Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Youths say they can’t live without their computers

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The only computer in the Atkinson household has a sign posted with the dos and don’ts of its use. Schoolwork first, e-mail and instant messaging later. Homework assignments get priority if more than one Atkinson child in the Silver Spring family asks to use the computer.

Jacob Atkinson, 11, said that while students have computer time in the labs at school or in the library, it was assumed by most of his teachers at Silver Spring International Middle School that students have computers and Internet access at home.

‘‘Most of the time I have to use the computer for school things... it’s almost always homework,” the seventh-grader said. ‘‘It would be tougher to do homework without it.”

Computer and Internet access in the home have become a minimum among middle and high school students, who say they have more expected of them in a more technologically literate generation. About 66 percent of children aged 3 to 17 who had computers at home used them to do their homework, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data in 2003.

‘‘It’s just something that a lot of kids grew up with, and something they’re more exposed to,” said 15-year-old Malik Smith, a sophomore at Springbrook High School.

But what about the multi-functional cell phones, the iPods and personal digital assistants, the calculators that now come with games or the online social networks? Don’t these things, now marketed as note-taking tools or devices that make doing homework more convenient, become distracting?

The kids say no.

‘‘Not automatically... not if you can manage all of it,” said Smith, whose mother, Yasmin Anderson-Smith, forbids him and his younger brother Khalil from joining social networking Web sites and limits instant messaging on the home computer. ‘‘I try to do all my homework first, and then goof off as much as I want afterwards,” he added.

Silver Spring resident Ben Elkind, a 16-year-old senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said that now that students are accustomed to having the Internet and the latest gadgets at their disposal, it would a ‘‘massive inconvenience” to go without it all.

‘‘I’m usually on the computer three to four hours a day doing something,” he said, adding that it was inconvenient to use the computer at the library, where visitors are only allowed to sign up for 30 minutes at a time.

Bryan Hurley, who has worked as an agent with the Gaithersburg Best Buy’s ‘‘Geek Squad” for 10 years, said some of the new gadgets available can help students focus rather than distract. An iPod can muffle outside noises in a loud household, for example. The music players are even used by some classrooms as a way to download lectures or homework assignments, or as voice recorders to make taking notes more convenient.

‘‘Of course, kids can go back and forth between the notes and their music,” Hurley said of the new iPods.

But an increased reliance on new technologies includes some pitfalls. Scott DeGasperis, the magnet coordinator at Takoma Park Middle School, said the school’s media specialists — formerly ‘‘librarians” — have focused on workshops dealing with the proper citation of Internet sources. The school offers subscription databases of Web sources hand-picked by the staff to steer students away from ‘‘just Googling their topics,” he said.

Khalil Smith, Malik’s 13-year-old brother, has already questioned that particular search engine’s motives.

‘‘The first links that usually come up on it are by money, not always by information, or what’s most useful,” said Khalil, an eighth-grader at Takoma Park Middle School.

Darien Carr, a seventh-grader at White Oak Middle School, said his teachers pass out sheets with appropriate Web sites to visit for research projects. The 12-year-old uses the computers at his Silver Spring home most for e-mail or to improve his Spanish, he said. One Web site he frequents provides crossword puzzles in Spanish that help him with his vocabulary.

‘‘The great thing about the Internet is that it’s made information easily accessible and a benefit to all of us... and kids are very adept at tapping into that,” DeGasperis said. ‘‘Sometimes, the older generation, when they don’t understand something, they’re afraid of it.”

Teachers also use sites like turnitin.com, which enables them to run students’ papers through a system that checks for plagiarism. Elkind said his English teachers have required him to submit his papers to the site.

‘‘The whole digital world has made copy and paste so much easier,” DeGasperis said, citing Wikipedia.org, which can be edited by the public, as one of the most popular sites students crib from.

Still, Suraya Mohammed Carr, Darien’s mother, said kids have little choice but to move forward as technology does.

‘‘You pretty much have to have at least a computer now to be a student, for research, for help with your homework, to access your grades,” she said. ‘‘It’s almost like... a necessity.”

Homework thetech-savvy way

MP3 players and iPods can be used not only to listen to music, but hold downloaded textbook excerpts and voice-recorded notes as well.

Flash drives have replaced floppy disks for saving homework assignments and term papers.

Online Web sites such as www.wikipedia.org and www.dictionary.com have replaced trips to the library for research.

Some teachers allow students to use personal digital assistants, or PDAs, and laptops for taking notes.

Web sites run by providers such as Edline allow kids – and their parents – to check their grades or homework assignments from any computer with Internet access.