Laptop computers replace note pads Pilot program wires students for learning

April 04, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Look out, spiral notebooks, your days at Oldfields School are numbered.

The old, reliable friend of students everywhere is being replaced at the Glencoe girls' school by laptop computers that flip open almost as easily -- but which students also can use to produce science projects, hand in homework and communicate with their parents.

These days, black laptop bags are nearly as common as backpacks and lacrosse sticks at Oldfields, a boarding and day school and one of 10 private schools in the country participating in a pilot technology project co-sponsored by Microsoft and Toshiba.

More than 70 percent of Oldfields' 190 students own or are leasing notebook computers in this first year of the program. Next year, school officials say, nearly every student will have a portable computer, and eventually they will be required.

Last summer, the school bought 100-megahertz Pentium machines, costing about $2,300 each, for about 50 teachers and staff members. It also wired all classrooms, administrative offices and some central study areas, as part of a technology plan.

The pilot program -- known as Learning with Laptops at Microsoft, and Notebooks for Schools at Toshiba -- has enabled the 130-year-old school to move into the computer age more economically and more easily than other alternatives, Oldfields officials say.

"Technology is becoming a part of the everyday life of the girls," said headmaster Hawley Rogers.

School officials say that portable computers eliminate the need for computer labs and save the time it takes to move students from classrooms to labs.

"Everyone likes to work on their own computer," said director of technology Laura Karey. "They are turning in great work."

Each classroom has 18 ports so the girls can plug in during class to take notes, work on assignments and explore the Internet.

"I encourage them to be paperless in this class," said biology teacher Sue Austin. Her students do their homework on the laptops and hand in disks instead of papers. Austin can correct the assignments on disks and return them to her students.

Austin mixes technology and biology almost seamlessly, talking at one point about search engines and salamanders, and issuing "laptop rules" along with scientific findings.

For one project, she assigned research topics to groups of students and gave them guidelines for software that lets them create slides. Each group was to produce seven slides of pictures and words that they would present to the class on a television screen.

"Go online and travel through the different sites," Austin told her class. "You guys are only limited by your own creativity."

Soon, 10th-grader Caroline Latrobe was culling facts and pictures about salamanders from the Internet.

"It's kind of like a slide show on a computer. You take all the information you find on the Internet and put it in here," she said, indicating frames provided in the PowerPoint software.

"It's really fun because you get to design your own colors and backgrounds," she added.

English teacher Cathy Jewitt was effusive in her praise of how students used the computer in poetry projects, in which they had to write poems in a variety of forms, such as the three-line Japanese haiku and the five-line cinquain.

"Not only did they have to explore different kinds of poetry, but they used different type. They learned how to put the art on the page and then superimpose the words," Jewitt said as she showed off the poetry collections.

The Toshiba-Microsoft laptop project was started in Australia eight years ago. When the two companies decided to introduce it in this country, they invited schools and educators to put together a wish list of specifications.

Though students buy or lease their machines, Oldfields is paying the Internet fees.

Such technology brings new policies. The students, in grades eight through 12, must sign an "acceptable use" policy that enforces "laptop etiquette" and discourages them from sending private information or accessing pornography on the Internet, said Karey.

The students do have e-mail, which lets them send and receive messages to and from home and far-away friends -- a definite advantage for a school where 80 percent of the students are boarders.

But the real benefits are educational, said Karey.

"The computer's not going to replace a traditional education, but enhance it," she said. "We don't have the hard facts on test scores. But the increase in motivation and the increase in the quality of writing are already obvious."

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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