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The write stuff?

In many schools, computers are replacing the pen

By Doreen Iudica Vigue, Globe Staff, 2/12/2000

ELLESLEY - Ben Stein, 9, is sitting at his desk at the Schofield Elementary School doing a research paper on Ohio. His pencil is idle, but he is working feverishly with his preferred writing tool, a laptop computer.

Writing on computers is so much better than putting pen to paper, he says. No more erasing so that difficult words dissolve into holes; no more crossing out to begin again. And as for crayons, well, ''They're for kids.''

Ben is among hundreds of students in the Wellesley school system who use brightly colored word processors every day in place of notebooks. The lunch-box sized laptops are cutting-edge computer-in-the-classroom technology and are beeping, whirring symbols of how kids' communication will never be the same.

Teachers say computers have revolutionized process writing for students, helping them to be more open and expressive in their prose, more willing to revise their work, and less likely to groan when a research project is assigned. As early as grades one and two, children are learning their way around the keyboard as readily as the school yard.

''A lot of the drudgery is gone for kids,'' said Brookline teacher Jane Manzelli. ''The computer adds to their motivation,'' added Jayne Byrne, a Wellesley instructor.

But some caution there are costs to the computer invasion. Easy access to the Internet already is leading to increased plagiarism; quality sometimes comes second to quantity; spell-check programs are more likely to be used than dictionaries; and students who do not have home computers face a distinct disadvantage.

And the intimate relationship between writer, pen, and pad that has sustained some of the world's greatest scribes could become a lost art. Would those manuscripts have the same emotional appeal if composed on a floppy disk?

''Diary writing is being killed, the art of letter writing is being killed, children no longer learn spelling or penmanship ... left and right, things are lost to the computer,'' said Clifford Stoll, a computer critic and author of several books including, ''High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections of a Computer Contrarian.''

''The main thing the computer does is tell children, `use the computer more,''' said Stoll, of Oakland, Calif. ''Is the problem confronting children today that they don't use the computer enough? That there is not enough e-mail in their lives? Is it that children are fearful of computers? No. It's that when they're in front of the computer, they are not doing or seeing or reading so many other more worthwhile things.''

While Stoll's concerns are legitimate, teachers say, the reality for the moment is that they have seen vast improvements in student performance on English essays, on social studies papers, and even science lab reports.

So the thought of not using computers daily ''would be like going back to the horse and buggy,'' said Millis High School English teacher Marilyn Dewar.

Thomas Plati, director of libraries and educational technologies for the Wellesley public schools, shows off an honor student's work like a makeover: The ''before'' paper in handwriting is illegible, the work mediocre. But the ''after'' version on a computer is neat and clean. He says the quality of the work improves, too.

Further, computers have greatly aided special needs students who may have dexterity issues, Plati said, freeing their hands and, therefore, freeing their writing.

''Why deny the technology exists? For me, it's, `how is their thinking, how is their clarity?''' he said. ''I am interested in using the power of the computer tools to get to those things, and the work constantly shows that we have.''

Under Plati's direction, the Wellesley schools and the state Department of Education are conducting an experiment to show whether the new laptops, called Alpha Smarts and E-Mates, should be handed out to students when they take the open-ended question portion of the state's high-stakes MCAS exam.

Plati and other researchers contend that student writing done on computers is so superior to work done by hand that all students should be given that advantage. Higher quality work could mean the difference between getting a diploma or not, because passing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System will be a graduation requirement starting in 2003.

Last week, two groups of students answered open-ended questions from past MCAS exams, with half using computers and half answering in longhand. The longhand results will be typed into a computer, so researchers will not know which were originally done by pen when they judge for quality.

The research is based on a similar study done last year by Boston College education professors Walter Haney and Michael Russell, computer-in-the-classroom advocates.

''We concluded that low-tech tests, where people write on pencil and paper, are shortchanging high-tech students,'' Haney said. ''In tests like MCAS, kids have to write for three to four hours in longhand and that is totally unproductive.''

Connie Louie, director of instructional technology for the state Department of Education, said that on average, there is one computer to every 7.4 students statewide, and 74.4 percent of all classrooms have Internet access. She said nearly all schools have computer lab instruction for students during the day, and students can use computers before and after school for homework.

Louie said the state is working with districts to increase those numbers, because all their data show that thanks to computers, ''even students who hated to write are showing great improvements in all subject areas.''

But there are some districts that still lag in technology, and some teachers have taken it upon themselves to level the playing field. In Brockton, sixth grade teacher Cindy Jakutis adjusts the way she grades student work between the ''have and have-nots.''

Brockton's elementary schools do not yet have Internet access, so the technology is only available to students at the public library or to those whose parents can afford home computers.

''There are some things that are outstanding, but I try to impress on the student that it's what they've learned from doing the project and not how it looks,'' she said. ''To make things fair, I give all the children oral reports, or I will give extra credit if a report is neatly done. The kids know by looking at each other's work who the haves and have-nots are. I try to make everyone succeed so children don't feel bad. But I must say, some of the projects turned in done on the computer are just amazing. I want every child to have that advantage.''

Back in Wellesley, fourth grader Ruby Fairchild adores her Alpha Smart, but has decided it has limited appeal. A budding poet, Ruby, 9, said she most enjoys curling up in a cozy chair with her journal and a pencil because ''there are some kinds of writing that you just have to do that way. I feel when you write by hand there is more of you in it.''

Her teacher, Janis Fovel, said she encourages students to write in ways that make them most comfortable. The most important thing is for children to embrace the written word, no matter the medium, Fovel said.

''Even in this age of e-mail, kids are still passing notes in class,'' she said. ''Some things never change.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 2/12/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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