By Stephen H. Wildstrom
TECH & YOU PODCAST
With all the pressure to achieve that students must endure, parents jump at technology that claims to help kids do better in school. Little wonder it's a hot category for software publishers. Microsoft's (MSFT) back-to-school offering, Student 2006, is in this vein. But despite some nice features, parents would do better to spend the $100 on some books.
Student, which requires a DVD-equipped machine running Windows and Microsoft Office XP or 2003, comprises three main pieces. One is a collection of information resources that draws heavily on Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia. Another is a set of tools, called Learning Essentials for Office, designed to make Word, Excel, and PowerPoint easier to use for school chores. The third is a simulated graphing calculator for math and science projects.
The information resources are a mixed bag. Much of the Encarta material is available online from encarta.msn.com, though menus and toolbars make access easier on Student. Some of the content feels thrown together. For example, the English section offers quotations that you can browse by topic or author, but you can't search the text.
FUZZY TUTORIALS. Kids would be happier with a paper copy of Bartlett's, or better, the online version at www.bartleby.com. High school students, alas, will probably consider the most useful part of the English section to be the summaries of dozens of works of literature, a sort of condensed CliffsNotes. Each subject area includes an extensive list of encyclopedia articles. This is fine for younger children, but by the time students get to middle school they should be doing more serious research than looking up articles in an encyclopedia, online or otherwise.
Learning Essentials for Office also seems a hodgepodge. It has a handy feature for students of French or Spanish. Choose a language, and the program automatically converts the spell checker and other tools to it. This capability is a standard part of Office, but few users know about it. Learning Essentials also gives you a panel that lets you enter accented characters by clicking on them, and it provides quick access to a translating dictionary.
Another major feature is templates and tutorials designed to help students prepare PowerPoint presentations and written material, such as essays and lab reports. Most tutorials are too vague to be of much use, and all seem to begin with the self-evident advice: "Select a topic for the assignment." The templates give students a head start on pretty-looking reports, but I have heard complaints from parents and teachers that encouraging kids to get fancy, especially in PowerPoint, tempts them to focus on looks rather than content.
MORE, OR BETTER? The graphing calculator drove me crazy. It's nice enough as on-screen calculators go, but it has a fundamental problem: Most U.S. high schools base much of their math curriculum on the use of a specific calculator, typically the Texas Instruments TI-83 Plus or 84 Plus (TXN). If students do their homework on Microsoft's on-screen calculator, they not only will have to translate TI-specific instructions from school materials but also will not develop proficiency on the calculator they'll have to use when it's time to take the test.
Some programs leverage PC technology to truly benefit students. For example, SAS in Schools, sponsored by business-software company SAS Institute, gives students and teachers resources and tools tied to curriculum and state standards. Unfortunately, too much educational software seems designed to play on a public sense that any technology is good for students, and more must be better. Sadly, Student 2006 seems mostly to fall into that class. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org