As schools across Michigan geared up for a new school year in September, there was a difference: Most of the state’s teachers had new laptop computers, 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 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 chose to receive laptop computers.

About 70,000 of the state’s 97,000 teachers have received the new equipment. This figure was 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.

“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. 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 later this year.

Teachers will take a second survey at the end of the year 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 for 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 the state’s public-education system. Fitzpatrick characterizes it as a “one-of-a-kind, one-time investment” to jump-start teachers’ use of technology, not an ongoing program to ensure that teachers have a current laptop. Individual districts will be charged with that task.

Links:

Michigan Virtual University
http://mivu.org

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