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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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June232006

A Man, A Plan, A Lot of Laptops

I’ve just spent the last two days hanging out at the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation conference here in Boston, an intimate gathering of educators discussing the role of ubiquitous Internet access and portable computing devices in education. The personal highlight for me was hearing former Maine governor Angus King talk about the state’s middle school laptop initiative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the initiative, Maine was the first state to create a publicly funded program for supplying laptops to all seventh graders. The program, initiated by Governor King during his two terms as Maine’s chief executive, is just wrapping up its fourth year.

Governor King described the inspiration behind the program during his keynote at the conference. He said it all started with “a data point, three insights and a lunch.” The data point was a sobering statistic: that Maine ranked 37th in the nation in terms of per-capita income, and it wasn’t improving over time.

He then had three insights. First, no one knows what tomorrow’s jobs are going to look like, “but they’ll probably involve two things: more education and technology.” King also noted that every governor in America was trying to improve jobs in his or her state, generally all using the same strategies. With that being the case, how could you ever got your state out of 37th place? “We couldn’t win that race,” he said. “You don’t get ahead of the competition by keeping up.”

“Insight number three: I realized that everything we did was incremental,” King added. Governments usually take baby steps rather than embracing bold reform.Then one day he had lunch with Professor Seymour Papert of MIT, and they talked about improving the ratio of students per computer. Papert told him the only way you could affect serious change would be to give each student their own laptop.

When the state’s budget director reported they were on their way to having at $70 million surplus, King decided to invest it in an endowment for laptops. Unfortunately, most people were against the idea. “It was referred to as Governor King’s Laptop Giveaway,” he reminisced. “Ten to one, public emails were against it…. One guy even suggested it would be better to give kids chainsaws.”

It was an uphill battle, but the governor persevered. He started traveling the state, teaching Civil War history with the use of laptops and the Internet, demonstraing the richness of content that could be found online. He taught the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge, using a website that had a collection of relevant sites and source materials, including the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s own handwriting. “The depth of content blew away anything you could find in a textbook. Really deep stuff.”

Soon enough, a local business group agreed to try a pilot project in one small town. Legislators who were once against the project started to ask for pilots in their own communities. Eventually it came time for them to enact the annual budget, and King took his stand. “God bless the Constitution,” he said. “In the end, they needed a budget, and guess who had to sign the budget? Me. I said, ‘If you want to have a state budget, you know what had to be in it.’ It was simple as that. Pretty straightforward. You’ve got persuasion, but then you’ve got power.”

Even though Angus King has left the governor’s mansion, his legacy lives on. The laptop endowment, which just ran out of funding, is being re-upped for another four years. Citizens who were once adamantly against the project now don’t want their children to lose their laptop benefits.

Governor King had a lot more things to say. You can take a look at my other blog for more details. Meanwhile, I’d be curious to know of any of you have had experience with one-to-one laptop programs. Are they making a difference in your classrooms or are they a bunch of hype? -andy

-andy

Filed under : Policy

Responses

As the facilitator of a one to one laptop program in a Maine public high school in Grades 9 -11 (and Grade 7 -11 in our district) I can absolutely say that the laptops have made a difference to our students’ learning. The way they approach problems and the way they think critically are just some of the biggest changes I have seen in student learning. The students have stated over and over that they don’t know how they would be able to accomplish their school work without them. They are truly anytime learners. I see them working when waiting for play practice, the bus, or sports practice. Governor King was absolutely right to support this program for the State of Maine as our “digital natives” have been given a leg up in their future careers.

Animas Middle School located in Animas, New Mexico was awarded the 2003-2004 laptop initiative. We are a very small rural school, a total of 24 7th grade students. These students are now advancing to the 9th grade level in the fall of 2006. I am the projector director/tech support for these laptops. I am 100% in favor for all 7th grades students receiving laptops. I can not begin to describe the gains these students have made throughout the last 2 years. One example is students creating unbelievable documentary videos that are wining awards and allowing our students to compete nation wide! This laptop initiative is helping whole families become tech literate. By taking them home for the family to use the possibilities are endless!
It is amazing the very small amount of tech user problems theses laptops have compared to a staff of 25 teachers. In the 2 years the students have had use of the laptops we have had a total of 0 stolen or physically abused. These kids take pride in their computers!
Thatís my view!

One of the issues that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves (in my opinion) is what happens to these students when they go on to high school and have to leave their laptops back with the middle school? Parent and student comments from junior high laptop programs here in Minnesota are pretty clear that they do NOT appreciate having to go back to the old, non-laptop learning model…

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