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Kids Get Back to School With Portable Tech

As kids gear up to go back to school this year, backpacks may not only be filled with books and notepads, but with the latest cell phones, Palm Pilots, pagers and other personalized digital assistants (PDAs).

"The technology has just exploded as to what kids have available to them," said Mark Shoup, spokesman for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

From tracking homework assignments and grades to organizing schedules and phone numbers, Palm Pilots and PDAs have become as essential to the school experience as No. 2 pencils and ruled paper once were.

"Kids' lives are scheduled worse, or as badly, as ours," Shoup said. "They're just trying to keep their lives ordered."

Among the hottest new items is Handspring's $299 Treo 90, which company spokesman Brian Jaquet described as a "plain Jane organizer" with colored screens and other cool features, and Handspring's Visor organizer, which comes in multiple colors, and retails for $149.

And Motorola's V70 cell phone is expected to be all the rage this year. It works on next-generation networks, which offer faster Web access and a cool rotary design. The Nokia 9290 Communicator, which has older versions featured in spy movies like Golden Eye, is a phone/PDA combo with a sharp color screen and built-in keypad. Meanwhile, the Toshiba Pocket PC e310 is a thin, light product whose price -- $399 -- may be appealing to high school students.

And one can't forget Casio's Exilim EX-MI, which is the size of a tape cassette but is a compact digital camera that also plays MP3s and costs around $300.

But tech companies are also catering to other people in schools: teachers.

Palm has trained over 400 teacher trainers in 44 states on how they can use Palm Pilots in the classroom. Teachers are using them for everything from taking attendance to demonstrating how diseases are spread by having students "beam" things to each other.

"Its overall versatility has made it somewhat of a Swiss army knife for learning," said Mike Lorion, vice president of education for Palm.

But Lorion said integrating Palms into everyday teaching may take some getting used to.

"It's just like calculators were in the '70s," Lorion said. "The whole evolution always has, in some cases, its distracters from traditional methods."

And technology in the classroom is no exception. Many people cite the fact that popular devices can also be used to play games, send messages to friends and encourage goofing off.

And while schools are taking different approaches to how to handle this onslaught of portable gadgets, most are limiting their use in one way or another. Some schools don't allow the devices to be used during school hours, except in an emergency.

"In general, we try to discourage that type of thing," said Lonnie Palmer, superintendent of the Albany City School District in upstate New York. "Some of the kids might very well have something buried in their backpack. We don't go searching for it."

In Montgomery County, Md., the only gadget students are expected to bring to school is a graphing calculator. Items such as Palm Pilots, cell phones and laptops should be kept at home.

"There is no expectation that I'm aware of that students bring those or use those in the academic program," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association.

Besides their tendency to distract students, one reason the use of tech devices is limited is for safety. During emergencies, communication systems can be disrupted if, say, too many cell phones are used at the same time.

"You really need to have ... a well thought-out policy, mindful of the needs of students and parents," said Robert Melia, principal of Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y. "But that still allows you to provide a safe environment for students and staff."

But no matter what, portable technology is here to stay. The question is how will schools decide to integrate it, if at all.

According to Lorion, people at companies like Palm are trying to give kids technology that can replace some of the contents of their bulky book bags.

"Having a mobile solution that can do 80 percent of what a laptop can accomplish has proven to be very, very appealing," he said.