There’s an App for That—But Do You Want It?

It’s been a few years since I stocked up on notebooks and trapper keepers, but every September I find myself reminiscing about the excitement involved in going back to school. Maybe it was the whirlwind of shopping for new clothes, the thrill of seeing old friends and meeting new ones or the curiosity of what the new year might bring.

But I think a lot of my excitement revolved around getting new school supplies.

There was something so satisfying about filling up a brand new backpack with fresh ink pens, newly sharpened pencils and crisp notebooks. I loved getting textbooks for each class, thumbing through them to see who’d owned them in the past, the little thrill of excitement I’d get when I discovered that someone had filled in half of the answers in the algebra chapter.

But I’m starting to think that today’s school-aged children have a very different experience. TIME recently ranked the top ten back-to-school iPhone applications, including features like CourseSmart, which enable users to view more than 7,000 textbooks right from their handset. So much for the days of covering books in old newspaper to avoid damaging them and incurring your teachers’ wrath! Evernote is another app on TIME’s list that allows users to synchronize notes, photos and voice memos from their iPhone to the Web, to be archived and accessed at a later date. What about the flurry of writing down every word your teacher says at lightening speed, and then going back later and trying to decipher your scribbles?

In keeping with this technology trend Cushing Academy, a prep school here in Massachusetts, recently decided to dismantle their traditional library in favor of a digital version. The school plans to replace their collection of nearly 20,000 books with three flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet onto laptop friendly study carrels. James Tracey, headmaster of the school, told the Boston Globe, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls…” Opponents of the plan worry that digitizing books in this manor will present a host of challenges, including the possibility that students will have trouble focusing on long works with the constant interruptions presented by e-mail, IM and various other apps on their devices.

Given how digitized our world has become, it’s not surprising that technology plays a much larger role in the lives of today’s school-aged children than those of previous generations. But I wonder if they’re missing out on something?

Are school-related smartphone applications and digital libraries simply the next step in the digital revolution or, in our technology-crazed world, are we overlooking an important component? I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad that I went to school in the age of fresh pens, crisp notebooks and libraries that housed books.

-Contributed by Kate Finigan. Follow her on Twitter @PRKateFin