if the question is brought up asking if a K-8th grader really needs their own computer or cell phone, the answer is "no". They have access to school computers and many parents are with their children when not at school so why would they need cell phones? But at what age do K-8 graders use computers and cell phones? In Silicon Valley, Kindergartners are using computers at school and home. By 6th grade most students have their own cell phones and are using computers for school and homework. This has filtered down to even 3rd graders benefiting from doing projects online or with word processing/spreadsheet software. Computers and the internet have become part of the social fabric for kids starting even in 1st grade. Wow.

WHAT TECHNOLOGY KIDS ARE USING AT THEIR K-8 GRADE CLASSES: Some kids/classes will start using technology earlier or later so this is a general guideline.

Starting in 1st grade, schools with computer labs allow children to spend time creating pictures on computers. In second grade students start to do research for projects using the school computer lab. Before third grade they are allowed to store files on the school's hard drive related to the work they are doing in a computer lab. In 4th grade, the school tech office creates private (password protected) folders for students to store their work. I have heard some students using word processing or spreadsheet software for school projects as early as 3rd grade but defintely by 4th.

By 6th grade, students are asked to bring USB flash drives to school to store homework.  The suggested size is 1GB for the USB drive. Students will also be required to type or make presentations so word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software on a family computer and some training would be very helpful at that time. The local school computers have the Microsoft Office Suite (Word for word processing, Excel for spreadsheets and Powerpoint for presentations).  Some projects will allow the children to create their own websites, iMovies or other online media as the assignment. It is also helpful for students to know how to use email before 6th grade so they can send email attachments to their home account if needed. Or send a copy of their homework to their email account so they can access it at school if needed.

Cell phones are allowed but most schools have a policy that the phones must not be used (including texting) during class.

All schools have wireless networks and each teacher has their own computer in the class. Each school has from 2-6 carts (the 6-8th grade classes usually have around 6 carts) that have a limited amount of laptops that can be used for special projects in the class. Some classrooms have smartboards and projectors. This effort will be growing with the goal of having all classrooms in the future with that technology.  High speed Internet capabilities for teachers are necessary as they are now using video and online assessment strategies, blogs and wikis.

WHAT TECHNOLOGY KIDS HAVE FOR PERSONAL USE:

CELL PHONES: From talking to the neighborhood kids in middle school, most kids they know have cell phones by 6th grade. Many of the parents say they gave their kids cell phones to help reach them to arrange pick-ups and drop offs. Working parents especially find it useful to communicate with their kids using cell phones. One parent said that kids talked non-stop on their cell phones during carpool, so they had to administer a "no cell phone" rule in the car. Other parents said that their kids use texting as their main form of communication.  Lessons learned from the parents I talked to are:

  1. Discuss a contract with your child ahead of time in regards to how the phone should be used. Make sure they know that the bill will be reviewed each month and privileges taken away if the phone is abused. Ask your child if they are interested in texting or calling and choose a plan together. Monitor that plan each month to see if it is a good fit. CNET has a section with reviews of shared family cell phone plans , Cell Phone Buying Guide and reviews of cell phones for kids.  MSNBC has an article on "Best Cell Phones for Kids".  I looked at interesting kid centric phones liked the Kajeet.
  2. Be careful to decline the games and extras (i.e. daily jokes sent to the phone). That can rack up extra charges each month.
  3. Some kids will shut off their cell phones because they know their parents are trying to call or monitor them.  No parent I talked to had tried any of the phone/GPS systems. One article in Computerworld on location based services had a comment asking that kids could leave phones at friends houses in the OK zone to fool parents so are they really necessary?  A Washington Posts article even used the term "Big Mother is Watching".

COMPUTERS/LAPTOPS: After talking to the tech staff from the school district, I realized that children do not need access to a computer at home until 6th grade (assuming they have access at school). This is a great argument for all children to have access to computers at school. The question for parents is if they want their children to have experience with a computer at an earlier age and utilize the resources of the web. Most children I know start using a computer around Kindergarten to play simple online games.

INTERNET ACCESS: In Silicon Valley I talked to families with kids in elementary school that have their own blogs, are already programming in basic and older kids that have videos on YouTube. Other parents said that they wanted their child to have experience using Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint, and Word before 4th grade to prepare them for class projects, but limited access to the internet until they were in 6th grade. So, by giving your child access to the internet on a home computer, what are you giving them access to and how will they use it?

My son had a strong interest in using a computer starting in 2nd grade, where it became part of the social experience because all of his friends also had computers. I gave my son our old laptop with internet controls. He has access to web search using KidsClick.org and Google SafeSearch as well as educational game websites like funbrain and scholastic.com. We also have fun doing research for my son's class projects online. To prepare for the second grade history exploration into the life of a cowboy, we went online to the National Cowboy Museum Children's site. The section with printables had cowboy quizzes, puzzles and more. But he is already trying to work around my parental controls, figured out how to watch DVD's using iTunes and videos using Google Search (YouTube was blocked but not Google Videos), all without any instructions from his mom or dad.

I recently had the chance to do a Q&A with Anastasia Goodstein, who wrote the book "Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online". This section from her book summed up today's wired tweens (and teens):

"What's different about today's totally wired teens is that the viral and public nature of these new technologies has magnified and publicized, though not changed, what is means to be a teen. Instead of gossiping with a friend and having it travel telephone style through your school, that gossip can now travel through several schools and include mean pictures posted on a website. The once solitary act of writing in a diary has become a public form of what can be at times deeply personal expression."

I also found an interesting article from CNET Digital Kids:"A New Crop of Kids: Generation We".

WHAT TYPE OF COMPUTER?: After parents decide if they want their kids to have access to a computer, the next step is to decide on what type of computer the child should have. In Silicon Valley, many kids have hand me downs or use the desktop family computer until they get to college.  For those households with a wireless network, laptop use for older kids may be a good alternative to allow them to work in different rooms of the house. For any children with laptops or desktops, parental controls are a must. It is important that all parents understand how to keep their kids safe online. Especially if the family computer has a webcam. Overall,  For K-8 grade and highschool students a desktop may be the best choice because they are the most economical and harder to lose or steal. CNET reviews also has a listing of the many budget desktop computers  and laptops avaliable.  About.com discussed Back to School PC's. Fedex Kinko's computer rentals are a good alternative for those who want intermitent use of a computer.

For details on the currents products out in the stores, read my post titled "Mom In A Minivan Goes to Shop for Kids' PCs and Cell Phones".

Many students will alsoCalcuator2 need access to a printer.  Some other tech gadgets mentioned by the kids I talked to were a electronic dictionary and Pods/MP3 players (not a need but everyone seems to want one). No one mentioned the one tool I used in primary school: a calculator.  Oh, does anyone use a calculator anymore?

Related Links:
Clicking with Children: Computers and Young Children, PBS.org
Common Sense Media website reviews.
"Is tech Injurining children?", Keeping Your Kids Safe Online,  CNET

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