|About this time of the year I get a few requests from parents of high-school students for recommendations on computers and/or calculators. Generally these will be graduation gifts to high-school seniors who are planning on enrolling in a collegiate engineering program in the fall.|
I often do respond to these requests with some actual suggestions. However, over the years I have been teaching I’ve seen some interesting trends. The differences between computers are less important now. The differences in how they are used are more important.
Back in the 1980′s if students used computers it usually meant that they had to learn how to do some programming in a language like BASIC, or at least how to use a command-line operating system like DOS. That taught lessons in algorithms and logic. In this sense using a computer correlated with improved grades in some courses, like computer programming courses. With the introduction of WIMP computing in the 1990′s these advantages disappeared. Spending time with computers then served mainly to develop computer literacy. With the introduction of internet social networking applications like Facebook, MySpace, MSN and You Tube, the tables have turned further. Now spending time with computers is correlated with lower academic grades. Don’t believe me? Check out this and this and this.
What really matters is how the computer is used. If it is used with discernment to search out and find quality information or to run simulations or calculations that relate to actual work at hand, then a computer is an asset. When the computer is used too much for social networking, social e-mail, games, watching movies, and general internet surfing, then the computer represents something more like an addiction and the result is lower grades. (One hour a day for this type of recreation is the guideline we have settled on in our family.)
OK, lets get to the bottom line. . . Should you get a new computer with XP Media Edition or XP Professional, or Vista, or OS X, or Linux or what? Should it be a laptop or a desktop model? How many giga-gallons or what-have-you of memory should it have? How many bazillion-flops should it be capable of? Although some choices are better than others, the former distinctions now pale compared to the importance of using the computer wisely and avoiding temptation. Don’t get your head too busy with the wrong stuff!