Back to School Never Looked So Easy

'Back to school'' conjures up memories: buying school supplies, waiting for the bus, and dreaded school reports.

You remember school reports. Sometime around Grade 4 or 5, Mrs. Blandly decided you could assemble facts into something semi-coherent. So she packed you off to the library, made you flip through books and write it down - in longhand. With a pen.

Today's students have it easy by contrast. Their computer printers never, ever rub a hole in the paper the way my pen eraser used to. Their computer can help them do the research too.

The best student research tool I've come across is called Homework Helper. Available on the Prodigy on-line service, Homework Helper gives students access to hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers, and radio news scripts. The machine doesn't answer the question. It opens up the material that will.

Since Homework Helper uses a computer to do the search, I put it to the test. I typed in: ''What is the future of books?'' In less than 15 seconds, I had 150 articles.

Not every article answered my question. It was hard to see what a Harpers Magazine profile of an Iowa book thief had to do with the subject. But I also made some good finds: a Jerusalem Post news article about the reading habits of Israeli children and a futurist writing in Library Journal about the coming demise of printed books.

Some of the finds were inspirational. I never would have thought of including Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a futuristic look at a book-burning society, until Homework Helper found a review of the movie based on the book. The service is so good, many adults could use it for their own research.

Besides a dictionary and thesaurus, the best feature is the ''Go To Best Part'' button. Click on that and the computer jumps to the part of the text it thinks is most relevant. In the futurist's long article, the program popped me right to the section where he made predictions about books. ''Twenty-first-century literacy is very different from 20th-century literacy,'' says Marvin Weinberger, the creator of Homework Helper. ''Twenty-first-century literacy is learning as a form of discovery.... I want kids to find that every question leads to a discovery.''

Not all parents will be able to afford the service. In addition to the $9.95 a month that Prodigy charges, Homework Helper charges another $9.95 a month for two free hours and $2.95 per hour after that. Alternatively, you can pay $6.00 per hour whenever using the service. (Jump ''Homework'' on Prodigy for details.)

A cheaper alternative for computer research is an electronic encyclopedia. These typically cost $90 to $100. (Of course, you'll need a computer that can run CD-ROM disks.) My perennial favorite is Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, which somehow feels more authoritative than the others.

I was disappointed, however, that the new 1996 edition didn't include any reference to the future of book printing. And the encyclopedia's searching capability, which I'd always admired, looked a little dated compared with Homework Helper and its ''Go To Best Part'' button.

A third way for schoolchildren to do computer-based research is with the Internet. I used Prodigy to log onto the Internet's World Wide Web. By using the Web's Yahoo search program (, I turned up dozens of references to electronic books. Some sites had put great literature into downloadable electronic texts; others advertised electronic books and magazines found only on computer disk or CD-ROM.

These technologies make it so easy to paste information into a school report that Junior might be tempted to pass others' words off as his own. But if parents explain why plagiarism is a no-no early on, I think most youngsters will use these tools appropriately. It sure beats rubbing eraser holes into paper.

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