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A middle school student works on one of the 17,000 laptop computers handed out as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative started by former Gov. Angus King.

The great laptop experiment

05/19/2003 08:11 AM
By Dyke Hendrickson
When Gov. Angus King proposed giving every junior-high school student in Maine a free laptop computer several years ago, there were many doubters.

Maine is a poor state and arguably was not prepared to foot the $50 million bill. And who knew whether the young students would use them to their advantage?

King is out of office and probably will be remembered as a popular and visionary leader. The Apple iBooks, meanwhile, have arrived, and a recent report by state educators indicates that the innovative program is a notable success.

?My son feels good about his accomplishments in a way I haven?t seen for seven years,? said one mother, who was one of 8,000 parents to return a lengthy survey on the project. ?He?s excited about learning.?

Another parent wrote in her survey response, ?He?s a better student now. He?s on the honor roll, and I expect he will be on the honor roll every semester from now on.?

The study that is assessing the first-in-the-nation program is ?The Maine Learning Technology Initiative: Teacher, Student and School Perspectives Mid-year Evaluation Report.?

The report strives to make an early assessment of the program, though it has not concluded its first year. About 17,000 seventh-graders received laptops last fall, and another 17,000 will receive them this fall.

Most will be seventh-graders in the state?s 240 middle schools.

In most cases, students do not take the units home. The laptops have access to a wireless local area network in each school.

When a student leaves eighth grade, she leaves her computer behind.

The program is a learning experience for teachers as well. Teachers receive training and technical support as well as their own iBooks.

According to the state report, students, teachers and administrators all are enthusiastic about the program.

Teachers say one benefit is greater communication. E-mails among instructors have increased, and the report indicates that teachers contact colleagues to help them in their work.

The role of teachers is changing as well. One teacher wrote, ?The biggest thing is teachers moving from the keeper of knowledge to the facilitator of what?s happening in the classroom.?

Students, meanwhile, appear to embrace the program as well.

The report states that students write longer papers about a broader range of topics. The system contains software for WorldBook, so many students can get research done without leaving the classroom.

One seventh-grader, in reply to the survey, said he?d rather do his research on the Internet. ?If you use a textbook, it?s probably old and outdated, written in 1980 maybe.?

Students do more writing, in part because it is easier to rewrite on a computer than it is by hand or on a typewriter. However, some students lamented that they could lose a whole project if they don?t save often.

Math wasn?t as well received as writing, though software that shows how to compute fractions and develop pie charts is popular.

In the survey, principals and superintendents expressed satisfaction. Close to 80 percent of administrators feel that student motivation has increased with use of the laptops.

However, they are concerned with unanticipated expenses. Startup costs, such as deploying the LAN or connecting printers, were more than expected.

And in some cases, superintendents have had to hire extra tech support to keep the systems running.

Perhaps the most significant conclusion about laptops in Maine is that the use of the portable units is leveling the playing field.

Some impoverished sections of the state have less than 35 percent computer penetration in the home. Now disadvantaged youngsters know they have as much access to the Internet and educational software as do their wealthier peers.

?Low-income children seem to have taken to the program well,? said Dana Hutchins, a Portland businessman who develops educational software. ?The laptops enable them to have the same access as their classmates, and in some cases they are working harder and missing less school.?

Maine?s innovative laptop program is part of a drive to modernize the state?s economy. National statistics show that Maine ranks No. 44 among states in the number of high tech workers.

Massachusetts, in contrast, ranks No. 4 in that category.

The program, which started with a price tag of $50 million, has been scaled back to $37.5 million because of the state?s economic crunch. But adherents, and there are many, say the outlay is a sound investment in Maine?s future.

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