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August 26, 2004

Virtual Addiction - Children's Edition

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Yesterday's Wall Street Journal story by Walter Mossberg on "Prep for the SAT," a new service which beams practice questions to cellphones so kids can brush up during idle moments in the day, made me so glad I'm no longer in school.

What a nightmare.

Parents can even get electronic reports on their child's progress.

Give thanks that you too are not part of the current techno-frenzy and trying to make your way in academia.

If you're one of those unfortunate joeheads who're still in the grinder, you have my greatest sympathy.

The bar's simply been raised to the point of craziness.

Parents in Manhattan reserve places in preschool for their unborn - in fact, not yet conceived - children.

They hold the spot with a substantial, nonrefundable cash deposit.

Then a kid's supposed to get involved in all kinds of sports, groups, clubs, and what-have-you to keep up with the other kids.

'Cause it'll look good on their application.

Then it's SAT prep courses at Kaplan and the Princeton Review.

Then it's the whole thing all over again in college, trying to get into med, law, business, or grad school.

Back in the dark ages when I was a pre-med, you could just goof off during summer vacation while you were in college.

Nowadays, if you're not working full-time in a research lab, volunteering with the paramedics or working in an E.R. every summer to prove how much you want to be a doctor, you're toast.

Read Mossberg's piece and weep for those who must undergo even more torture on their way to the elusive end of the rainbow.
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Can You Quiz Me Now? Turning a Cellphone Into an SAT-Prep Tool

Attention teenagers: If you're looking for a new way to convince your parents to buy you a cellphone, tell them you'll use it to study for the SAT.

As crazy as this plan sounds, it just might work, thanks to a new service called "Prep for the SAT," which beams SAT practice questions to cellphones so kids can brush up during idle moments in the day - say, while waiting for the school bus.

Parents can even get electronic reports on their child's progress.

This service comes from one of the most renowned SAT-preparatory companies, the Princeton Review, and a wireless-application publisher called Vocel.

Prep for the SAT, which is expected to be available through several carriers starting in mid-September, will work on cellphones that can download software, games and ringtones.

It is designed to let students start preparing early for the newly reformatted 2005 SAT, which begins in March.

The idea of using a cellphone as a study tool may sound odd, but it is just another entry in a growing list of evidence that the wireless phone is evolving into a handheld computer.

Even modestly priced, small phones can now be used to play games; take and store photos; send and receive e-mail and instant messages; and maintain a contact list and calendar.

For many people, the wireless phone is the one computer they carry all the time.

And computers have long been used to prep for tests.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested Prep for the SAT on an LG cellphone.

The service worked pretty well, though it did have some annoyances and limitations, and is no substitute for a real PC test-prep program, a test-prep workbook or classes.

It will cost $5.99 a month, but for students in a Princeton Review SAT classroom course, it is free for the duration of the course.

Another company, Mobile-Mind Inc., makes a similar product with SAT flashcards and quizzes for use on your cellphone, and it has been on the market for about a year now.

M-Prep for SAT by Mobile-Mind is designed to use while studying for the older 2004 SAT, which will be administered in October, November and December.

Mobile-Mind couldn't get us a phone to test in time for this column, so we can't report on how it works.

The Princeton Review service is in final testing at Verizon, which says it is likely, but not certain, that it will launch the service next month.

As with many cellphone applications, it took five steps to pull the Prep for the SAT program up on our phone.

Once you're finally in the main menu, you can select from a list of options, including Flashcards, Auto Flashcards, Tests, Results, Setup and Update.

The Flashcard section is broken down into Sentence Comprehension, Critical Reading, Grammar, Vocabulary, Arithmetic, Algebra I and II, Geometry and Math Vocabulary.

Various drills are listed within each of these sections, and Katie (who, unlike me, has taken the SATs more recently than the Civil War) tested her skills by scrolling through the flashcards.

Correct answers are acknowledged with a chime and a brief explanation of why your response was correct, while incorrect answers cause the phone to vibrate as an explanatory screen tells you why your answer was wrong.

The flashcard drill questions vary.

One question asks for the correct definition of epistemology; you can choose from the study of weaponry, knowledge, ethical doctrine or insects. (The answer? Knowledge.)

An arithmetic question gave Katie bad memories - "If 10 packages are to be placed on a freight elevator whose maximum capacity is 100 lbs., and each package weighs at least one pound, what is the maximum possible weight of one of the packages, in pounds?" (91).

While using the flashcards, Katie and I found a few aggravations.

Unlike most old-fashioned paper vocabulary flashcards, these words don't include phonetic spellings, which make it less likely for a kid to actually use the word in a sentence because he or she wouldn't know how to pronounce it.

We even thought that the cellphone might audibly pronounce the word if prompted, but were told that the phones aren't advanced enough yet to do this.

Also irritating were the numerous times we had to arrow down to follow along with a story in the Critical Reading section.

This issue is directly related to the tiny size of a cellphone screen.

Teens might also be frustrated by some of the math problems that normally require scrap paper to work through, as they aren't likely to carry a pen and paper in a purse or jeans pocket.

At the end of each flashcard session - each contains between two and six flashcards - a results screen showed us our percentage score and the elapsed time it took for us to finish the section.

As Katie continued testing on her own, her scores were e-mailed to me after she finished each drill.

Parents can set up the program to send them either an e-mail or a notification via Short Message Service with a quick summary of test results.

E-mails also have a Web link for viewing a bit more detail along with the student's score history.

These e-mail and SMS features will use up air time or incur messaging fees, which run a few cents per message.

But a teen can always turn these notifications off.

Parents who do get Web links can access the results site by inputting the phone's number and a security code.

The displayed data includes the quiz type (flashcards or test), the date the quiz was taken, a simple description of the quiz and the score.

From that site, parents can also send their children random test questions via SMS, which scares us, frankly.

Once a message is sent, the unsuspecting teen's phone sounds an alarm.

The alarm can be turned off, but Katie and I shuddered as we envisioned overzealous parents sending questions whenever they felt so inclined.

If teens roll their eyes when a parent simply calls their cellphone, we can only imagine the embarrassment a random SAT question might cause.

If a teenager wants to send herself questions on a regular basis, she can set the phone up to send as many as 10 questions a day via SMS at all hours.

But we can't honestly see a teenager wanting to be electronically nagged to study; it seems more likely for a student to start the program at a time of his or her own choosing.

In addition to the flashcards, a Tests section offers quizzes on Math, Reading and Writing, with two sections of each.

Each test lasts for a specific time, ranging from 10-15 minutes, depending on the subjects.

The application uses up battery life at about the rate of an average downloadable game.

Scores for these tests and each flashcard drill are stored in the application, though you can erase these scores to start from scratch at any time.

If your teen finishes the first 217 questions in the flashcards and tests, 217 more questions can replace the originals, and more updates are in the works.

Overall, Prep for the SAT is a good idea that might marginally enhance an SAT study program.

Though we're doubtful that a teenager would whip out his or her cellphone to study around friends, this application might be a productive and inexpensive way to pass time while waiting in lines, or during a long car trip.

We only hope parents don't get too obsessed with the test results.
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Speaking knowledgeably about obsession, I cannot agree too strongly with that last sentence.

It's not so much that childhood's been changed, or truncated; rather, it seems to me that it simply no longer exists in the form I experienced it.

Too bad.

François Truffaut once said, "All that I am, everything I have ever done or will do, stems from the first twelve years of my life."

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Without the time and space to daydream and do nothing, it's hard to see how imagination can ever find a footing secure enough to enable a heart to soar.

August 26, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sony, I weep for you

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The shock of how ugly your new HD Network Music Player is still hasn't completely worn off.

You said you were gonna come after

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Apple's iPod with a vengeance.

But Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's knowledgeable tech columnist, said your new Sony Connect music store is a disaster, worse than any of the others already futilely trying to best Apple's iTunes.

And now this, a design flop that's so D.O.A., you don't even need to get out a mirror to see if it fogs up.

You can diagnose this one from the doorway.

Yikes.

How did so many talented people at Sony produce such a full-blown disaster?

Joan Brady, the author of the superb Booker Prize-winning novel "Theory of War," once wrote to me, after we'd exchanged tales about the dreadful jacket designs of each of our first books, that the secret of a successful book jacket is that it must make the prospective purchaser feel good about being seen with it.

Same for music players.

August 26, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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