Inspired by a similar technology program being rolled out in Maine, Michigan lawmakers have just committed $10 million toward the first phase of a plan that would give every student in the state a portable, wireless computing device over the next three years, according to Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, who is spearheading the initiative.

But whereas Maine Gov. Angus King’s $30 million plan is to provide Apple iBook laptops to all seventh and eighth graders in his state, Johnson’s vision is to put either a laptop or handheld computer with wireless internet access in the hand of every Michigan student by 2004.

Many school districts in the state already have introduced handhelds or laptops successfully. As long as it’s wireless and provides one-to-one computing, the state doesn’t care what kind of device school districts choose.

“We don’t want [students] to be limited,” said Johnson spokeswoman Emily Gerkin. “We don’t want them to come to school early to do homework on school computers.”

This fall, the state will take the first step toward its goal by equiping five demonstration sites with the technology. State officials hope to learn from these sites how best to continue rolling out the devices throughout the state.

The first five school districts have not been selected, nor have criteria for the project been determined. Over the coming weeks, an 18-member advisory committee and Michigan Virtual University (MVU), which is the fiscal agent for the project, will develop the specific details.

David Spencer, MVU’s president and chief executive, said school districts throughout Michigan will be invited to apply shortly. “We are looking for the most creative and innovative project proposals,” Spencer said.

“Having one-to-one [computing alone] is not the answer,” said Jim Bosco, education professor and director of external technology affairs at Western Michigan University’s College of Education. Bosco is one of the advisory committee members who will help formulate the project’s guidelines.

The curriculum and teaching styles of teachers also have to change, he said. Professional development and curriculum development will play a large role in the project.

“Much as we have textbooks, we are going to have [technology] on a one-to-one basis,” Bosco said.

Whenever students must share resources—such as textbooks or computers—they only get to use one-third or one-half the resource. This changes the teaching and learning dynamics, Bosco said.

“The only reason we were sharing resources before was because we couldn’t afford [not to],” Bosco said. “Computers cost $2,000 to $3,000 then. [They are] much more affordable now.”

The state legislature approved $3.5 million for the project in April, and the remaining funds will come from federal grants. Another $7 million is earmarked for the following year.

MVU and the Michigan Department of Education will design an evaluation program of the initiative and produce a report at the end of each school year.

Students won’t be the only ones who get wireless computing devices in Michigan. Every school superintendent and principal will get a handheld computer to help make data-based decisions and do their day-to-day jobs.

Marion Ginopolis, director of the Michigan Gates Foundation Project, is spearheading this separate project, called Leading the Future, which will put a Palm 505 in the hands of 4,000 school superintendents and principals this fall so they can use real-time data to make better decisions.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded this project at $6 million.

Last fall, nearly all of Michigan’s teachers received laptop computers through a $110 million project spearheaded by Gov. John Engler, called the Teacher Technology Initiative. The initiative is believed to be the largest such state program of its kind.

Related links:
Michigan Legislature

Leading the Future

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation