Critics of educational technology often point to a lack of empirical evidence demonstrating its effectiveness as reason for their concerns. But thanks to a grant from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Minnesota’s Independent School Districts 191 and 196 have plenty of first-hand evidence to support technology’s power to transform education.

In the fall of 1997, the districts gave laptop computers to 150 fourth graders from low-income families. They also organized computer and network training sessions for every member of the students’ families.

“The results of the project have been tremendous,” said Denise Griffith, technology coordinator for ISD 196 and one of the grant’s co-writers. “We’ve had examples of kids who weren’t as motivated about school before and are now star students.”

The project was made possible by a Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) grant. While most people think of TIIAP as a program that funds wiring projects, Griffith said, TIIAP is really about “bridging the technology access gap”–which became the project’s title.

“We already had our infrastructure in place–that was one of our strengths,” Griffith said. (The districts are connected to the internet through a regional consortium via T1 lines). “What we wanted to demonstrate with our project was that access to technology enhances student learning.”

Life with laptops

The idea for the project began as a conversation between Griffith and Ann Kastler, principal of Glacier Hills Elementary School. “I remember reading about a housing project in Brooklyn where families could check out laptops and saying, ‘Gee, why can’t we do something like that?'” Kastler said. “Denise took the idea and ran with it.”

Griffith teamed with Steve George, technology coordinator for ISD 191, to write the TIIAP grant. “Our goal was to empower families through access to technology,” she said.

The $374,000 grant funded the hardware and two full-time trainers. In addition to the laptops, participating families received a printer, modem, and dial-up access to the districts’ wide-area network infrastructures for access to eMail and the internet.

Families of students who received the laptops were required to stay in the district for two years and commit to at least 50 hours of computer and internet training. If the families met these two requirements, they could keep the computer at the end of the second year.

While students were chosen to participate based on a sliding scale of family income, there were enough computers left over to open the program to almost any fourth-grader.

“We were worried that there might be a stigma attached to participating in the program, but actually the kids were really proud to be a part of it,” Griffith said. “Opening it up to all the fourth graders helped as well.”

Evidence of success

To measure the project’s success, the districts are compiling empirical data on student performance. Because it’s only been a year, the data aren’t complete. But there can be no mistaking the anecdotal evidence.

“We’ve seen improved attendance, better homework completion, greater academic success, and a change in the self-esteem and attitude of students,” Griffith said. Of all the participating families, she said, only one has failed to follow through on the program.

Andrew Baldwin, one of the two trainers who worked with family members after school and in the evenings teaching them how to use the technology, said, “One student who admitted she’s not very good at school told me she loves the computer–it makes her feel smart.”

Not only have students benefitted; their parents and siblings have benefitted as well. “Ninety percent of the parents in the focus groups we set up told us their increased technological competence has helped them receive a better job or better pay,” Griffith said.

Baldwin echoed Griffith’s observation: “I’ve had several parents come up to me and say, ‘Thanks–I’ve been able to get a new job or a new position because of this.’ What really impresses me is the number of families who went above and beyond the minimum hours of training the program required, just so they could learn as much as they could.”

Having access to the internet has increased home-school communication as well, leading many parents involved in the project to take a more active role in their children’s education and the community at large.

“We had one family in Burnsville who never attended school functions, and now they’re volunteering to be on committees. They’re even serving as technology mentors to the other tenants in their apartment building–and that’s something they initiated on their own,” said Griffith.

An unintended consequence of the program has been an increase in parent-student interaction at home, Griffith said, with parents working with their children on the computer together.

“Personally, I feel pleased to be a part of it,” Baldwin said. “It was a rewarding experience to make that connection that turns people on to learning.”

Minnesota ISD 196
http://www.isd196.k12.mn.us

Minnesota ISD 191
http://www.burnsville.org/education/edu.html

Bridging the Technology Access Gap project
http://www.isd196.k12.mn.us/departments/technology/tiiap/index.html