Maine Gov. Paul LePage has called for a review of his state’s groundbreaking 1-to-1 student computing initiative, highlighting the growing pains nagging an educational-technology movement now well into its second decade.
Among the questions increasingly faced by states and districts that have given computers to every student: How to demonstrate the impact of such programs on student achievement? How to navigate the explosion of new device options now available to schools? And, perhaps most significantly, how to maintain a focus on teaching and learning, even while fighting for the millions of dollars necessary to maintain and refresh growing hardware inventories?
Once a national and international leader, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative recently has struggled with such challenges.
“We drifted away from our central goals,” said Mike Muir, the program’s policy director, in an interview.
“We need to get back to conversations about what kind of learning experiences we want for kids, how tech can help, and what kind of supports teachers need.”
Launched in 2002 under former Gov. Angus King, an Independent, the Maine initiative began by leasing and distributing Apple laptop computers to every 7th and 8th grader in the state. During the past eight years, the effort expanded to include other grades, vendors, and devices.
The initiative, which now provides computers or tablets to 66,000 of Maine’s roughly 183,000 students, helped convince a generation of policymakers across the country that widespread 1-to-1 computing was possible. In the process, it provided a roadmap for how to manage the purchase and deployment of tens of thousands of devices to schools.
But since his election five years ago, LePage, a Republican, has been skeptical of the program, which now costs about $11.5 million per year. While the details of the current review are still being hammered out, it appears as though all options, including a dramatic scaling back of the state’s involvement in technology purchases for schools, could be on the table.
Such uncertainty speaks directly to the need for better monitoring of technology’s use and impact in K-12, said Douglas Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies LLC, a consulting organization.
“It’s an incredible missed opportunity to have Maine run its 1-to-1 initiative for over a decade and to still have so many questions about the efficacy of the program,” Levin said.
During the past decade, the push for 1-to-1 student computing has picked up considerable steam. More than half of U.S. students now have access to school-issued personal computing devices, according to Futuresource Consulting, a U.K.-based research firm.
Generally, the thinking behind such efforts has been that putting personal devices in the hands of students will allow for the delivery of more personalized content and lessons. Many 1-to-1 initiatives, including Maine’s, include an explicit focus on helping to prepare students for the modern workplace. Proponents frequently describe their desire to empower students to use technology to solve problems, engage in complex and creative work, and collaborate with others.
But districts, rather than states, have mostly taken the lead. In Michigan, an effort similar to Maine’s lasted only a few years before funding was pulled. Smaller state-led efforts in Pennsylvania and Texas never fully took flight. Only Utah and Nevada are pursuing statewide 1-to-1 initiatives, both via pilot programs.
In general, the research behind 1-to-1 computing initiatives has been mixed.
Earlier this year, researchers at Michigan State University released a first-of-its-kind meta-analysis of 15 years’ worth of studies, finding that efforts to give K-12 students their own laptop computers led to increased student achievement and modest boosts in students’ “21st century skills.”
A raft of prior studies, however, showed that even when technology is present in classrooms, teachers have been slow to transform their practice and often failed to make the most powerful uses of the new tools at their students’ fingertips.
That seems to have been the experience in Maine.
“There is a legitimate concern that our kids are stuck at [using technology for] word processing, presentions, and online research,” Muir said.
That reality, plus flat statewide test scores, has been a source of consternation for LePage.
While some educators and digital-learning proponents bristle at the notion that technology initiatives should be expected to move the needle on standardized test results, Levin of EdTech Strategies thinks it’s a fair expectation.
“If you’re going to roll out a high-profile learning initiative statewide for 10 years, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to expect to see some effect on math and reading scores,” he said.
More Device Options
Another point of concern in Maine, as elsewhere, is that too much attention has been paid to the question of which device students will use. For years, the state department of education dealt solely with Apple, for laptops.
By 2013, however, a wide range of new, more affordable devices had entered the educational market. LePage intervened in the state’s procurement process, threatening to pull the plug on the program before ultimately agreeing to a compromise that allowed districts to choose from among four options: Macbook Air laptops or iPads from Apple, and a laptop and a tablet option from HP Inc.
In the years since, just 5 percent of schools have selected the HP options. And an initial swing by schools toward iPads has since been reversed, with many opting to trade those tablets back in for laptops.
Jeff Mao, the state’s learning technology policy director from 2004 to 2014, said any undue focus on the technology itself came primarily from those outside the Maine Technology Learning Initiative.
“The training that has taken place for the last 16 years has never focused on the device. It has focused on teaching practices and how to best integrate technology into the classroom,” he said.
Still, Mao acknowledged that the initiative has struggled to cultivate a consistent classroom approach, in part because Maine, as a local-control state, can’t mandate specific teaching practices for all of its schools.
“It’s always been difficult to provide measurement for the program due to lack of fidelity,” he said.
Supporters hope that the efficiencies Maine is able to generate through its single, statewide contract will be enough to see the 1-to-1 initiative through its current difficulties.
The process by which the review of the initiative will take place is still to be determined. Among the options under consideration are a switch in focus to early grades, or shifting resources away from devices and into professional development and training.
The idea of such a nationally lauded program being on such thin ice may come as a surprise to some. But it may actually be an opportunity, Muir said.
“In any long-term implementation, things start getting taken for granted,” he said."I think every so often, it’s good to stop and reflect.”
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as 1-to-1 Computing Under Microscope In Maine Schools