A looming $1.7 billion budget deficit next year has done little to curb Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s enthusiasm for an ambitious technology initiative that would provide all sixth-graders throughout the state with their own personal computing devices. The Democratic governor has advanced a $38 million program, combining state and federal funds, to underwrite the one-to-one computing initiative. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, but the program is the brainchild of the Speaker of the Michigan House, and has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the past.

Dubbed Freedom to Learn, the plan is seen by many as the next step toward putting a laptop, or some other wireless computing solution, in the hands of every K-12 student throughout the state.

State education officials reportedly plan to distribute the technology to all of the state’s 132,000 sixth-graders sometime during the current school year, but as of now, they remain undecided about what types of computing devices they will provide.

Wireless laptop computers reportedly remain the preferred devices, but lawmakers also are considering personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

“We’re going to take it one step at time,” said T.J. Bucholz, who heads up the public information office for Michigan’s Department of Education. Bucholz called the governor’s funding proposal “the first step on a long road,” and he indicated the fiscal landscape ahead will determine the rate of progress toward the ultimate destination.

But no matter what happens, he said, “Michigan is committed to making sure technology gets into the hands of every student.”

Before the technology can arrive, however, lawmakers first must approve Granholm’s budget proposal, which would allocate an estimated $22 million in state funds and another $16 million in federal grants to subsidize the program.

As Michigan prepares to grapple with next year’s budget deficit, ed tech advocates worry about whether the state legislature will stick with the governor’s proposal, which would hold the state’s education expenditures constant at this year’s level.

Granholm’s camp remains confident: “The governor’s budget reflects the idea that education is the number one priority,” said communications director Jenna Gent.

Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the integration of technology in schools and furthering the efforts of online education, will work in conjunction with the department to administer the technology and monitor its success.

The organization’s current role grows out of a $10 million initiative in 2002 meant to explore the possibilities of one-to-one computing in different educational environments throughout the state.

The pilot project, originally called Learning Without Limits, was the brainchild of House Speaker Rick Johnson (R-LeRoy), in which 15 winning schools or districts were provided with up to $2 million in grant money to demonstrate how wireless computing technologies and applications could improve education in their schools.

At the Malcolm X Academy, an urban public K-8 institution in Detroit, educators used the money to purchase an Apple iBook laptop with a high-speed 800Ghz processor for each of the school’s 65 sixth-graders.

In conjunction with a completely wireless network, which gives students instant access to the internet from anywhere on campus, school computer coordinator Jeffrey Robinson said officials used the machines to create a fully ubiquitous computing environment. Students now use the technology in class and at home to do assignments, conduct online research, and create multimedia projects.

“The program is going extremely well,” Robinson said. “We have designed a curriculum where the technology is used now in almost every class.”

The students have free access to the internet from anywhere on campus, but the program lacked funding sufficient to procure wireless access from home, Robinson said. Instead, the computers are equipped with 56k modems that allow dial-up access from home.

Having seen the effects of the technology firsthand, Robinson said he would encourage state lawmakers to push forward with their statewide plan. But only, he said, if they are prepared to stay the course.

Last year’s pilot program was intended to give lawmakers a sense of how a statewide rollout might work at schools in different socioeconomic circumstances, said Emily Gerkin, deputy press secretary for Rep. Johnson. The technology, she said, is meant as a tool to re-engage sixth graders, at a time when many students that age become noticeably detached from classroom activities.

Even in its infancy, Michigan’s program bears a striking resemblance to the progressive rollout of other one-to-one computing initiatives around the country.

In Maine, for example, former Gov. Angus King left his legacy in the form of a $30 million effort to provide laptops to all seventh and eighth graders across the state. Also, in Henrico County, Va., officials invested more than $18 million in an effort to deploy more than 23,000 wireless laptop computers to middle and high school students throughout the district.

Students, however, aren’t the only ones tapping into the wireless computing movement in Michigan. As eSchool News reported last May (see “Michigan launches $10 million one-to-one computing program” at http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3717), every school superintendent and principal would get a handheld computer to help make data-based decisions and do their day-to-day jobs.

The Michigan Gates Foundation Project helped spearhead the $6 million Leading the Future initiative, which put a Palm 505 in the hands of 4,000 school superintendents and principals, so they can use real-time data to make better decisions.

And last fall, nearly all of Michigan’s teachers received laptop computers through a $110 million initiative led by former Gov. John Engler, called the Teacher Technology Initiative. At the time, the initiative was said to be the largest such state program of its kind.

Links:

Gov. Granholm’s web page
http://www.michigan.gov/gov

Michigan Department of Education
http://www.mde.state.mi.us/