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back to school

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As the kids head back to school, even the most prepared families will face a daunting array of technology spending choices that can be reduced or avoided with a little teamwork involving parents, students and teachers.

The integration of digital technology into Canadian classrooms means even primary students are introduced to digital cameras, voice recorders or other hand-held devices such as iPads before they "graduate" to more advanced electronics and laptops in later grades.

The growing role of technology in education is a bonanza for retailers that promote everything from tablets, ranging in price from less than $100 to more than $500, laptops that start at about $350 and printers that can cost up to several hundred dollars apiece.

But financial, education and tech experts say the trick is to get a good idea of what's really necessary, as opposed to desired, and evaluate the school's expectations – which can vary widely.

"Recognize that technology plays a role in education but it is not the be-all and end-all of education," says Laurie Campbell, a professional credit counsellor and mother of two teens.

She says older students typically need access to a laptop and printer for homework but the devices don't have to be state-of-the art, and that cellphones might be nice to have but not necessary.

"Have the discussion now, because you're just heading into the new year," Campbell says. "People should be looking over the next year and what the costs generally are going to be and they should be putting away a monthly figure for that."

"You have to talk about making choices," says Campbell, who is chief executive of Toronto-based Credit Canada Debt Solutions.

Campbell said parents should advise children that money spent on something like expensive headphones won't be available for something else, like a school trip, and that a lost device may not be replaced, or will come in the form of a birthday gift.

She also says that having – and using – protective cases can make be difference "between day and night" by reducing or avoiding damage to devices.

"Do not even walk out of the store without protective gear, because they (kids) are going to drop it. They're going to drop it not once, but several times."

George Couros, an Alberta-based educator and consultant who focuses on innovative teaching and learning, adds that there's no generic list of technology requirements for schools.

"It depends on what the school is trying to do," Couros says. "I think schools are very thoughtful in the sense that we don't want parents buying something that kids are only going to use rarely."

He says individual schools and boards may provide guidelines or a list of suggested technology but they recognize needs and preferences vary and that children may learn more easily when they're using something familiar.

He suggests a key tech questions should be: "What does this provide now that we couldn't do without?"

Independent IT consultant Rob Axelrad agrees that parents need to assess their kids future needs before going into a store.

In the case of printers, for example, parents should know whether assignments need to be done in colour, whether a scanner or copier would be useful, and how often a printer will be needed.

Some schools allow, and encourage, assignments to be filed electronically.

He said his college-aged daughter was able to avoid buying a new printer by emailing assignments to him – seven or eight items with a total of 20 to 25 pages.

"So do you go out and spend money for the sake of printing out 25 pages?" Axelrad asks.

He says it's important to estimate the TCO – total cost of ownership – a concept that's commonly used in business but unfamiliar to most consumers.

TCO would take into account the initial price, including taxes, deliveries, environmental fees and extended warranties plus the cost or running the device. In the case of a printer, that would include ink or toner. For a phone, it would include the cost of voice, text or data service. For a computer, it could include a monitor or software.