Tech Tools for Back-to-School

Technology has become a study tool that most students, particularly those in high school and beyond, can’t live without. In fact, 73 percent of students claimed they would not be able to study without using some form of technology, according to a survey last year by CourseSmart, a developer of eTextbooks and digital course materials. With that in mind, here are some picks for gadgets, websites and mobile apps that could help your children, from preschool through high school.


The new iPad: Still the one to beat among eReaders and tablets, Apple’s iPad is versatile, easy to use and easy on the eyes. You can download and read books through iBooks, as well as other eReading tools like the Kindle and Kobo apps. With a library of 225,000 apps and growing, students can access videos, note-taking tools and other study aids. There are WiFi-only models, as well as ones with cellular service for times when WiFi is spotty.

Pros: You can do just about anything with the iPad as you can with a laptop, from video conferencing to writing a paper. It also has the deepest lineup of apps. If you already have a Mac, iPhone or iTunes, it fits seamlessly into your electronics collection.

Cons: It can be expensive and fragile, particularly for younger children, unless you purchase a heavy-duty case. If you’re looking just to read books and periodicals, you may not need all the bells and whistles.

Cost: $499 and up Age: All

Nook Tablet: Barnes and Noble sells a series of Nook eReaders, including ones just for reading for as low as $99. The Nook Tablet adds the features that some have come to expect from portable devices, such as web browsing, mobile apps and video. The bookseller has a catalog of 2.5 million books and magazines, as well as the ability to download other content. It has also been aggressively going after the education market, featuring built-in study tools such as a dictionary, and promoting it among schools and libraries.

Pros: Nook Kids offers more than a thousand interactive children’s books, including ones that allow parents to record themselves reading a story aloud. If anything goes wrong, you can go to a Barnes and Noble store for tech support. You can also extend its storage capacity with a microSD card.

Cons: Unlike Amazon and Apple, Barnes and Noble doesn’t offer a catalog of videos. You can still download them, but it’s not as easy and requires third-party software. You can also stream videos, but that isn’t possible when you’re not connected to the Internet.

Cost: $199 and up Age: All


Kindle Fire: The Kindle Fire, introduced late last year, quickly became Amazon’s bestselling product. One of a line of Kindle products, the Kindle Fire allows you not only to read books, but also to listen to music and watch videos, all of which you can easily download from Amazon. You can also surf the web and check email. For college students, Amazon also offers Kindle Textbook Rental, which promises to reduce the cost of buying textbooks.

Pros: Amazon offers a wealth of digital content, with 20 million books, magazines, movies and television shows that can be easily accessed on the Kindle. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can borrow a book a month for free from a collection of 145,000 titles, including the entire Harry Potter series.

Cons: You are tied to Amazon’s marketplace. Your perks are limited if you’re not a member of Amazon Prime, which costs $79 a year. It is also reportedly looking to sell ads that will run on the device, though details are limited on just how.

Cost: $199 and up Age: All


Livescribe: Both a pen and a digital recorder, Livescribe records the audio as you’re jotting down your notes. If you want to go back and hear a portion of the recording, just tap on that section of your notes and it will play that portion back to you. You can also transfer your notes to Dropbox, email them to your friends or share them on Facebook. Students and educators make up about 30 percent of Livescribe’s users, according to founder Jim Marggraff.

Pros: A Livescribe-sponsored survey found that college students using the smartpen reported earning better grades.

Cons: In addition to the pen, you need to use special “dot” paper with the smartpen. The paper is available to print and download for free, but if you want it bound as a notebook, you will need to purchase it at a local retailer.

Cost: $119.95 and up Age: 14 and up

iTalk: If you have a smartphone, particularly an iPhone or an Android phone, then you can turn it into a digital recorder. Griffin Technology’s iTalk is just one of several digital recording apps for the iPhone.  If you have an iPod, you can also purchase its iTalk microphone, which attaches to the iPod and turns it into a digital recorder. For Android owners, there’s Tape-a-Talk Voice Recorder, among others. The basic version is free.

Pros: You don’t need to carry around an extra gadget to record a lecture or lesson. You already have your smartphone with you.

Cons: If you want to share the file easily, you will likely have to purchase the premium version. There is also a potential for error, such as receiving a call in the middle of a recording.

Cost: Free, $1.99 for premium app Age: 14 and up


Sony Digital Flash Voice Recorder: This small, handheld gadget allows you to push a button and record and play back memos, lectures and other audio. If you need additional memory, you can purchase a memory card. Hook it up to your computer and you can transfer and share the file. It’s simple, straightforward and no fuss. Sony’s recorder receives top marks from consumers and reviewers, making it a natural pick.

Pros: You don’t need to worry about draining the battery of your phone or purchasing extra accessories. Just hit record.

Cons: In this age of multitasking devices, do you need another gadget that does only one thing?

Cost: $59.95 Age: 14 and up


Rocket Math: A highly rated app that’s been featured in the New York Times, Rocket Math teaches math concepts such as even and odd numbers and square roots. Kids go on math missions – there are 56 – to earn coins and build a rocket ship that they can send into space. Once in space, they face additional challenges. It’s only available for the iPhone and iPad.

Pros: A fun and engaging way for young children to practice their math skills.

Cons: You’re out of luck if your child isn’t into the space theme.

Cost: 99 cents Age: 4 to 12

Wheels on the Bus: Developed by Duck Duck Moose, a Silicon Valley educational app maker, Wheels on the Bus continues to be a favorite among toddlers and preschoolers. Sing along to the tune and tap the screen to make the wipers go swish, swish, swish or the doors to go open and shut. Parents can also record themselves singing the song.

Pros: The interactive storybook will entertain your child in a crunch.

Cons: Once your toddler is hooked, there’s no going back.

Cost: 99 cents Age: 18 months and up

Flashcards: Sometimes it just takes repeated drilling to learn vocabulary words, key facts and figures and other details for class.

For that, there are several Flashcard apps for both the iPhone and Android, which allow you to create a deck of cards on your smartphone. You can also find apps with pre-made flashcards for particular subjects, such as SAT vocabulary words.

Pros: You can take your flashcards with you and study wherever you go.

Cons: Some users complain that it is too easy to delete a deck accidentally and that it is difficult to share flashcards with friends.

Cost: Free Age: 14 and up


Khan The Khan Academy is an online library of more than 166 million free video lessons, from basic addition and subtraction to advanced calculus. Students can watch and rewatch the videos until they grasp the concept, as well as practice the skills online.

Teachers and coaches can also monitor progress. It was founded by Sal Khan, who initially made the videos to help tutor his relatives, and has since been recognized by the likes of Bill Gates.

Pros: The videos are simple and easy to follow. If you’re practicing an equation and can’t figure it out, it directs you back to the video so you can rewatch it.

Cons: Though it has started to include the humanities, such as art history, it is still much more focused on math and science.

Cost: Free Age: Kindergarten and up Need inspiration for a paper on Shakespeare’s Othello? Shmoop breaks down the plot, characters, themes and other key points of the most commonly read literature. It also walks students through writing an essay, helping them brainstorm and organize their thoughts.

In addition to literature, Shmoop has added tutorials for algebra, biology, U.S. history, standardized tests and even music, which analyzes the lyrics, artists and its cultural significance. Who knew Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” had so much meaning?

Pros: If you have ever struggled to understand a piece of literature, this is the place to go for help. The site spells it all out in easy to understand English.

Cons: It’s text heavy. There are no videos or other visual aids to help. Its strength is in literature, though it continues to widen its focus.

Cost: Free Age: 12 and up

Dreambox Dreambox aims to teach math to young students by constantly assessing how much they understand and adapting the lesson and challenges to their level. Students logging into the online program explore an adventure park of math lessons, from counting to fractions. Dreambox is being increasingly used in schools, particularly some charter schools in Silicon Valley, but it also offers a package for parents. Among its directors is Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix.

Pros: The online program is customized for each student, so that students can learn at their own pace. It is designed like a game to help keep students engaged.

Cons: It costs upwards of $120 a year for a single student.

Cost: $12.95 per month per child Age: Kindergarten to 4th grade

Ellen Lee writes about technology for Bay Area Parent. 

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