April 19, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Is the pen still mighty in the computer age?
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Writing with a pen or pencil is still, however, a requirement for completing the essay portions of state standardized tests and the SATs.
Even some college professors prefer the pen to the keyboard.
David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, banned laptops from his classroom in part, he said, because writing in longhand forces students to pay more attention.
"The (laptop) note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give and take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, one actually has to listen, think and prioritize the most important themes," Cole wrote in an essay published by the Washington Post.
Sargur Srihari, a distinguished professor of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo in New York, is studying the individuality of handwriting (PDF) to develop handwriting analysis software for use in the legal system.
"It's still used in testing children's reading comprehension and that carries over into colleges. The midterm and final are still handwritten, particularly in the sciences and engineering where you are asked for equations," said Srihari.
Srihari has discovered a distinct difference in handwriting between those under 24 and those over 45. Like Miles, he attributes the differences to a shift away from an emphasis on cursive writing in schools.
"We look at certain broad features called macro features in handwriting. These are things like general slant and connectedness of writing, the size of the writing. Micro features look at the strokes and capture three levels of features of individual alphabets and strokes. The primary task was to see if two samples were made by the same person, secondary was whether it could identify demographics," said Srihari.
With about 82 percent accuracy, Srihari's handwriting analysis software can distinguish whether an h, d, x, b, v or l was made by someone under 24 or over 45.
For one comparative study on handwritten characters (PDF), he collected three distinct writing samples from over 1,000 people representative of the U.S. population and scanned them into a computer. Srihari identified that key style characteristics can be used to determine a writer's age.
"Younger people aren't really given penmanship lessons, or something along those lines. The way they hold the pen itself is not quite right in terms of the most comfortable posture which comes with experience. Because of the lack of practice, the skill is somewhat going away," said Srihari.
And even in the ascendant realm of keyboarding, youngsters' fingers aren't behaving as they used to.
"From a very early age they have been on the computer and can navigate very quickly. Now there is the concern that we no longer use the correct fingering, but if the kids are doing really well without the correct fingering, is it important that we hold on to these old traditions? I'm not sure," said Miles.
So it goes, as the old traditions give way to the technology of the young.
"One little girl said, 'I don't like to write, because when you make a mistake you have to erase. On the computer, you just go back.' I thought, wow. That's this generation," said Miles.
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