In 2000, then-Governor of Maine Angus King launched a controversial initiative to place laptop computers in front of every Maine seventh-grade student and teacher-the world's largest effort to implement one-to-one computer access. It was a bold step for a state not used to being at the technology forefront. No less than a half dozen people with direct connections to Bowdoin were instrumental in the implementation of the groundbreaking program. But how well has it worked? What is its future?
Four years ago, then-Governor Angus King caught the attention of educators, technology gurus and politicians across the country when he announced that Maine would be the first state in the nation to provide every seventh-grade student and teacher with a laptop computer. In King's vision, the plan would make Maine "the most technologically literate society on earth"; it would obliterate the digital divide by bringing equity among disparate school districts and students, and it would put Maine on the map as a "cool place" to live, work and do business.
Shortly after King's announcement, President Bill Clinton was giving a speech in Silicon Valley when he departed from his prepared remarks and exclaimed, "Have you heard what they're doing in Maine?" Mainers, characteristically unwilling to jump on any bandwagon, were less enthusiastic. In fact, King immediately was excoriated by critics who accused him of gimmickry, of squandering the state's resources on misguided education reform, of frankly going a little crazy as he rounded out his second term as governor.
But the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (or MLTI) survived many iterations and repeated funding crises to be widely recognized as a success, and as a national and international model.
The Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine issued a report in February showing that students and teachers overwhelmingly believe that the laptops have improved the quality of teaching and learning for students of all abilities. But as the state faces some of the toughest budget decisions in years, the long-term funding of the program remains hotly contested and far from guaranteed.
In January 2002, Maine signed a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Apple Computer to install wireless internet connections in all 239 public middle schools, and provide iBook laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grade student and teacher in the state - 34,000 students and 3,000 teachers. More than 400 seventh-graders in nine demonstration schools got their laptops that March. The rest of the state's 17,000 seventh-graders received them in September, and the eighth-graders got them in September 2003.
"This puts us on the map as a very progressive and forward-thinking place for teaching and learning," said J. Duke Albanese '71, King's commissioner of education and a major architect of the plan.
The original legislation, which has won continued supported from current Govenor John Baldacci, established a second phase of the program, which would introduce the laptops into the high school one grade at a time until every Maine student in grades seven through 12 has one. The legislature is currently debating how to fund that second phase.
Bowdoin graduates have been there every step of the way, clarifying the vision of one-to-one computing as a boon to both education and economic development; shepherding the sometimes hugely unpopular expense through the legislature, and making it succeed on the front lines as teachers and administrators across the state.
"Without the vision of Angus King and the energy of Duke Albanese, this would be just a footnote in history," said David Wilby '91, one of King's senior policy advisors.
As Wilby describes it, his own role as one of three policy advisors was to "make sure that King's policy agenda moved forward in the legislature, on all fronts, doing whatever it took on a daily basis."
"Part of Bowdoin's mission is defined by the Common Good," said Toy. "That has a lot to do with why many people connected with this are also connected with Bowdoin."
"Public service has been part of the history of the College since day one," said Wilby, who now serves as executive director of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine. "There is some sense of trying to use the education you've been given to better the situation for everyone."
King had been fascinated with the idea of placing a computer into the hands of every student ever since the mid-1990s when he met Seymour Papert, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Distinguished Computer Scientist at the University of Maine and a member of the Maine Learning Technology Task Force. Papert, a world-renowned expert on technology in education who lives in Blue Hill, Maine, has been preaching the gospel of kids and computers since the 1960s.
In an essay for the 1999 National Governors' Association meeting, Papert co-wrote (with former West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton): "Success in the slowly changing worlds of past centuries came from being able to do well what you were taught to do. Success in the rapidly changing world of the future depends on being able to do well what you were not taught to do. Already a great number of Americans are doing jobs and using skills that did not exist when they went to school - soon it will be the majority."
King shares the vision of teaching kids to use technology not for technology's sake, but to teach them to think and learn in ways so versatile that they will be prepared for a future we can barely begin to imagine.
"I'd been governor for almost six years, and I realized that everything we were doing was incremental," King said. "We were doing good things, but we weren't creating change. I'd been to my sixth or seventh national governors' meeting and I had a very clear and somewhat depressing insight: All of us were chasing the same thing and doing the same thing, so we in Maine were not going to gain. We'd always be 37th (in per capita income)."
King knew that the number one thing corporations look for when deciding where to locate is a skilled workforce.
"We needed to do something bold and risky," he said. "It was clear the old economy of Maine - small manufacturing and paper - was in decline. I couldn't envision a future economy beyond education and technology. If you have the best educated and digitally literate society, you're going to win."
Part of the problem is that higher education has a history of being undervalued in Maine, said Albanese, who now works as a senior policy advisor at the Mitchell Institute and is co-director of the Maine Sports and Coaching Initiative. Maine leads the nation in graduating students from high school, but is below the national average in inspiring them to complete a college degree.
"That's our paradox," Albanese said, "and one-to-one computing is key to making all high school graduates college-ready."
Peter Hill '02 stands at the head of his eighth-grade science class at Sanford Junior High School as his students saunter in, toting their ubiquitous backpacks and black computer cases. They aren't thinking about education policy or economic development. They're trying to get through the lesson on dichotomous keys, a scientific method of classifying plants and animals, or in this case, candy.
Their assignment is to create a clickable static Web page defining classification and guiding the user through the various groups and subgroups of candy, including the kingdom, phylum, class and order. In the end, they use each other's keys to identify a mystery candy.
Hill's students spend the first few minutes of class transcribing two paragraphs they'd written at home. Sanford, like 60 percent of the school districts in the state, does not allow students to take their laptops home.
"I wish we could take them home," said Richmond Kelly. "That would give us a lot more time in school to learn."
Kelly, who doesn't have his own computer at home, said he likes using a laptop because it makes it easier to organize and revise his work. Many of his classmates agree, but some are annoyed by the problems of technology.
"I don't like them," said Alyssa Hodgdon. "If you have to send them back for repairs, it can takes weeks to get them back, and then you get behind in your assignments. They are slow to boot, they get frozen, sometimes the Internet is down."
But Hill, who didn't have the laptops last year, is enthusiastic about what they add to his lessons.
"We covered the same ground last year, but differently," he said. "Using the laptops, they are learning in a more active and engaging way. The engagement level is 10-fold this year compared to last. They are buying into it more, and I'd say they're learning more because they're buying into it."
Fifty miles north in Freeport, Alex Briasco-Brin is asking his seventh-grade math students to find the values of three unknown numbers in a series of equations. He has written the equations on his computer, and they download them onto theirs using the wireless airport connections that blanket the school.
They do the math work on scrap paper and enter their answers into the computer, which tells them whether or not they were correct. If not, they try again; if they get it, they can go on to other problems.
"I write the program, and it generates as many problems as the kids want," he said. With unlimited problems to choose from, no one in the class knows how many problems their classmates have completed, and they can continue practicing at home if they want to.
"They get immediate feedback," Briasco-Brin added. "I can walk around more and spend more time with them one on one. This eliminates a lot of wasted time. We are covering more material and covering it more in depth," he said.
Briasco-Brin said he tested that theory the first year he had the laptops by giving the same quizzes he had given the year before. Out of 100 students of all abilities, grades improved, on average, by one letter grade.
The laptops also help to integrate the varied needs of students in heterogeneous classes, Briasco-Brin said. "The low-end students need visuals and more practice, and they get that. With the middle students, we can talk more about a lesson until that 'Aha!' happens. And students on the upper level get to go at their own pace and not feel they're being held back."
Some of the most profound benefits have been for students with special needs. Students with poor eyesight can increase the type size of anything on the screen - websites, mathematical problems, their own writing. Those with poor fine motor skills can produce reports and Powerpoint presentations that are every bit as impressive as their classmates'. And because everyone has the same laptop, this adaptation is often invisible to the rest of the class.
"Laptops are an equalizer," said Hill. "It's really easy for me to individualize a lesson for a student with special needs, and their product looks a lot like everyone else's."
Nathaniel McKague powers his way into Hill's class in a motorized wheelchair, followed by Nate Smith, his full-time aide. McKague has cerebral palsy, which has left him with no use of his right hand and partial use of his left. He can hold a pencil in his left hand, but can write only if Smith is holding his hand and guiding it along. Needless to say, he didn't used to do a lot of writing.
But he can use a keyboard, however slowly.
"I like the laptop," McKague said. "It helps me in so many ways. It's cool."
McKague sometimes dictates to Smith as Smith types, but he said, "I would rather do it myself, because if there were a mistake, I would be able to pick it up."
Smith said the laptop has been great for McKague.
"He can draw with a laptop," Smith said. "Visually, it's better for him to do research on a laptop. Visual tracking is really hard for him, so it's hard to flip through a book. It's easier if it's right in front of him, enlarged.
"Nathaniel loves the independence of it, to do his own research, find his own information and put it down himself," Smith said. "If I do too much for him, he lets me know it!"
Smith also works with a student who has a severe learning disability.
"I just tell him to type what he's thinking and go back and edit it later," he said. "He has made more connections, actually learned more, rather than focusing on getting the work done. This removes the stress of worrying what it will look like, so he can produce good work."
Smith's point of view is echoed by other special educators, and by the USM report.
"The physical act of writing is so laborious, it throws up a barrier for these students," said Linda Pritchard, a seventh-grade special education teacher at Freeport Middle School. "With laptops, they're more likely to get their ideas down quickly, and revise and edit their writing. Because they are willing to go back and edit, their writing is better."
"These tools let the kids show what they know," Pritchard said. "By using their strengths, their weaknesses don't show as much. It helps them organize their thoughts and apply what they're learning."
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative was the capstone - and in some ways the logical conclusion - of King's tenure as the state's most technologically oriented governor. In March 2000, with the state floating on a budget surplus, King announced his plan to create a $65 million education technology endowment with $50 million in state money and $15 million from the private sector. The interest generated by the endowment would pay for the annual cost of a program that included giving laptop computers to all seventh-graders.
The idea was immediately attacked on many fronts and for many reasons. "States don't create endowments." "States don't give computers to kids." "What about spending the money on school buildings or highways or healthcare?" Even after King amended his proposal to give the computers to the schools and not the students, the state's education committee voted 11-1 against it; two-thirds of Maine voters in a telephone survey opposed the idea. Newspapers were inundated with letters to the editor, most of them negative.
But in one little corner of the state, the idea took hold. Soon after King made his initial announcement, he was discussing the plan at a business meeting attended by executives from Guilford of Maine, a textile company in rural Piscataquis County. The Guilford representatives were so inspired, they went back to their local school administration and offered to fund the program at the Piscataquis County Middle School before the state even got started, as long as the school district matched them dollar for dollar.
By that fall, every Guilford eighth-grader had an iBook; there was one for every three seventh-graders, and a mobile cart of laptops for fifth- and sixth-graders.
"We're dirt poor and have nothing to work with, but we did it," said Crystal Priest, a former Guilford technology teacher and now the director of technology for the district. "We're a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Bangor and Orono. We don't have a lot of cultural access. The laptops allow our kids to go all over the world."
Part of the problem with the naysayers was timing. The state budget was already in place, and this was a huge proposal to bring in the middle of a legislative session. That's when Tom Davidson, who ran for state representative while he was a senior at Bowdoin, stepped up to the plate.
"There were very few legislators who were willing to say this was a good idea," Wilby said. "Tom was chairman of the Utilities and Energy Committee. He was a fairly senior member of the majority party of the House. He brought together some people of substance from both parties and held a press conference where he said, 'This is a good idea.' They stuck their necks out, and that was a big deal at the time."
As a freshman legislator, Davidson had been responsible for setting up a fund under the Public Utilities Commission to subsidize the wiring of all schools and libraries for high-speed Internet access.
"I was a logical ally for Governor King," said Davidson, who is now managing director and chief operating officer of Davidson Capital, a Virginia-based investment banking and venture capital firm specializing in early-stage technology companies.
Funding for King's program was getting nowhere as the session drew to a close. Davidson won bipartisan support to set aside $30 million and to establish a task force to determine how the money should be spent. That kept the issue alive until the next session, and allowed more people to buy into it.
"This was perceived as Governor King's baby," Davidson said. "We wanted to put together stakeholders. That was the task force."
The task force came back with unanimous support for the idea, but it didn't look the same as King's original plan. There was no longer enough money to create a self-sustaining endowment, so the program is funded out of the state's operating budget. And without an endowment, private fundraising became more difficult. The state has been able to secure some private support: EDS of Texas donated $400 million worth of software to Maine schools; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $1 million for teacher training - because they didn't want their money used to buy Apple computers; MBNA pledged $1 million toward the program; more than 20 banks across the state donated a total of $95,000; King himself donated $100,000 of his own money after he left office.
Edwards said he went into the task force "an agnostic" and came out believing that computers will be a catalyst for better education.
"They offer students a great power to acquire information," Edwards said, "and it's not totally dependent on coming through the mind of a teacher. ...This frees teachers from the dissemination of information and diminishes the custodial dimension of teaching."
"There has to be a computer for every student," Edwards added. "The notion of taking a long crocodile of students down the hall to a computer lab twice a week wasn't going to work."
John Lunt agreed. "What dawned on me was the realization that the technology environment in our building was maxed out," he said. "You can't take advantage of a teachable moment without the technology in the classroom."
Those teachable moments are key in the minds of many educators when they talk about the benefits of the laptops.
Tom Brady '66, who recently retired as superintendent of School Administrative District 22 in Hamden, said this initiative has had "a profound effect on teachers and students," largely because the technology is so accessible.
Brady gave the example of an English class in his district in which the students were reading The Call of The Wild. That led to a discussion of wolves and the debate over reintroducing them into northern Maine. The class spontaneously started researching the most current information online, and ended up making short films presenting the pros and cons of reintroducing wolves. That enthusiasm would have been lost if the teacher had needed to schedule time in a computer lab several days later.
Maine was not the first place to incorporate laptops into the schools. Methodist Ladies' College, a private girls' school in Melbourne, Australia, began providing laptops to all its students in grades five through 12 in 1990. A similar experiment was initiated in Israel.
Under a four-year lease with Apple, Henrico County, Virginia, provided iBooks to all high school teachers in 2000, high school students in 2001, middle school students and teachers in 2003, and elementary school teachers this year, for a total of 27,000 laptops. They have yet to decide whether to give them to elementary school students.
Michigan legislators last year funded laptops for 8,000 sixth-graders in six school districts with the intention of going statewide this year. The legislature had secured $17 million in federal funding and $22 from the state, but the state money was withheld this year because of budget concerns. The federal money alone was used to continue the six pilot sites for another year, and provide laptops to an additional 35,000 of the state's 132,000 sixth-graders. Governor Jennifer Granholm is considering restoring at least some of the state funding, said David Seitz, deputy policy director for House Speaker Rick Johnson. "We handed her the Maine results," he said.
Henrico County Superintendent Mark Edwards estimates that there are 100-200 programs nationwide dedicated to providing each student with a laptop, but Maine remains the first and only to do it statewide. King and Albanese felt strongly that this was the only way to do it.
"The scale makes it a ubiquitous and essential tool for all students, which really gets to the equity issue," Albanese said. "The digital divide is very real."
Others are taking notice. Maine schools have hosted visitors from Texas; Massachusetts; Edinburgh, Scotland; Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada. The education minister of France visited Kittery schools last year. Albanese was invited to New York City in February to present Maine's program to educators there.
In January, New Hampshire began a four-year pilot program by giving laptops, wireless connectivity and training to all seventh-graders and teachers in six schools. The program was funded entirely with donations from 24 businesses and private organizations. Governor Craig Benson's press releases repeatedly cite the success of the Maine program.
The program still has its detractors, and even supporters find fault with it. As with all educational changes, implementation varies among school districts and between teachers in a school. In Sanford, for example, there are no "spare" laptops, so students go without them for long periods while they are out for repairs. One part-time person administers the program for 750 students, Hill said, and there isn't enough technical support.
"This is frustrating for students and frustrating for teachers," he said.
Students want the freedom to take the laptops home - those who are able to find it enormously useful, and 70 percent of teachers statewide agree - but more than half the districts in the state are not willing to risk the liability of lost or damaged computers. According to the USM study, however, damage rates statewide are only 1 to 2 percent.
And students involved in a pilot program in Boothbay, who had the laptops in seventh and eighth grades but now don't have them in ninth, have cooled to the whole idea. Many complained that their teachers in middle school were so intent on using the laptops that they assigned work for the sake of using them and not so much as a natural part of the lessons. They said they don't miss having them, don't miss the responsibility of caring for them, and are happy to be back to the "old" way of learning.
Their peers in the middle school, however, still seem to like having the laptops and say they will miss them if the funding is not continued.
Eric Chamberlin, a Boothbay teacher who championed the laptops, explains the ninth-graders' negativity this way: "Some of them feel a little let down and forgotten because they don't have them anymore. These were some of the same kids who spent a year-and-a-half going on speaking engagements trying to drum up support for the program."
Chamberlin also acknowledged the presence of make-work assignments when the laptops were new. He said that has abated as the technology became less of a novelty and more an integral tool in the classroom. Many educators agree that any change that is this radical can take years to implement seamlessly.
It will take even longer to realize the benefits to economic development in Maine. But as King likes to say, "If we build the workers, the jobs will come."
Governor Baldacci seems committed to continuing the program that he inherited from his predecessor. In his first two state-of-the-state addresses, he made a point of pledging his support for MLTI. Though it won't help those students in Boothbay, Governor Baldacci has proposed expanding MLTI to include ninth graders in September, with the state paying 55 percent of the cost and the local school districts kicking in 45 percent. But his proposed cuts in other areas, which might be necessary to balance the budget, make even that level of funding tenuous.
At least two school districts are considering locally funding the ninth-grade implementation if the state pulls its support. Cape Elizabeth, which has budgeted enough for the district's 45-percent share, is debating whether or not to ask parents to pay for the rest at a cost of $150 per student per year. And Yarmouth's proposed school budget includes complete funding of the laptops for the ninth grade, but the plan still needs to pass muster with the town council and local voters.
A complete lack of state funding will inevitably revive the digital divide that King and Albanese worked so hard to eliminate. Even in Freeport, where the middle school stands as a model of the program's success, School Committee Chairman Christopher Leighton said, "If the state does not kick in a substantial amount of money, we will not self-fund."
"I understand where the state's coming from, but if they drop this, we'll go back to the haves and have-nots," said Priest. Since 2000, Guilford has managed to creatively fund laptops for each student and teacher in grades 6 through 12. They will add grades four and five next year if the state picks up the tab for ninth-graders.
"Five or six years from now, this debate will seem quaint, when all kids have some kind of digital device," King said. "The only question is, are we (in Maine) going to be first or are we going to be 37th?"