As schools across Michigan gear up for a new school year, there is a difference in the classroom: Most of the state’s teachers have a new laptop computer, thanks to a $110 million program proposed last year by Gov. John Engler. Whether the Teacher Technology Initiative—believed to be the largest state program of its kind—will make a difference in teaching and learning remains to be seen.

Adopted by the state and administered by the Michigan Virtual University, the program makes use of a $110 million state appropriation designed to get technology into the hands of classroom teachers.

At about $1,200 per qualifying teacher, the money can be used by districts to purchase desktop or laptop computers for individual teachers or, in some cases, to purchase other technology resources for the school.

Not surprisingly, most of the qualifying teachers have chosen to receive a laptop computer. To date, about 70,000 of the state’s 97,000 teachers have received new equipment, a figure that is expected to rise to 90,000 by the end of October. Qualification for the funds was not automatic. Applicants had to sign a fair-use agreement and take an assessment before receiving the money. Only full-time employees and those with classroom responsibilities were approved; part-time instructors and those without classroom responsibility were not eligible to participate.

The equipment remains the property of the district, given through a long-term loan to the teachers.

Jamey Fitzpatrick, vice president of development and education policy for Michigan Virtual University, says he already has noticed a difference in how teachers use technology. He tells of his own visit to a parent orientation at his son’s high school, at which comfort with technology was ubiquitous.

“Without exception, every one of his teachers said, ‘The best way to connect with me is eMail,'” Fitzpatrick said. Reactions from Michigan teachers have not been uniformly enthusiastic. Rosemary Carey, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, reports hearing reactions that are all over the map—from “the best thing that has ever happened” to “the money could have been spent better elsewhere.”

However, she says most teachers are “very pleased that they have computers.” Fitzpatrick thinks teachers will be the best indicators of the program’s success. He says program officials deliberately have downplayed criticisms of the state’s expenditure, choosing to wait until teacher feedback is available to say whether or not the program was worthwhile. But early indications seem to be positive.

“The number of phone and eMail messages from teachers has been just incredible,” Fitzpatrick said. “We have acknowledged them professionally. [Now] how do we share the stories?”

Michigan Virtual University is looking for ways to make public the teacher feedback and the stories of best practices that emerge, he said. Hard data indicating the program’s success may be available soon. An initial assessment, which all participating teachers have completed, will yield one of the most comprehensive snapshots of teacher technology comfort level ever taken.

Addressing such topics as operation of basic computer applications, using technology to design lessons, and professional and legal standards, the survey results will be released in about a month.

Teachers will take a second survey at the end of the program to measure their progress. “The biggest issue is training,” said Carey, noting that districts likely will step in with training programs once all equipment is in hand.

Toward that end, Michigan Virtual University also has purchased, with grant monies outside of the initial $110 million, a statewide license of more than 700 online training courses. Published by NETg, a training company based in Naperville, Ill., the courses are aimed at helping teachers improve their technical proficiency. Teachers also will benefit from each other’s expertise as they learn. One component of the initial survey asked teachers if they were comfortable enough with a given subject to serve as a resource person for their peers. These data now are available online for project participants, who can find a technology mentor at the building, district, or state level to help them.

Approximately 25,000 teachers have volunteered to be on call for their peers. The Teacher Technology Initiative is not a panacea for all technology problems in the state. Fitzpatrick characterizes the program as a “one-of-a-kind, one-time investment” to jump-start teachers’ use of technology, not an ongoing program to ensure that teachers always have a current laptop in hand. Individual districts will be charged with that task.

“Greater responsibility will be placed on local school districts,” Fitzpatrick said. However, he points out that districts should have a much easier time replacing these laptops once they become obsolete. “In three to four years, [districts] will be able to buy a robust computing device for much less than $1,200,” he said. Carey believes the infusion of laptops will not bring drastic changes to the classroom overnight. “Not so much is education going to change in the classroom,” she said. “This is a tool.”

She notes that teachers she has spoken to are using their computers for a variety of tasks, from classroom activities to personal administrative use. She also describes a wide range of initial competency levels, from novice users to those who will use the machines for multimedia classroom presentations. Initially, the most valuable part of the program is the attention it has drawn to technology for teachers and the data the initial survey will provide about educators’ technology use.

“[We’re] causing discussion to occur,” said Fitzpatrick. “The level of professional dialogue has really started to kick in.”

Links:

Michigan Virtual University
http://www.mivu.org

Michigan Education Association
http://www.mea.org

Gov. John Engler’s office
http://www.michigan.gov/gov

NETg
http://www.netg.com/us/flash.asp