Classroom Technology

State Laptop Program Progresses in Maine Amid Tight Budgets

By Katie Ash — September 01, 2009 4 min read
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Despite school budget shortfalls, about half the high schools in Maine have opted to move forward this fall in helping the state expand a program to put a laptop computer in the hands of every student, while the other half explore ways to provide students with an economically viable technological alternative.

In 2002, under the leadership of then-Gov. Angus King, Maine became the first state to launch a one-to-one laptop program, called the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, or MLTI, designed to equip every 7th and 8th grader with one of the portable computers. Now state education leaders are applying the lessons they’ve learned from that program to expand the opportunity to high school students across Maine.

“I think we have a far greater understanding as to when technology can really impact positively what happens in the classroom,” said Jeff Mao, the learning-technology policy director for the Maine Department of Education. “As we hit the high schools, it isn’t necessarily different.”

But while the goals of the program may be the same for both high schools and middle schools, one major change is the amount of funding schools receive for participating. Through the middle school program, schools receive money for software, hardware, network infrastructure, warranties, technical support, professional development, and data-backup services.

But high schools will only receive money for the wireless-network infrastructure that is installed by the state to support the laptops. They are responsible for paying all other costs associated with the program.

As a result, only about half the high schools will be able to take part in the first year of the program expansion, but that share does not discourage Mr. Mao.

“In tough economic times, 50 percent of the high schools in Maine have allocated and dedicated the funds to advance this program, which I think speaks volumes,” he said.

Equity and Access Issues

Bette Manchester, the executive director of the Maine International Center for Digital Learning, in Portland, and a former director of MLTI, said the change in funding levels raises concerns, however.

“I think we’ve been fortunate to be able to move forward, but I think the notion of equity and access still needs to be at the forefront,” she said. “From the beginning, the whole program was based on equity and access, and now that equity is not across the state. There are clearly students who do not have access.”

In response to the economic challenges presented by the state program, Sharon Betts, the educational technology coordinator for the Maine School Administrative District #52, along with several other ed-tech coordinators from schools across the state, has created a grassroots consortium to identify cost-effective alternatives to the state-led laptop program.

For many schools, “those funds just aren’t there,” she said.

Instead of ordering laptops for each student—the state program provides each student with a MacBook—the group decided to go with a more affordable alternative: 10-inch ASUS netbooks that support either a Windows or Linux operating system. Currently, about 3,000 units have been ordered.

The consortium was able to negotiate a price of $289 for each netbook with a one-year warranty, or $438 for a unit with a three-year warranty.

Schools participating in the state-led program will pay $242 per laptop per year for four years, bringing the total cost of the laptop to $968.

But the consortium is not aiming to compete with the statewide program, said Ms. Betts.

Lessons Learned

In fact, in setting the goals for the consortium, members examined the strengths of MLTI, such as its emphasis on ongoing, embedded professional development, Ms. Betts said.

“It’s very, very important that teachers don’t feel like they’re being thrown this piece of equipment,” she said.

Providing adequate training for teachers has always been an integral piece of Maine’s one-to-one laptop program, said Susan A. Gendron, the state education commissioner.

Strong leadership and a shared vision have also set Maine’s program apart from other state and local one-to-one laptop initiatives, said Leslie Wilson, the president of the Lansing, Mich.-based One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization designed to support such computing programs.

‘An Educational Venture’

Chris Toy, a former principal of Freeport Middle School in Maine, said the decision to provide the same software and hardware for all participants in the MLTI program from the same vendor was an advantage for students, teachers, and support-staff members.

“You’re able to troubleshoot easier because everyone is working from the same starting point,” he said.

Consistent and timely technical support is a high priority for MLTI, added Mr. Mao, from the state department of education. For that reason, the state keeps extra laptop computers on hand for students to borrow if their machines are being repaired.

Kern A. Kelley, the director of educational technology for Regional School Unit #19, pointed out that part of what has made MLTI successful is its alignment of technology with educational goals.

“It is an educational venture, not a technical one. It is very easy to have the ‘techies’ take over a project like this, but often they are not educators first,” he said. “I think if a state or district wanted to replicate MLTI, it is imperative that the tech people answer to the educational people.”

Ms. Manchester, the former director of MLTI, agreed. “The focus has been on pedagogical practices, use of effective content, and learning to use the tools,” she said. “This is not a technology project, it’s a learning project.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as State Laptop Program Progresses in Maine Amid Tight Budgets

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