School Tech: 6 Important Lessons From Maine’s Student Laptop Program
Many educators struggle with the concept of implementing a student laptop initiative. They have good reason to. There are many considerations in this type of an undertaking. Aside from the obvious costs associated with project like this, other factors such as logistical challenges, security concerns, and the cost benefit must be considered.
For years now the state of Maine has been a pioneer in this area. There are a great many lessons to be learned from Maine’s experiences. Recently Mashable‘s Sarah Kessler posted about six of these lessons that can be learned from Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative.
When students at Skowhegan Area Middle School decided to undertake a study of the town’s history, they departed from traditional readings and paper writing. They instead made podcasts about historical landmarks that cumulatively produced a walking tour, recorded interviews with town elders and created websites for local farmers. Like the 225 other middle schools in Maine, every seventh and eighth grade student has been provided with a laptop computer, making projects like these accessible.
“It’s just a part of how we do business now, and in some ways we’re starting to take it for granted,” explains Michael Muir, who helped design the leadership development program for the initiative that brought one-to-one computing to Maine. “It’s very exciting because it’s now a part of the culture of teaching middle school in Maine … that all the kids have laptops and you teach with technology, and it’s exciting because it’s no longer the new thing.”
In 2002, the state of Maine signed a $37 million contract with Apple that provided laptops to 33,000 middle school students and 3,000 teachers. The contract was extended in 2006 and expanded in 2009 to include some high schools. All seventh graders, all eighth graders, and students at 55% of Maine’s high schools are currently issued laptops. At the launch of the initiative, the state made no apologies about how it had chosen to spend its one-time state surplus.
“The challenge is familiar, but the imperative is new: we must prepare young people to thrive in a world that doesn’t exist yet, to grapple with problems and construct new knowledge which is barely visible to us today,” reads the the 2001 request for proposal.
It’s been about 10 years since Maine implemented its initiative, and while at least 33 states had experimented with one-to-one computing projects by 2007, none have reached the scope of Maine’s project. As jobs and life increasingly involve computers, it’s clear that in order to remain relevant to students, schools will need to adopt more technology. Here are six lessons about doing so successfully, taken from Maine’s initiative.
1. Treat Technology as a Tool, Not a Curriculum Area
Bette Manchester, who directed the program for its first seven years, organized many training sessions for teachers, but none of them focused on how to use software.
“You would say, ‘What are the objectives we’re trying to teach in mathematics?’ And then you would work backwards and say, ‘OK, what kind of software or what kind of resources would help the students in middle school learn algebra,’ for instance,” she says. “So you would be selecting your resources based on what you decided you were teaching the students and work backwards, instead of buying a bunch of math software and having no clue what you are going to do with it.”
Instead of running a workshop for teachers on how to use a spreadsheet, for example, the state might hold workshops on collecting and analyzing data. While the teachers left the training knowing how to use a spreadsheet, the focus remained on the learning.
2. Think Differently About Teaching
This graphic, from a presentation at one of Maine’s teacher training sessions, shows different levels of technology integration.
Muir and his colleagues who work on technology initiatives in schools jokingly refer to their main obstacle as APP or “adult paradigm paralysis.” In order for technology to enhance education, Muir says, schools need to change the way they think about education. And that can be a difficult process.
“I think there’s still a lot of assumption that a school is doing a good job if kids are sitting in rows and being quiet and the teacher is at the front of the room directing the activities,” Muir says. “And the new paradigm that took a while for people to get used to is kids working on projects, kids looking up the same information not necessarily all from the same place and sharing what they’re learning about a topic — a lot of small group work and kind of a productive hubbub in the room.”
When the laptops were first introduced, there were some teachers who merely substituted a computer projector for a traditional one or used the computers only to assign homework. This kind of technology use obviously wasn’t going to make a change worth the investment of the laptops.
Research suggests that classroom technology initiatives are only as effective as their teachers. It’s only when teachers in Maine used the laptops to connect students to resources, interact with students in other parts of the world, extend discussions, create multimedia and work on collaborative projects that students started becoming more engaged. The new tools had the capability to diversify teaching methods, but only if teachers were willing to explore them.
3. Decide to Do It, Not Pilot It
Maine never ran a pilot program for the initiative. It did have nine exploratory schools during a “phase one” of the project, but there was never a question of whether the program would continue. The departure from the term “pilot” was intentional.
“If you do a pilot to see if you want to do it, nobody will take it seriously because there’s no guarantee that the program will continue,” Muir says. “Well, if people don’t take it seriously and put their time and energy into it, it’s no wonder that the program isn’t going to continue.”
4. Concentrate on Current Curriculum Initiatives at First
Students at Skowhegan Area Middle School created a podcast walking tour of their town to explore its history.
As the technology integrationist at Skowhegan Area Middle School, Laura Richter works with teachers to design projects like the town history unit. She admits that not every teacher has been as eager to work with technology as she is. “They weren’t able to see that this isn’t beyond and extra, this really is a part of what you’re already doing,” she says about teachers who have been hesitant to integrate digital learning.
To help these teachers adjust to using computers in class, Richter asked them to look at the projects they were already working on and think about how they could enhance them using digital resources. A teacher already working on a unit about irrigation in ancient Egypt, for instance, could ask students to look up an illustration on the Internet rather than providing one from a textbook. When a variety of images portrayed the system differently, they could discuss those differences.
Another approach that Muir says helped initiate this kind of thinking without overwhelming teachers was to ask teachers who were beginning the laptop program in their classes to do at least one new thing with the laptops before December.
“Almost always it was like putting a pinhole in a dam,” Muir says. “Once you got them started it was kind of hard to stop them. But setting that expectation made it clear that it was an expectation, that you had to do something, but it also it got people over that initial hump of getting started.”
5. Support Teachers as Much as Possible
“There was resistance, and it came from fear,” Manchester says. “I can’t say that people weren’t very worried about how it was going to go and very fearful, because you can imagine as a teacher … in a middle school you see 100 students over the course of a day, and all of those students are on the Internet at the same time and may be much more adept at using technology than you are. That’s a pretty scary situation for a teacher.”
One thing that Maine did right was not abandoning teachers with a class full of laptops and no direction on how to use them. The state paid for substitute teachers while full-time teachers attended training sessions and held workshops where school leaders could exchange ideas. Every principal was provided with a stipend to appoint a teacher as a tech leader. Maine continues to maintain a resource website as well as provide training sessions, web seminars and even instructional podcasts (iTunes link).
“This isn’t unique to laptops, but if you’re going to ask teachers to do something new, train them, support them, and give them professional development in an ongoing fashion. Have them share information with each other,” Muir says.
6. Make Technology Part of Teachers’ Everyday Language, Too
Before Richter became a technology integrationist, she conducted technology trainings for teachers around the state. One success factor she noticed among new laptop schools was whether principals from a school used technology themselves.
“In the schools where you had principals who were themselves using technology [and] delivering class development information or communicating with teachers digitally, [computer use] became part of [the teachers’] classrooms faster,” she says. “It was their way of connecting with the administration, and then it was easier for them to say, ‘OK, this is the real world, students need to be using this tool also.’”
- Subject Matters: Students struggle with math fundamentals (cnn.com)
- Teacher Training, Taught by Students (nytimes.com)