LePage executive order seeks to expand digital learning options

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AUGUSTA — Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said Gov. Paul LePage’s call for Maine schools to use more technology supports what Auburn schools are doing.

LePage on Wednesday directed Maine Commissioner Stephen Bowen and his staff to create a study on how to infuse more technology into Maine schools. Results of the plan are due Jan. 4, 2013.

Among other things, the plan should address how students can access online classes, including topics schools might not be able to offer in-house.

Auburn schools are considered a leader in Maine when it comes to teaching with technology. Auburn has given laptops to every student in grades 6-12, and this year all kindergarten students have iPads. “Our vision is to have every student have a one-to-one” iPad or laptop, Grondin said.

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What’s important about the study LePage has ordered is it involves input from students, parents, teachers and technology experts, Grondin said.

Technology can boost learning, “but students still need connection with an adult to help navigate their learning.,” Grondin said. “We do have to balance what an online course is going to cover and what teachers will facilitate.” Another key ingredient is professional development for teachers, she said.

The big questions are how Maine schools will use more technology and how much that will cost.

The study will help show that direction, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. The study will explore which technology to use, how teachers will get professional development and how to maximize use of technology already in classrooms.

The order is the latest in a series of reforms rolled out recently by LePage and Bowen.

“It’s really about, if a kid wants to take Latin because he’s headed to medical school and he lives in Alexander, how can we get that kid a Latin course? It’s as simple as that,” Bowen said.

He said the idea grew out of an online learning bill introduced last session that ultimately failed. “We couldn’t get it where we wanted it to be, so we decided to sort of back up and do something else,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

That something else is to create a strategic plan, using other states’ successes as a model, that provides students more opportunities in an increasingly digital world.

The initiative could face opposition from the state teachers’ union.

In a recent post on the Maine Education Association website, titled “The Cyber Attack on Public Schools,” the union was critical of the growing trend in digital learning.

“Their ‘virtual school’ where computers replace classmates and students learn via the Internet is the answer to all our problems with public schools. They will reduce the drop-out rate, engage the gifted and talented, and help everyone in between,” the post read. “Plus, they will cost less money and you don’t have to worry about busing or maintaining bricks and mortar schools.

“There is an old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And, that is the case with virtual schools. Behind the smiles is a corporate raid on public education to make the almighty dollar.”

MEA Spokesman John Kosinski said the recent post was meant to target negative aspects of digital learning that have been seen in other states. He said the MEA is generally supportive of what Bowen has in mind.

“We would want to supplement, not supplant, the education that is being done,” Kosinski said.

Florida has developed a state-run virtual classroom accessible to all schools. New Hampshire recently launched a virtual charter school. Bowen said he would look at those two states to see if those programs make sense for Maine.

Funding could be a hurdle, Bowen said. One piece of Bowen’s plan will include a new request for proposals for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, an idea from former Gov. Angus King that provided Maine middle school students with Apple laptops. That program has since expanded to include high school students.

The current MLTI contract with Apple runs through June 2013. Bowen said he has to consider how to structure the next contract.

When the MLTI initiative was first launched, he was teaching in Camden, Bowen said. “There was no real content to use then; now it’s everywhere,” he said. “We need to ask, ‘How does this content work its way into traditional teaching practices?’”

Sun Journal staff writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report.

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