Classroom Technology

To Each His Own

By Edgar Allen Beem — December 21, 2005 9 min read

One October morning, while their students are attending art, PE, and other elective classes, the handful of 5th grade teachers at Frank H. Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, Maine, huddle around a conference table in the narrow office of technology coordinator John Martin. A New England Patriots banner hangs on the wall behind them as they focus on the screen where Martin, tapping away on the keyboard of his laptop computer, has projected the school Web page.

After Yarmouth, Maine, got its share of the 37,000 laptops issued statewide, the distrct bolstered its training course for teachers, though it didn't require them to use the technology.

Harrison’s 5th graders are about to be taught how to use the Internet, and Martin is helping their teachers plan an orientation lesson built around navigating the Web. “They’ll click on buttons to find answers to questions, using the links to find information,” he says.

Once the lesson is planned, though, it’s time for the instructors to learn. They spend the remainder of the period watching Martin scan, display, and archive book reports. Marti-Jo Shaw wonders aloud how to organize student work on the school’s network.

“We can sort them [by genre],” she suggests. “ ‘We’ meaning John.”

Martin half-jokingly rolls his eyes. A veteran teacher and basketball coach, the dapper, mustachioed educator taught 6th grade math for 16 years before becoming Yarmouth’s computer guru in 1983. He’s still the go-to guy today, though the way that technology is used in the town’s middle and high schools has changed dramatically.

“Everything was floppy disks and thermal printers—no network, no Internet, no video, no e-mail,” Martin recalls. “Few teachers had any knowledge, background, or experience using computers. ... It was more individualized, hard to share.”

Today, more than half of Harrison’s 435 students and all of its teachers have their own Apple iBooks as part of a statewide effort that’s put laptops into the hands of every 7th and 8th grader in Maine. Starting last school year, the $37.2 million Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which has supplied middle schools with 37,000 computers, expanded to the high school level in selected communities.

With at least some laptops in use at more than half the schools in the country, education researchers have studied Yarmouth closely. Mark Warschauer, an associate professor of education and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, calls the district’s effort “the most impressive laptop program we observed.”

There’s just one problem: After this year, it may no longer exist. Maine’s contract with Apple runs out in June, and financial troubles couldpreclude further funding. Martin, who helped get Yarmouth’s laptops into classrooms, worries that as the state budget process begins, legislators won’t look beyond the numbers when they consider the program’s future. “I know [laptops] are good,” he says. “They improve teaching and learning, but how do I prove it? You have to look at the products the kids produce.”

Skeptical at first, Maine’s middle school teachers now generally concur with Martin. More than four out of five report that “students are more engaged in their learning, more actively involved, ... and produce better- quality work,” according to a study by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. At high schools, where laptops remain something of a novelty, teachers are still coming to terms with the technology.

Roberto Borda, a math teacher at Yarmouth High School, characterizes the faculty’s response to the program as a “reluctant embrace.”

“Like with any change, you encounter a little bit of resistance,” he adds. “I don’t think everybody sees the opportunities at hand.”

That doesn’t surprise Ken Murphy, Yarmouth’s superintendent. “Every year, the [new] teachers have been skeptical, but given the support that people like [Martin] provide, they grow quickly to become our biggest advocates,” he says.

From the start, Martin recognized the potential in computers. In the early 1980s, he says, “I took one course in programming and felt it was going to eventually be an important tool in education and society.” He has since taught technology classes for area educators for more than a dozen years and spends his summers traveling the country, training other school systems.

In 2002, Maine’s laptop initiative was rolled out by the state ed department and Apple with great fanfare, bolstered by a one-time state budget surplus and the idea that the technology would prepare students for the 21st century job market. Then-governor Angus King was sold on the concept after a discussion with MIT Media Lab professor Seymour Papert. A pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and the role computers play in learning, Papert told King that technology could transform schools only if every student and teacher had laptops at their fingertips.

As computers were moved from labs to classrooms, Yarmouth introduced a new professional development program intended to bring educators up to speed without forcing a set curriculum down their throats. Martin worked with Catherine Wolinsky and Alice Barr, his counterparts at Yarmouth’s elementary and high schools, respectively, to beef up the district’s existing computer training for teachers, in place for more than a decade. Introduced two years ago, the more formal program counts toward professional development requirements and pay-scale calculations; and today, a rainy Saturday morning, it has brought 16 teachers to Yarmouth High’s library. They’re seated four to a table, iBooks open and ready.

Wolinsky sits in a sky-lit reading alcove with her elementary school colleagues, showing them how to use Apple’s iPhoto image-editing software, as Barr projects her own laptop screen onto a library wall to help the high school teachers create staff Web pages. The shelves surrounding them are filled with reference books, almanacs, and encyclopedias, but every teacher and student with a laptop now carries an electronic version of the World Book Encyclopedia with them wherever they go.

“Oh, my gosh!” blurts Linda Hanson, a veteran foreign language teacher, after she successfully creates a link on her Web page.

The fall training sessions meet after school and on weekends. The curriculum for the nearly 40 hours of training is deliberately kept flexible. “While there are basic skills that the teachers should know, we keep it open-ended so they can drive some of what we teach,” explains Barr, a former kindergarten teacher. Indeed, Yarmouth educators often say that one of the main reasons laptops have been accepted is that the district has no prescribed computer curriculum. Teachers are encouraged to facilitate student research online and develop multimedia presentations, but they don’t have to.

“The teachers are ultimately responsible for what they are doing,” says Barr. “We’re looking at the laptop as a tool. If they use one program, that’s a start. If they use one Web site, that’s a start.”

As Barr continues outlining the procedure for editing a Web page, 8th grader Jonas Oppenheim and junior Jeffrey Mitchell circulate around the library, helping teachers work through the process. The fact that students are often more conversant and comfortable with technology, says Barr, makes for “a very different classroom,” one in which the roles of student and teacher are sometime reversed.

Jeffrey, a big, friendly, ponytailed teenager, wanders over to Borda’s table, showing him how to transfer a Web page built with a different program into the FirstClass software Yarmouth uses for e-mail, file sharing, and Web publishing. He spent the summer helping design templates for the teacher pages, so he knows the electronic labyrinth well. Borda’s no slouch, either: Like Barr, he has a master’s degree in educational technology, but he opted to take the class “to update my knowledge,” he says, clearly appreciative of his student’s help.

“Some teachers feel that in order to teach, [they] have to know it all,” Borda says. “But what a wonderful experience to have your pupil teach you.”

A few days later, the weather still damp and dismal, history teacher David Pearl is watching one freshman do just that. As Michael Hickey, a fresh-faced student in a Boston Red Sox cap, narrates a PowerPoint presentation on the empires of the ancient Middle East, Room 107 is as dim as the day outside. Illuminated only by projector light and the glow of 20 laptop screens, the students use 21st century technology to take notes on a culture that invented cuneiform.

Initially skeptical when laptops were introduced at Yarmouth High School, history teacher David Pearl was sold on how they help students conduct research. With the possibility of the program ending this spring, "I would miss it now," he says.

When the student finishes, Pearl instructs Michael to drag his PowerPoint file into a homework folder in the school’s FirstClass system. The iBook’s wireless networking technology transmits it there instantly. As effortless as these presentations appear to be, Pearl admits to being skeptical when the laptops were introduced to Yarmouth’s freshman class last year. “I’m not a computer person, and I’m not all that comfortable with technology,” he explains. “I was afraid the laptops would be an add-on that might take our minds off the goal, which is to use our minds well.”

Warschauer, the USC researcher, gave Yarmouth’s program high marks because the teachers have encouraged kids to use technology as a research tool. Which is ultimately why Pearl decided to embrace the laptops: His students visit the New York Times Web site to prepare for daily current events discussions, and his Web page provides links to relevant resources for each history unit. In Fullerton, California, where 1,000 students have been issued laptops, some 90 percent of teachers surveyed by Warschauer felt they now explore topics in more depth.

Still, the level of depth is difficult to quantify. Yarmouth’s scores on the statewide 8th grade Maine Educational Assessment test, already among the best in the state, have not improved noticeably since the introduction of laptops. And the fate of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative remains unclear. With the state’s contract with Apple Computer up at the end of the school year, the leased laptops will be returned unless the program is renewed. Economic difficulties, including statewide pressure for tax relief and the rising cost of heating fuel in a cold state, could jeopardize public funding.

But Tony Sprague, until recently the coordinator of the initiative, says the state education department remains “committed to one-to-one laptops.” Maine’s largest newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, has urged lawmakers to extend the program during January’s legislative session, and the ed department is preparing to solicit bids to determine the cost of doing so, according to Jeff Mao, Maine’s coordinator of education technology. Yarmouth superintendent Murphy says he can’t imagine axing the program if the state bows out, suggesting that Maine’s more affluent communities may fund laptops themselves. (Yarmouth, in fact, already pays for its high school program.)

Regardless of what happens in Maine, similar programs continue to proliferate elsewhere. Andrew Zucker of the Concord Consortium, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit devoted to interactive learning technologies, estimates that more than 100,000 students have been assigned personal laptops in programs similar to Maine’s. “That number is likely to grow each year,” he says. In Fullerton, 82 percent of teachers polled by Warschauer believe that other schools should follow suit.

Pearl has certainly become a believer. As the student presentations in his class draw to a close, the teacher’s electronic inbox is now full of completed projects. “This enables scholarship to go to a deeper level and raises the stakes for both teachers and students,” he says. “I would miss it now if we didn’t have it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as To Each His Own

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