Michigan is offering $9.5 million in grants for school districts that have a plan to make wireless computers available to their students, state lawmakers and education officials said Aug. 30.

The “Learning Without Limits” pilot project, which will give wireless computers to thousands of students, is intended to be the first step toward providing laptops to all K-12 students in Michigan.

School districts had to submit their grant proposals by Oct. 8 to be eligible for one of 10 grants worth up to $2 million. Those that already have such technology can apply for five grants worth up to $100,000 each. The program is a pet project of House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, who set aside $3.5 million for it in this year’s school aid budget. About $6 million in federal money also was used to pay for the program. “It makes learning go beyond the traditional walls of the classroom,” Johnson said during a news conference at the headquarters of the Michigan Virtual University.

Even school districts with aging buildings easily could begin using wireless computers, officials said, because they don’t require installation of computer stations or the use of cords and wires.

“The oldest buildings in the state can accommodate wireless,” state Superintendent Tom Watkins said. “It provides, in a way, a level playing field.” The state Department of Education will pick the 15 winners by Oct. 22, and the programs should be operating by January 2003, said David Spencer, president of the Michigan Virtual University. Winners will be spread across the state, with at least one in the Upper Peninsula.

Proposals can include all schools in a district, one grade level across all the schools in a district, or just one school, organizers said. “We’re looking for creative proposals,” Spencer said. Proposals will have to include the creation of a partnership with a public university, business, or corporation. Such partnerships might mean additional funding, but officials said school districts don’t have to demonstrate they will receive matching funds to receive a grant. Although the cash-strapped state can’t afford to provide computers to all of its K-12 students now, Watkins and Johnson said it’s important to begin the pilot project.

“We want to say this can work in the poorest neighborhoods, in the [Upper Peninsula],” Watkins said. “Our goal is to try to provide balance.”

Schools likely will save money on the cost of textbooks and paper with the new technology, officials said. Lon Schneider, superintendent of Manton Consolidated Schools in Wexford County, Mich., said the 1,100-student district already has saved money with the addition of its wireless computers.

The district has at least one computer in each classroom and a mobile lab with 30 computers. The technology allows students to take classes that aren’t offered within the district, get lessons to students who’ve been expelled or suspended, and train teachers, Schneider said.

The district recently gave a laptop to a student who is caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer, he said: “This is about being creative.”

Links:

Michigan Department of Education
http://www.michigan.gov/mde

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

Applications for the “Learning Without Limits” grant program
http://wireless.mivu.org/schoolparticipation