A Computer for Every Lap: The Maine Learning Technology Initiative

In 2000, the state's governor spearheaded an effort to eventually provide every public school student with a laptop computer.

In 2000, the state's governor spearheaded an effort to eventually provide every public school student with a laptop computer.
Maine Learning Technology Initiative

Students at King Middle School in Portland agree with reports that laptops used well promote learning and engagement.

Credit: Edutopia

"Why shouldn't Maine be first?"

So asked then-governor Angus King in 2000 as he proposed that all seventh graders in the state be given laptop computers.

"For more than one-hundred years," King said, "Maine has always been in the bottom third of states -- in prosperity, income, education, and opportunity for our kids. In my thirty years of working on Maine economic issues, no idea has had as much potential for leapfrogging the other states and putting Maine in a position of national leadership as this one -- giving our students portable, Internet-ready computers as a basic tool for learning."

Three years later and thousands of miles away from daily politics (King left office in January after serving the maximum two terms), he is even more enthusiastic about the Maine Learning Technology Initiative that took effect last fall and that he predicted would "put Maine on the technological map," produce "the country's most digitally literate teachers and students," and "be the most significant project in the history of the state."

"The results are unbelievable," he said in a cell phone interview from St. Augustine, Florida, where he was on the first leg of a five-and-a-half-month motor home tour around the country with his family. He and his wife, Mary, are "road schooling" their two children, Ben, age twelve, and Molly, age nine. As well as being an "unwinder" after political life, King says, he and Mary felt the trip was "a great chance to do something important with the kids."

Promising Results

Reports from nine pilot schools that got the laptops in the spring of 2002 and the rest of the state's seventh grades that got them in fall 2002 indicate positive results. Attendance is up and discipline problems are down at many schools. For example, at Pembroke Elementary School, detentions slid from twenty-eight to three among students who had laptops, suspensions dropped from five to zero, and 91 percent of the students with laptops improved their grades in at least one academic area.

"I have never handed all of my homework in because I always lose stuff," wrote one student in a laptop survey. "Now I hand everything in because it is right there on my laptop." "I spent a lot more time working on my assignments because it was a lot more interesting," wrote another student. "I made honor roll for the first time!"

"The key word is engagement," King says. Engagement plus teacher know-how. The state made professional development for teachers an integral part of the program because, says King, "if you just drop the computers on the kids' desks, it won't work. ... It's a fundamentally different way of teaching. It's not standing up in front of the classroom and lecturing."

Unexpected Money

The laptop idea took root in the mid-1990s when King invited Seymour Papert, who had been described to King as "this really cool genius," to visit him in Augusta. Papert, who lives in Maine, is a South Africa-born artificial intelligence pioneer, who was co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and inventor of the LOGO computer language. Papert describes the computer as "the intellectual tool of our time."

After lunch in the governor's mansion, the two sat down for a chat. King observed that the student-to-computer ratio in Maine was 5:1. "What if we could get a bunch of money and make it 2:1? Wouldn't that be cool?" he said to Papert. To the governor's surprise, the MIT scientist said no. "It only turns magic when it's 1:1," replied Papert, a leading expert on how children think and learn.

About three years later, at a National Governors Association conference in Washington, King had a related, "very stark, somewhat scary insight" -- that all the governors were working toward the same goals of opportunity and prosperity for their constituents in the same way. "I suddenly realized if Maine was doing what everyone else was doing, we could never get ahead."

Not long afterward, state auditors reported a surprise $70 million budget surplus, and King was reminded of his conversation and his epiphany. "I said to people in my office and in the Department of Education, 'Look, I'm tired of doing things that are simply incremental. We get a few more dollars, we put a little more into education, we build a few more roads, but nothing changes. What can we do to really make a fundamental change and do something different from what everybody else is doing?'"

With input from Department of Education Commissioner Duke Albanese and others, they decided that Papert had the right idea. Give every kid a computer. Laptops, which didn't take up much room and had the benefit of being portable, seemed the best idea, especially since 40-50 percent of Maine students did not have computers or Internet connections at home.

"I announced it in the winter of 2000 and all hell broke loose," King recalls. The initial proposal was to create a $50 million endowment for the laptops, the interest of which would eventually pay for laptops for Maine students. "Experienced legislators told me it was the most controversial legislation they had ever seen."

A Tough Sell

The state appropriations committee voted 10-to-1 against King's proposal. E-mail also ran 10-to-1 against.

King made speeches. Apple Computer brought seventeen iBooks to the capitol and set up a sample classroom. Kim Quinn, technology coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, created a Battle of Gettysburg Web site with everything from a 360-degree panoramic image of the battlefield to such songs as "Yankee Doodle," "Dixie," and "John Brown's Body." King hit the road, visiting middle schools around the state and going into classrooms to teach about Gettysburg using the Web site and the laptops donated by Apple. "It was a traveling road show," King recalls, and it got plenty of television, radio, and newspaper coverage. Over time, he met with every one of Maine's 186 legislators in groups of five or ten and made the Gettysburg presentation to them. Author Stephen King, Papert, and other prominent scientists and engineers made pitches to lawmakers or appearances at schools. Slowly, an advocacy group of teachers, parents, principals, and community members was growing.

The next boost for the project came when a small rural school district in Guilford decided, with the help of a $100,000 grant from Guilford of Maine, a local textile company, to buy its own laptops. More than half went to eighth graders, and the rest were shared among fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. Students at Guilford took virtual tours of the Louvre, NASA, and Columbus's three ships. They tracked local weather patterns. Their research and data collection were more complete and varied than it had been before. They built portfolios and worked more at their own pace in their own style of learning. And they were more eager to write.

Small Investment for Big Dividends

Guilford "was critical because it gave us a test site that we could point to," says King. The proposal was also getting national and international attention, a situation King still can't qualify as a help or a hindrance in winning state support. President Clinton spoke of Maine during a speech on the digital divide, calling the laptop proposal "a remarkably good thing."

The governor, an independent, also used the political strength of his office. The legislature "had to pass the budget, and the budget required my signature, and this was my price." Lawmakers weren't willing to hand over $50 million, but in April 2000, they did agree to create a Maine Learning Technology Endowment financed with $30 million in surplus funds. By January, the commission had recommended that all seventh and eighth graders receive laptop computers starting in fall 2002. And in August 2002, under a $37.2 million contract with Apple -- $25 million from the Legislature, the rest from private donations -- 18,000 shiny white iBooks with black carrying cases were delivered to schools for 15,000 students and 3,000 teachers.

King estimates that it will cost between $15 and $20 million a year -- about 1 percent of the education budget -- to put computers in all the middle and high school grades. "When you think of all the money spent in schools and try to determine impact per dollar, this is off the charts," he says.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
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This article originally published on 5/13/2003

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