A mid-year progress report on Maine’s pioneering program to give all seventh graders in the state a laptop computer says the machines already are having a positive effect in the schools. The report, released this month by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, might well have spared the program from steep budget cuts by the state Legislature to offset the state’s fiscal crisis.

By an overwhelming margin, seventh graders who received laptop computers last fall say the computers have made schoolwork more fun. Teachers also give the laptops high marks, saying the computers enhance learning by providing students with access to more extensive, up-to-date information.

Although the researchers caution that the laptops have only been in classrooms for a few months, they say the “mid-year evidence indicates that the laptop program is having many positive impacts on teachers and their instruction, and on students’ engagement and learning.”

The report was presented March 13 to the Legislature’s Education Committee, which was considering taking money from the laptop initiative to increase general purpose aid to local schools.

The committee recommended using other funds instead, said Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland. “At this point there is no move on the part of the committee to touch the laptops, which I view as a great victory,” Cummings said.

The laptop initiative, launched last year by former Gov. Angus King, involved the distribution of more than 17,000 Apple iBook computers to the state’s seventh graders. The program also calls for distributing more than 16,000 laptops to eighth graders this fall. The state owns the computers, but students use them throughout the school year.

More than 8,000 students, 731 teachers, 154 principals, and 40 superintendents responded to surveys conducted by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

In addition to the surveys, the mid-year study of the laptops included interviews, site visits, and classroom observation. The study focused on such questions as how the laptops are being used and what their impact has been on teachers, students, and schools.

Among the findings: 83 percent of students said the laptops improve the quality of their work. For example, one student wrote that “actually, it improved my reading because … I don’t like to read. And when I got the laptop I just loved reading the stuff online because it’s pretty interesting, more than the textbooks.”

The state’s laptop program has increased the use of technology within classrooms dramatically, the report said. Only 10 percent of students reported using computers in school at least five hours a week before getting their laptops. Now, 65 percent of students say they use computers in school at least five hours a week.

Students are using their laptops to research information, complete assignments, create projects, and communicate with teachers and other students, the report said. Nearly 90 percent of students said the laptops make schoolwork fun, and about 60 percent reported an increase in the amount of work they’re doing both in and out of school. “The nature of student learning in classrooms may be changing because students have the tools to pursue, organize, analyze, and present information more readily at hand,” the report said.

Teachers are finding that their lessons are more extensive, use more up-to-date resources, and provide more opportunities to explore knowledge and information in greater depth, according to the report. They also can communicate more easily with their colleagues, which has created new opportunities and has allowed them to exchange ideas.

One teacher reported that she was “working on a unit with a teacher in Milan, Italy. We are going to have our students collaborate on a project of some sort.”

Although teachers said they see the potential for using the laptops in more sophisticated ways—for example, only a quarter of respondents now use their laptops for student assessment—they said technical problems sometimes limit their use of the machines. Many teachers also expressed a need for more time and professional development.

Students, too, reported technical glitches. Nearly half (45 percent) said they’d experienced problems in the last two weeks. But these problems haven’t dampened students’ enthusiasm for the program; 88 percent of students agreed they’d like to use the laptops more often in class.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.mainelearns.org

Mid-year laptop study (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
http://www.usm.maine.edu/cepare/pdf/ts/mlti.pdf