What sort of electronic device do 6th graders really need?

Some folks have asked me what sort of electronic device does a 6th grader really need.  I can give you some insights from what I’ve seen while helping out with two FIRST Lego League teams, and the experience my son had hosting a Minecraft game server (bottom line: get a real laptop).


FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an organization founded by Dean Kamen to promote kids’ interest in science, technology and math.  The organization hosts annual team competitions that involve a Lego Mindstorms robot competition and a team presentation.  It’s a great experience.  Besides physically building and programming a robot to perform missions, the teams do a lot of online research and typically design posters, brochures, and their own T-shirts.  Every one of these activities is greatly aided by having a laptop.  In fact, at team meetings, we usually wish we had more, especially for programming.  In contrast, we have never used a tablet.*


Similarly, the 3-D world building game Minecraft is a huge hit among elementary and middle school kids.  You can explore different virtual environments, build structures, and you can even use something called redstone to create the equivalent of electronic circuits.  There is a simplified tablet version of the game but, because of the limitations of a touch interface, using a full-fledged computer is a much better experience.  As with most computer games, a keyboard and mouse (or game controller) give you much greater control, and there are many features that don’t exist on the tablet version.  In fact, on a computer you can host an actual Minecraft server and invite your friends to play in a world of your own creation.

Don’t get me wrong — I love my iPad.  I use it to read books, keep up with the news, and play the occasional game with my kids.  The touch interface is often a delight.  But if you want to do something real, the first tool you need — even at 6th grade — is a laptop.  The second device, especially if your child is over 12 and has a lot of after school activities or often rides a bus, is a phone.  And a tablet –as fun as they are — would be third.

[Update:  some readers have pointed out that Microsoft’s Surface is a great combination of laptop and tablet.  I think the Surface is getting there, but it’s still not quite right.  Windows 8 in particular is not an intuitive interface.  Technical note: the main thing that an iPad lacks is mouse-based interactions, since you can add a keyboard.]

(cross posted with ipadsfor6thgrade.wordpress.com)

*Clarification:  We haven’t used tablets for content creation, but they do get used as display devices at competitions.

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