Digital Balancing Act
A remote Maine district struggles with the state effort to give students laptops they can use anywhere.
Visiting Buckfield Junior/Senior High School requires driving about an hour from Portland or Augusta into the low mountains of western Maine. In the winter, the state roads are often icy, and log trucks lean perilously as they rush past slower vehicles.
The wooded terrain flattens near Buckfield, a rural crossroads of frame houses, small shops, and converted barns. A half- mile beyond a bridge lies the 320-student school—several two-story brick wings topped by low gabled roofs.
This educational outpost is a good vantage point for viewing the experiment that has put its state on the nation's map of technology pioneers.
Maine is the first state to deliver "anytime, anywhere learning" to schools by providing laptop computers to every 7th and 8th grader in public schools statewide. It's an unprecedented attempt by a state to be a catalyst for school technology.
For schools, the voluntary program "is a great leap into the present," says Yellow Light Breen, a former Maine education department official. Breen was a central planner of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative before he became vice president and general counsel at the Bangor Savings Bank in Bangor a year ago.
The brainchild of then-Gov. Angus King, the Independent who herded it through the legislature and won over a skeptical public, the laptop initiative was launched in 2002. Apple Computer Inc., which won the $37 million state contract, shipped 17,000 iBooks to all Maine junior high and middle schools for their 7th graders, with more laptops going to their teachers.
At the beginning of this school year, another round of 17,000 iBooks were delivered for the new 7th graders, so now the machines, which use the Macintosh operating system, are in the hands of the state's 7th and 8th graders.
Joe Makley—the curriculum coordinator of the 600-student Maine School Administrative District #39, which oversees the Buckfield school— says the laptops and their wireless connections to the Web "give our kids access to the same resources as students at Harvard."
Yet Makley and other educators in Buckfield, Hartford, and Sumner—the three towns served by the junior-senior high school—also chafe at the technical and financial implications of the state-designed initiative.
"If you compare the deployment in a well-heeled coastal school with Macs to a rural place that hasn't had any Macintoshes ... you have to recognize there was additional cost here," says Makley, the chairman of the district's technology committee.
In Buckfield's small junior high wing, the laptops have plainly made a mark. In language arts, science, writing, and social studies classes, students unfurl the white plastic lids of their iBooks almost every day—for writing, Internet research, and creating electronic presentations.
In Tom Light's science class, for example, 7th graders are using their laptops to produce a "community atlas" of the geography around Buckfield. The plan is to post the atlas on the Web.
On a December day, Light has grouped students into teams of four; each team will study a local ecosystem, such as a field or swamp. From their black lab tables, the students use their iBooks to navigate the Web with the Google search engine for descriptions of native plants and animals. From notes they've taken on their computers and downloaded images, they craft their Web pages. A student "webmaster" on each team will blend the members' work into a whole.
The Web pages for each ecosystem will be added to the combined class Web page being developed on Light's laptop, the locations marked on an electronic map of the territory around Buckfield.
Not all the activities are "virtual." Light encourages students to take their own digital photographs for it. The weekend before, he took two students hiking up the nearby peaks of Bald Mountain and Streaked Mountain for field research on mountaintops. The boys took readings from a global-positioning-satellite device so they could draw the trail on the computerized map.
As the teams polish their Web pages, their lanky, 6-foot-4-inch teacher, who wears a rough wool vest and a belt buckle inlaid with a soaring eagle, roams the room dispensing advice.
Sometimes, Light has a point to make to everyone, but the buzz of discussion is too loud, and faces keep staring into the glowing screens even while he is talking. He raises his gravelly voice: "Close and focus," he says, giving the command for students to shut the lids of their iBooks and pay attention.
But the productive lessons in Buckfield's classrooms are not the whole story on how the initiative has affected this school.
Out of the view of students, district leaders have been forced to close and focus on another set of problems— technical, and ultimately financial.
"To students, it's a new dawn; to technicians, it's Hurricane Hugo," says Maurice "Mo" Pelletier, MSAD #39's technology manager.
One of the reasons for Pelletier's frustration is that until the initiative came along, the district used all PCs with a Novell network, which is hard to integrate with Apple products without buying expensive equipment the district cannot afford. So the iBooks and their wireless network stand as a technological island, unconnected to the school's main network and other administrative and educational systems.
The district would never have chosen Apple and the iBook as its technology approach if it had had the choice to make, Pelletier says.
What's more, he says, the state presumes, mistakenly, that the repair warranty takes care of most support needs. "In fact, most support occurs on working computers when people are stuck," meaning that one of Buckfield's two technicians must provide the help, says Pelletier, a barrel-chested, intense man.
Consequently, the district hired an additional technician to help service the iBooks and the wireless network—a significant expense for a small district with a $5 million budget that is slated to be cut by $250,000 next year.
Beyond the choice of technology, the state has put further impositions on the district, school officials say. For example, the state sent down a list of responsibilities it expects of each school's laptop-initiative team—the technology coordinator, principal, and teacher leader—adding duties and time-demands beyond Buckfield's job descriptions; only the teacher received extra compensation, a $1000 stipend.
"We feel overconceptualized," Makley says of the state's one-size- fits-all approach.
Plus, he says the state erred by providing iBooks only for teachers who teach 7th and 8th graders at least 50 percent of a full schedule. Buckfield's Spanish teacher, who has 7th and 8th graders for only a third of her classes, doesn't get an iBook.
And the state contract doesn't allow districts to order extra iBooks at the same low price and with the same setup. "We could buy them on our own, but they wouldn't be configured the same way," Makley says.
Still, Buckfield's leaders balance those criticisms with plenty of praise for other aspects of the initiative. They like the high- quality teacher training, for instance, and the accessibility of Maine education department officials and Apple employees.
They underscore that they want to see the initiative succeed, even as they suggest that it suffers from being a top-down venture that the state pressured districts to participate in.
"Some of these are success problems," Makley says.
Even so, school leaders here also bridle at what Pelletier calls an unofficial "gag order" against educators' speaking publicly about the initiative's imperfections.
Makley notes, "You end up with two camps around the state: people who care so much about this that they will not see its flaws, and people who are reality- grounded."
Among classroom teachers, a pressing question is whether the state will expand the program to 9th grade for next fall.
Gov. John E. Baldacci gave a tentative answer last week, when, in his state of the state address, he called on the legislature to expand the initiative to the 9th grade.
Kymberli Bryant, who teaches freshman English at Buckfield Junior/SeniorHigh, says having the iBooks in class, rather than reserving a computer lab in advance, would let students instantly "google" answers to questions arising in class discussions—"instead of my saying 'someone should look that up [later].'"
But district leaders voiced doubts about getting iBooks in the hands of their 9th graders next year.
Expansion would almost certainly increase the costs to the district, which is "in crisis," caught between cuts in state education funding and the tapped-out tax base of a region whose major industries—logging and farming—are in decline, says school board Chairwoman Terry Hayes.
In fact, money for future technology needs may have to be sought "outside the box," such as through "cost-sharing programs with families," Hayes says.
MSAD #39 Superintendent William C. Shuttleworth says Buckfield's 9th graders would not be seeing iBooks if it would mean added costs to the district. He says there is an "unspoken consensus" in the community that district expenses not rise.
Cost concerns also appear likely to scotch plans to begin allowing Buckfield students to take their laptops home at night and on weekends.
Students typically end their daily school routine by sliding their iBooks onto the shelves of metal carts, which are wired to recharge the computers. The laptops recharge while students go home and complete their homework.
Teachers and students agree it's unsatisfying and unproductive when "anytime, anywhere" learning ends at 2:20 p.m. at the schoolhouse door.
But some school board members worry that if they reverse the board policy that requires that the machines be left at school, the laptop costs will climb higher. They cite the prospect of more breakage and maintenance needs, plus the cost of the extra battery plug-in adapter for each iBook.
On the breakage issue, only one iBook has been deliberately dropped, Light points out. "A few kids have anger-management issues," he says later.
From the students' perspective, the decision should be a no-brainer. They say the laptops are needed at home.
"I'd like to make a Web page, but I don't know how to make one on a regular computer," says Tyler Weymouth, one of Light's students, referring to the simplified Web-authoring software that comes with the iBooks.
Other students fret about the limited time they have at school to work on increasingly ambitious electronic slide shows and other computer presentations.
Megan Dyke, a 7th grader, has used her iBook to compose a letter to the school board, based on a survey she had e-mailed to students and teachers at several nearby schools. "Other schools seem to not be having any problems with [students' taking them home]," she says.
Megan holds out a copy of the letter, which argues that students would score better on writing assignments and on multimedia projects if they could work on them at home. Having to recharge the batteries and bring the machines to school "would give us a better grasp on responsibility," she adds.
Buckfield leaders are well aware that the state wants the laptops going home. More than half the school districts in Maine allow students to take the iBooks home, state officials say.
Yet some board members here remain skeptical.
"I point-blank asked Tom Light if there were any of the Maine Learning Standards that are not being met; I was told bluntly no," says board member Colleen Bullecks. "So as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing educationally at risk if these are not going home."
Board Chairwoman Hayes worries that the issue is opening a rift between teachers and the board. "There has seemed to be real tensions developing, sort of an us- versus-them," she says. "There was a sense building that the school board was a roadblock. You can look at it that way, but that won't help further the cause. It's not an us-versus-them—it can't be."
Discussion is the way out, she says. "Collectively," she adds, "we've got to find answers. ... We're all on the same side."
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Vol. 23, Issue 20, Pages 29-31Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Digital Balancing Act