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.

Dubbed Freedom to Learn, the program is seen by many as the next step toward putting a laptop, or some other wireless computing solution, into 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.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate reached a budget agreement July 15 that would initiate funding for the program, which the governor estimates will require $22 million in state funds and another $16 million in federal grants to be successful.

House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-LeRoy, called the recent budget agreement “a win for school kids all across Michigan.” The governor was expected to sign the spending bill Aug. 11.

As Michigan prepares to grapple with next year’s looming budget deficit, many ed-tech advocates worried whether lawmakers would endorse the ambitious technology initiative, which would make Michigan just the second state in the nation (Maine was the first) to supply portable computing devices to an entire segment of the student population.

Given the state’s current fiscal scenario, Bucholz called the governor’s unwavering support for the program “nothing short of a miracle.”

Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit organization that promotes the integration of technology in the state’s schools and provides online education, will work in conjunction with the state education 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.

This pilot project, originally called Learning Without Limits, was the brainchild of Rep. Johnson, 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.

At the Malcolm X Academy, a public K-8 institution in Detroit, educators used the money to purchase an Apple iBook laptop with a high-speed 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 lawmakers to push forward with their statewide plan. But only, he said, if they are prepared to stay the course.

Lawmakers, he said, also must consider the existence of hidden costs–from the price of insuring the machines to the need for additional software, maintenance fees, and other issues that reflect total cost of ownership.

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. That program delivered more than 17,000 Apple iBook computers to students last school year and is expected to yield another 16,000 machines statewide this fall.

So far, the program appears to be having a significant impact. A report released in May by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, which surveyed more than 8,000 students, 731 teachers, 154 principals, and 40 superintendents, said the laptops have enhanced the quality of classroom activities and have made learning more fun, according to students.

In Henrico County, Va., officials invested more than $18 million to deploy more than 23,000 wireless laptop computers to middle and high school students throughout the district. That initiative has met with similar approval from educators, who say the technology is well-positioned to meet the evolving needs of today’s more digital learners.

In Michigan, students aren’t the only ones tapping into the wireless computing movement. The Michigan Gates Foundation Project recently helped spearhead a $6 million initiative called Leading the Future, which put a Palm 505 in the hands of 4,000 school superintendents and principals so they could use real-time data to make better decisions.

And two years ago, 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 to provide more than 91,000 computers for educators, the largest such state program of its kind.

See these related links:

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

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