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'Lap-Top' Literacy Gaining Supporters In Experiments in Handful of Districts

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Raymond L. Marik, a high-school English teacher with the Seattle Public Schools, heard, he says, the voice of bitter experience when one of his special-education students this year said flatly, "Mr. Marik, I can't write."

The student, whom Mr. Marik describes as "bright" and "verbal" but "dysgraphic," or severely hampered in his ability to write, was unable to jot down a simple sentence, let alone produce the written assignments required of a high-school junior.

"There was virtually no way anyone could read anything he wrote," says Mr. Marik.

The student's learning disability, however, qualified him to take part in an unusual experiment with "lap-top" computers that district officials hope will help students overcome such physical barriers to literacy.

Within less than a month, Mr. Marik says, the student was "amazed" to find that he could produce 800-word essays by diligently pecking away at the keyboard.

And recently, Mr. Marik adds, the young man exceeded even his own expectations by completing a 10,000-word essay.

"The turn-around is almost like magic," says the 25-year teaching veteran.

Little Use in Schools

The Seattle project is one of a handful of school-based experiments with the lap-top computer, a device that has until recently been all but ignored by the nation's public schools.

"Virtually no schools have bought lap-tops," according to James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education.

One reason, he speculates, may be that machines produced by Apple Computer, Inc. dominate the school computer market and Apple does not manufacture a lap-top model.

To Linda Loomis, a vocational curriculum specialist for the Amphitheater Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., cost may be the prime reason for the scarcity of lap-tops in schools.

After shopping for various brands of portable machines for a project she is supervising at Tucson's Canyon Del Oro High School, she found that lap-tops produced by the International Business Machines Corporation and other competing vendors could cost as much as $1,200.

She finally decided to purchase a classroom set of the cheaper, but relatively unsophisticated, Tandy T 102 machines, which were less than half as expensive as competitors.

Most of the current school experiments with lap-tops, in fact, are being underwritten by the Texas-based Tandy Corporation.

Educators using the machines note that the potential for theft and breakage is greater than for other computer equipment, since the object of lap-top use is usually to enable the student to carry the machine home.

Mr. Marik, who teaches at Seattle's Ingram High School, which he describes as a "typical" inner-city school, agrees that security was a chief concern when Alice V. Houston, the district's assistant superintendent for education support services first proposed the project.

"People questioned with a great deal of skepticism how long these would be in the kid's possession," he recalls. "But they protect these things and guard them."

Others add that questions about educational equity have been raised in some of the projects.

The Seattle project, Mr. Marik concedes, "was a gamble on Dr. Houston's part."

Speaking last month in Orlando, Fla., at the Sixth International Conference on Technology and Education, Ms. Houston explained that she had decided to take the gamble after hearing about a similar experiment at the Carmel High School in Carmel, Calif.

There, students in an advanced computer-science class use the machines to take notes, write papers, and keep journals, as well as to communicate with one another on the school's computer bulletin board. They also communicate via lap-tops with students at a sister school in Greenock, Scotland.

Tandy first provided the lap-tops to the school two years ago at the urging of Norman T. Bell, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who works as a consultant for Tandy.

In a paper that describes what he hoped to accomplish in the venture, Mr. Bell theorizes that "with the continued advances in microtechnology, most of what is being done with the desktop [computers] can also be accomplished with the extremely portable lap-tops."

That theory seems to be borne out by student experience at the Carmel school, according to Bruce L. Cates, chairman of its business department.

"The reason this has a viability for schools," he says, "is that it takes the computer out of the lab and allows students to take it with them."

A similar project at the Alhambra (Calif.) High School, has also found, according to a report by the district, that the technology aids students in "working together and helping each other on both academic projects and technical problems."

Students at Carmel have used the machines as research tools in the school library, sending their notes, via the lap-top's built-in modem, to a desktop computer.

Mr. Cates notes, however, that not all students may embrace the devices. "There are some who use them more than others, and others who use them to get the required work done and not a lot more," he says.

Although a formal evaluation of the educational benefits of the Carmel project has not yet been done, Mr. Cates says that, based on anecdotal evidence, "there's room to expand" the program.

The Carmel developments also played a role in Ms. Loomis's cross-disciplinary experiment with lap-tops at Canyon Del Oro High School.

Janet M. Gandy, the supervisor for business education in the Arizona education department, invited Tandy representatives to address a group of Tucson teachers after hearing about the California school's program.

Ms. Loomis attended the presentation and later was able to obtain a $10,000 federal grant to purchase 20 of the machines.

The state education department hopes in its programs, Ms. Gandy explains, "to create a marriage between academic and vocational education." The Canyon Del Oro project, which links English and business students, does that.

The Canyon Del Oro project "teams" an English teacher and a business teacher who have combined their classes to teach intensively with the lap-tops.

"We're very progressive about looking at alternatives to being locked into the 55-minute period, 7-period-a-day, 5-day-a-week routine," explains Ms. Loomis.

And, although the students have had the portables only since January, she reports, their writing has improved--and some have even begun to teach their parents how to use the machines.

Students who may often be "stereotyped" as "belonging in vocational education," Ms. Loomis says, also seem to have developed more self-confidence and self-esteem as a result of the project.

Plans are under way to add a telecommunications system to the project that will link students at Canyon Del Oro with those at Carmel High School.

According to Ms. Houston, the Seattle project, while an offshoot of the Carmel experiment, is "unique" because of the population it serves.

During her conference presentation in Orlando, she said that the aim in Seattle is to reach "a very special group, a targeted population" that seemed capable of academic success, but was also physically hampered.

Eventually, she added, the program will include the use by teachers of a computer program to evaluate students' writing, once assignments have been "downloaded" to the computer bulletin board.

Already, reports Miguel J. Anaya, a language-arts teacher at the Seattle Alternative School, students have used the machines to explore writing that they ordinarily would not have attempted with pen and paper.

"They're enjoying the novelty of having something portable, something electric," he says. "But they're also enjoying composing. I've seen some of the kids doing poetry, raps, and songs."

But Mr. Marik concedes that the young man who produced the lengthy essay on his lap-top was an "exceptional example" of the technology's potential. Over all, he says, "it's been a liberating experience" for students, but there have been complications.

For example, he says, "some kids are reluctant to come and print out things because there's a lot of personal stuff in [the machine.]"

The project also is being "kept low key," according to the teacher, to enhance security. And no one knows yet, he adds, whether teachers in mainstream classrooms will accept the new technology.

But his colleague Mr. Anaya maintains that, for now, "the kids are taking to the writing process because this little gadget removes some obstacles."

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