With the onslaught of students opting for online research and leaving the reference books to collect dust on the library shelves, many parents are left to wonder: Do computers limit students by making good old-fashioned research in books obsolete? Or do they help students to learn by providing access to a worldwide classroom?
Jeff Gordon, father of a 15-year-old girl, shares that he began to feel that a computer was a necessity when the computer became "a timesaver. When the writing homework increased, we soon became aware that a computer with Microsoft Office was going to knock off a half-hour from her homework time. Handwriting or using a typewriter doesn't cut the mustard." Gordon also runs "I Want an Education," a career-related blog for teens and young adults who are looking for educational and social answers. "Ultimately, when the teacher gives homework assignments that include the use of a computer, then it's time."
Hafiz Norhashim, a developer for Gnowledge, an online depository for test papers, believes that children who are 8 or older benefit greatly from access to the Internet. "Children who use the Internet can also benefit from potentially better time management, as looking up resources online is fast and simple and is certainly useful, although supervision is recommended," he says. "Using technology can certainly be speedier than their local library, for instance, and can give them a level of interactivity after school hours beyond typical homework assignments and reading textbooks." He adds that the most effective use of the Internet for learning is when teachers assign specific projects and oversee the results.
Computers for Youth, a national program that seeks to provide computers for low-income students, uses sixth grade as a pivotal time because "children begin to disengage from academics, parents begin to feel less capable of helping with increasingly complex homework assignments, and academic achievement begins to decline."
Vickie Smith, president of the publishing company Ark Essentials, doesn't concur that children need their own computers until they are ready for college, but she does agree that younger school-age children need access to a home computer. "As long as kids are still at home, a desktop is the most cost-effective, durable and practical solution," says Smith, who has a background in education and home-schooled her own children until the demands of her business interfered.
Adult student Harry Hawk, who is dyslexic, provides an interesting perspective about the advantages of computers for students. "I got my first computer in 1979 when I entered college. Before that, it was very hard for me to write papers. One teacher in fifth grade allowed me to submit reports by tape recorder."
Hawk, who has two master's degrees, explains: "For a student like me who has trouble copying information, a corrected paper that has to be rewritten or retyped means more mistakes because each new copy introduces new mistakes. With a word processor, you just change the parts that are bad, and though that can introduce some errors, it doesn't create errors in the good text." Hawk says that for students like him, the earlier the access to computers the easier the learning can be.
If you don't have any personal experience in purchasing a computer, ask a friend who is knowledgeable to help you. You'll need to understand terms such as processing speed and RAM and what operating system to use. Also, determine whether a desktop or a laptop is right for you and your student. College students enjoy the portability of a laptop, but you have to consider the screen size and accessibility to peripherals, such as printers. Consider your budget. You should be able to find desktops starting at $400; laptops cost slightly more. Maintenance and service on laptops are generally more expensive, as well. The big question to ask yourself is: What do you want your computer to do?