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What's in store for 'Generation Next'?

Digital divide, new gadgets to play a role

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Headline News

A girl plays with Leapfrog's LeapPad at the 2002 PlayDate Toy Fair in New York.

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HLN Hotwired

(CNN) -- Going back to school has become as much about PCs and processors as it has been about textbooks and times tables.

This observation comes as no surprise to returning students who make up "Generation Next." But some children are being left behind, staring across a gap known as the "digital divide."

These children may lack access to high-tech devices at home or at school because of financial restraints, or they simply may not be able to understand how the technology works or applies to their lives.

But some analysts aren't convinced that technology will act as a panacea to help kids learn.

Omar Wasow runs Community Connect, a Web site that brings together African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos. He believes the digital divide has narrowed slightly in the past few years, partly due to a heavy influx of gadgets and lower prices.

Wasow says he is more concerned with the "literacy divide," meaning that young children need to get hooked on reading and writing before they learn to type or surf the Web.

"We need to figure out why our public education system is failing to ignite the learning process in some of the poorest students," Wasow tells HotWired. "When it comes to education, people want silver bullets, they want magic tools, and technology sure looks like that magic bullet to a lot of people."

Wasow cautions that parents or teachers can get too caught up in the technology without establishing a basic level of understanding.

"You can teach someone to use Excel, but if they don't know a thing about math in the first place, then it's not a very useful tool," Wasow says.

So what can parents do to balance computing with the classics?

Warren Buckleitner, an editor at Children's Software Revue, tells HotWired that even beginning at age 3, children can use devices that help bring them into "Generation Next" without skipping the essentials.

A cross-section of gadgets designed to help with learning phonics, identifying objects and reading have the power of a PC with the look of a book.

Buckleitner recommends laptop-style machines like Leapfrog's LeapPad and Fisher-Price's PowerTouch. He says they're operated with touch technology, powered by batteries and offer ways to grow with a child. Both are priced under $50, with additional costs for accessories and more software.

Buckleitner adds that these devices are durable and offer an alternative to kids using traditional computers, meaning parents also won't have to worry about junior destroying a valuable document.

To summarize today's lesson: According to some experts, the phrase "reading, writing, 'rithmetic" may sound quaint by today's standards, but in many ways, it still applies.

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