This is a post in Back To School, an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers technology trends in education for parents and educators.
Never before have teens been so tech-driven, and educators desperate to connect with them have noticed. What's more, they're responding. Creative learning formats and tablet-based curricula have been picking up steam in high schools across the country.
The challenge for parents, particularly those who have struggled to balance the kids' tech usage at home, is equipping them with the right tools for school. So now, as the fall semester gets underway, let's take a look at what high school students need to succeed in this changing educational landscape.
High Schools Are Growing Up
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to make changes to a funding program, granting $2.3 billion so schools and libraries can update telecommunications and equipment. It will take time before that takes shape, but it's a sign that yesterday's schools are gearing up for today's technologies.
In fact, the whole notion of "classroom" is undergoing a metamorphosis.
One educational tech trend taking hold is the flipped classroom, where pupils stream multimedia lectures at home and do what used to be "homework" in school among tutors and peers.
One of the most well-known programs comes from the Google-backed Khan Academy, a non-profit educational site that offers online learning via streaming videos. The academy, which started with a pilot project in Los Altos, Calif., now extends to more than 30,000 classrooms all over the globe.
Another major movement revolves around iPads. Tablet-based learning may not be ubiquitous yet, but they have been attracting attention among an increasing number of teachers and administrators, and last year, tablets trumped laptops among high school students. Meanwhile, in places like Las Vegas' Clark County and other school districts, BYOD ("bring your own device") strategies gain popularity.
Of course, not all schools have tech initiatives, but for those that do, mere backpacks, notebooks and pencils won't cut it. And even for those that don't, there are still some key tools that can give teens a leg up in class.
The Lowdown On Tech for High School
Classes, schools and school districts vary. Some schools focus on laptops, while others require tablets. It's important to find out if there are any hardware requirements before making any purchasing decisions.
In general, if you have have a family desktop PC, a tablet can supplement that well. In fact, iPads seem to be all the rage in secondary schools these days. That may make Apple's tablet look like the obvious choice, and if there's a hardware mandate, then it clearly is. But if cost matters, consider an Android tablet. Options like the stylus-enabled Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and Google's Nexus 7 have lower price tags, deliver excellent screen resolution and offer plenty of educational apps. For eBooks and streaming or Web browsing, an Amazon Kindle Fire HD is a bargain option.
If your student lacks a full-fledged computer, a laptop is the savvy choice for the portability. For seniors, invest in an ultrabook like a Macbook Air or Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. Although they're more expensive, these are lightweight devices that he or she can take to college—and schlep between dorms and numerous far-flung university classes—next year.
Juniors and younger students, for whom the load may not matter as much, less expensive offerings like the Dell Latitude 3330 will work well. This model features a fine-tuned touchpad and curved keyboard, but goes for roughly half the price of an advanced ultrabook.
As for smartphones, they may seem like a social tool more than a study aid, but consider this: A high schooler's academic success can also hinge on peer communication. Not only can they look up important class info or research at will, but smartphones also help them stay organized on the fly and connect easily with tutors, research buddies and study groups.
Some kids may need parental guidance or oversight, but this could be an educational opportunity. After all, learning how to manage technology use during these formative years could be an important life lesson.
At this point, Android and iOS—the two dominant platforms—have both developed into mature eco-systems with robust app stores. So the handset or even platform choice may not matter as much as the calling, texting or data plans that go with them. The best option: For heavy texters or data users, you'll want unlimited plans. Or, for an affordable option, consider a phone on a prepaid plan. Your teen could even take partial or full responsibility for funding it.
Smart Apps For Smart Students
When it comes to hardware, there are plenty of deals this time of year. To go along with them, there are plenty of apps that can help that student graduate to academic rock star.
- Flash Cards: Flashcards by Brainscape (iOS) and AnkiDroid Flashcards (Android) let students easily quiz themselves on a variety of topic and course material.
- Calculator: PocketCAS Lite (iOS) and Graphing Calculator (Android) offer calculator for advanced mathematics classes.
- Homework Planner: Studious (iOS and Android) organizes big exams, homework and project deadlines. The app offers alerts for events, and when classes are in session, even silences the phone.
- Study guide: Some kids may use SparkNotes (iOS and Android) summaries so they can skip reading assignments, but they also provide very handy study guides for class material. The developer also offers SparkNotes Test Prep for SAT and ACT.
- Biology: Frog dissection is a quintessential experience for high school biology classes. With the Froguts app (iOS and Android) virtual frog dissection, students can benefit from interactive 3-D anatomical simulations, audio and text cues that boost comprehension.
Although schools with splashy tech-forward programs get headlines these days, the truth is, plenty of high schools still depend on traditional textbook education. But even in these environments, consumer technology offers teenagers an advantage, one that extends beyond academics.
Call it a glimpse of the future, but society will only become more connected as time goes on. Familiarizing today's students with the technologies they might advance in the future can help prepare them for the real world. And, in turn, it gives the world its best chance at welcoming its future visionaries.