Stump the Geeks

Tech tips for back-to-school survival

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comSeptember 2, 2012 

Despite a brief reprieve for Labor Day, students across the Triangle will head back to school Tuesday after celebrating the official end of summertime. For them and their parents, that often means trading leisure time for hectic schedules packed with class, homework and after-school activities.

The transition can be a little shocking. That’s why we reached out to our team of resident geeks to recommend a few technological solutions to survive the back-to-school season. With a little help from these gadgets, apps and websites, you can settle into the fall semester quickly.

Ditch the USB stick. They may be cheap, portable and convenient, but USB memory sticks are notorious for spreading viruses between computers – especially if housed in a widely used network like a public school.

“My brother-in-law’s ninth-grader’s USB stick has taken their home computer down with malware three times since early August,” Paul Rosenberg, owner of the Chapel Hill shop Love Your Computer, said in an email.

Finding a good alternative is sometimes tricky, depending on each school’s security policy. Some may block popular cloud storage websites. Others, such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, support the use of applications such as Connect2School to allow students and faculty to manage and store files.

If your school’s Web lockdown policy isn’t severe, use a service such as Dropbox, which lets you store and retrieve files from anywhere with an Internet connection. Users get 2 GB free, with 100 GB and larger options starting at $9.99 a month. Accounts even allow you to share files with mobile devices, from Android phones to iPads.

School rules vary, so check with teachers and administrators before transferring big projects and papers.

Upgrade the learning process. In her volunteer work with first-grade classes in Wake County, Dianne Dunlap discovered students are often more excited about app-based learning than time-honored educational techniques. One app she uses: Counting Coins.

“The (Wake County) kids typically use plastic money to learn how to figure out coin values, but they just do back flips over this app,” Dunlap, a senior client network engineer with the technology nonprofit MCNC, said in an email. “They would rather move the coins around on the screen ... than handle plastic money.”

For learning that requires more memorization – vocabulary or foreign languages, for example – Dunlap recommends Quizlet, which allows users to create free flash cards. You can use those cards to create quizzes, download them to a free mobile app and even search for study sets created by others.

“It’s the kind of thing where if any parent, teacher or student created a list for any class, this list could be shared and run on any PC or mobile platform,” Dunlap said.

For more complex topics, Martin Smith, director of marketing for Atlantic Business Technologies in Raleigh, recommends Instagrok. The site allows users to search for and examine a subject with an interactive concept map linking key facts with videos, images and educational websites.

Stay powered up. Mobile apps aren’t much good if the devices powering them are running on empty. That’s why Craig Petronella, president of Petronella Computer Consultants in Raleigh, recommends the ZAGGsparq back-up charger.

Essentially an extra battery, this $100 wallet-sized device can charge up to two mobile gadgets via its USB ports. For most smart phones, the company says the ZAGGsparq is good for four full recharges. And when your digital vampires have had their fill, just plug it back into any standard outlet until you’re ready to hit the road again.

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