10 years after laptops come to Maine schools, educators say technology levels playing field for students

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AUBURN — As his Auburn Middle School English class was about to begin, seventh-grader Trevor Laliberte, 13, had a picture of his band, Perfectly Insane, on his laptop.

He hit a key. The page disappeared. Another page with his schoolwork came up. It was a biography he’s writing about the late Samantha Smith, a Maine girl who became famous in 1982 after writing to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.

Laliberte said his laptop helps him do better schoolwork, including the Samantha Smith biography.

“I go online and found out what she achieved, that she wrote a letter to the Soviet leader trying to promote peace between America and Russia,” Trevor said.

Without a laptop, he’d have to write on paper, wade through the library’s card catalogue.

“Research would be through books and encyclopedias,” he said.

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The Internet is faster, he said.

In the hall, Evan Glidden and Taylor St. Hilaire, both 13, were sitting on the floor with a laptop. They were working on their project about sharks, writing a report (they called it their “script”) and downloading music from the Garageband website.

When they pass in their project, it will include a written report on sharks, a recording of their voices talking about what they learned and shark videos with background music — nearly all of the elements of a documentary.

Ten years after

Laliberte, Glidden and St. Hilaire were about 3 years old when Maine legislators approved — after months of doubt and debate in 2001 — Gov. Angus King’s proposal to give every seventh-grader in Maine a laptop.

Ten years later, each seventh- and eighth-grader in Maine public schools and every grades 7-12 teacher has a laptop paid for by state taxpayers, at an annual cost of $11 million.

And, through the Maine Department of Education, 60 percent of Maine high-schoolers have laptops, paid for by local property taxpayers. That’s a total of 72,000 laptops, according to the DOE. The annual cost for the high school laptops is about $7 million, or $242 per student. The price includes technical development for teachers, support and repair.

Under the program students do not get to keep the laptops, they remain the property of the respective schools.

What are we getting?

Teachers, students and administrators interviewed for this report said laptops are giving several kinds of return on that money.

* Laptops make learning and schoolwork more interesting, students and teachers said. “When kids are engaged, you can teach them anything,” said Jeff Mao, who oversees instructional technology for the Maine Department of Education.

* Writing test scores have improved. Angus King is quick to point out, “I never promised higher test scores,” but a study indicates laptops have improved writing statewide. A 2009 study by David Silvernail of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine showed that laptops helped students become better writers, boosting writing test scores statewide. Silvernail is working on a comprehensive report about laptops. He’s scheduled to give that assessment to state lawmakers in mid-April.

* Freeport math skills have jumped. The number of Freeport students who need remedial math in the ninth grade has been cut in half. Educators credit the method of teaching math in middle school: laptops, no textbooks.

In 2001-02, Freeport Middle School’s eighth grade passing rate on basic math tests was about 50 percent. In 2009-10, it was 91 percent, math teacher Alex Briasco-Brin said.

Briasco-Brin’s way of teaching math with technology will soon be shared with other math teachers, Mao said.

Laptop critics, including some parents, complain that they can be a distraction from learning: Students spend too much time on social-networking sites, including Facebook and Skype. Overall, educators say the laptops have done what King promised: level the playing field of access to technology and help students become technology-literate.

More important than textbooks

Carl Bucciantini and Peter Robinson were educators in Auburn in 2001 when the middle school became one of nine pilot sites for laptops in Maine. All seventh-graders in Maine got the computers in 2002.

Today, Bucciantini is in charge of technology learning at the middle school. Robinson is in charge of technology for the school department. Both say laptops are invaluable learning tools.

“Every middle school student in Maine has equal access to the technology and tools,” Bucciantini said. “It’s as important now as having a textbook and pencil, possibly more so.”

In physical education classes, students create movies to show their juggling skills and gross motor skills.

“We’ve got language arts and social studies teachers doing research on Maine history,” he said. “The final product will be a documentary.”

Students use laptops to learn advertising and to analyze media, teachers said.

“We have math teachers doing online skill-based type of things and online quizzes,” Robinson said. Students use a site called, Glogster where they create digital posters, and upload photos and music for reports.

Robinson said one teacher recently recalled a parent meeting 10 years ago at which a parent complained about how hard it was at science project time.

Other parents bought all kinds of poster boards, “every kind of colored marker under the sun” for their child’s report.

“They’d throw their wallet at the problem. Those kids came in with professional-looking documents,” Robinson said, compared to plain-looking reports from students whose parents did not have as much money.

Having laptops means all students can do the same quality report, regardless of their parents’ income, “because they all have the same tools,” Robinson said.

Before laptops, students had to learn where to find the information on the library shelves. Today, finding information online is easy. Students now need to learn how to critique the information. That is a higher level of thinking skill, Robinson said.

Fighting Facebook temptation

At the beginning of this school year, Trevor Laliberte was having a tough time balancing schoolwork with the time he spent on Facebook and music websites.

“When you get a brand-new laptop, you want to play with it,” he said. “I’m a musician, so I like to go on Garageband. It’s a really cool program.” He likes to listen to music and write his own.

“I was having a hard time getting my school work in,” he said. His mother was upset with him, lecturing him that he had to focus. She was checking his grades online. He was checking his grades online.

“I was seeing my grades dropping,” Trevor said. “My mom was seeing my grades dropping.”

It was difficult, but after a couple of months he learned to balance work and play, he said.

“I got used to knowing when to go on Skype: after my homework is done; when to go on Facebook: after my homework is done. As I got better, my grades started to go back up,” Trevor said.

Some schools, including Lewiston, block social-media sites during the school day to keep kids on task, Lewiston Middle School Principal Maureen Lachapelle said.

Auburn gave up trying.

“We tried filtering. It’s a losing battle,” Robinson said. “There’s always a way around it. Now our approach is teaching responsibility.”

Any adult attending a meeting might check e-mail every now and then or send a text, but he or she is still paying attention, Robinson said. Auburn’s approach is to teach students that their job is school.

In class, teachers set boundaries, he said. “Some say, ‘It’s OK to check your Facebook if you’re done with your work, but you have to let me know you’re doing it.’”

Besides, he said, the laptops go home, where kids have access to all sites. And students are going to grow up, go out into the world where there is all kinds of social networking.

“We’re doing them a disservice if we don’t start at this age teaching them how to handle that, whether it’s school, college or a real-world job,” Robinson said.

The school has safety nets in place to make sure students don’t fall too far behind if they’re using laptops inappropriately, Bucciantini said. A few have had their laptops taken away, but most most figure it out.

“Learning happens best when you make mistakes,” he said.

Lachapelle and other educators say they hear parents sometimes say their student spends too many hours in their room on their laptops on sites such as Facebook. She recommends that parents decide how much time students can spend on social-networking sites at home.

“At our house, there are signs, ‘No Facebook from 7 to 9:30,’” Angus King said. “Part of it is supervision, he said. You don’t hand the keys to your car to your teenager without rules.

Maine and other states

In the years since thousands of laptops have been given to students and teachers, they’ve become such a part of classrooms that teachers often underestimate how much they use them, Mao said.

“They’ll say, ‘I don’t do too much with laptops,'” he said. “But you watch them in class, and you see teachers with classroom Web page where all kinds of information — homework, class work, recommended sites — is available. Teachers e-mail students and parents. They give out assignments on laptops. It’s become so common it all seems mundane now.”

In classrooms in New Hampshire, it’s a whole different exercise, he said. “For essays, students there go to the library where they have 10 computers for 20 kids. They get information through books, exactly how I did in the ’70s.”

While there’s room for improvement, “teachers are doing great things with the laptops,” Mao said.

Maine is recognized as a “world leader” for technology in classrooms, King said. Delegations from Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Israel, Peru, Australia and Ireland, among others, have visited Maine to learn about laptops.

While some cities and counties have given out laptops, Maine is the only state with a statewide program. “Pennsylvania started a program but closed its doors when funding went away,” Mao said. “ Idaho is in the middle of a legislative battle to create a program.”

King: ‘I’m enthusiastic’

Ten years later, King believes the laptop program was the right thing to do.

“I’m as enthusiastic as ever,” King said. “We did the right thing at the right time. It’s been tremendously successful.” Maine has a digitally literate group of students, he said.

“I keep hearing stories, ‘You should see what my eighth-grader did on her history report,’” King said.

He believes even more can be done.

“We’re on the verge of new ways to use technology in school,” King said, which could be in the form of an iPad or some other less expensive, more rugged device. “It’s now time to take it to the next level.”

Technology is only good if it’s being used, he said. If the teacher isn’t comfortable with technology, the laptops become glorified word processors.

One of the most important reasons for the laptop program was establishing equity. That’s been achieved, King said.

“How many Maine families could have afforded to buy laptops for eighth-graders? Yet every single kid has one,” King said. “We put this tool in the hands of thousands of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have it.”

King recalled Mt. Ararat High School students who interviewed him last spring about energy. The students came over, opened their laptops, pushed a tape recorder button and began asking questions.

“As I’m answering, one student’s Googling things I said, asking follow-up questions. This went on for 45 minutes,” he said.

King said he watched and smiled, pleased to see how at ease the students were using their laptops.

“I remember saying 10 years ago, ‘I want this device to be an extension of their arm, a routine way to learn,’” he said. How the Mt. Ararat students used their laptops was exactly what he had in mind.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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