Two recent studies of schoolwide one-to-one computing initiatives–one in the United States and one in Canada–suggest that using laptops in the classroom can help improve students’ writing skills and bolster overall academic success. The studies come as an increasing number of states and school districts are rolling out laptop programs of their own.

In Maine, educators at the Piscataquis Community High School (PCHS) in the rural community of Guilford are touting the results of a survey released in January, demonstrating that laptops can have a significant positive impact on learning, especially for at-risk and traditionally low-achieving students. Researchers say the results might help sway lawmakers as they consider expanding to high schools the state’s current laptop program for middle school students.

And in British Columbia, another one-to-one computing study finds that students who use laptop computers to complete their writing assignments can boost their English scores by an average of 30 percent. According to the report, at least 150 middle school students at the Peace River North School District in northern British Columbia showed “vast improvements” in their writing ability last year after wireless laptops were integrated into the classroom.

This year, 90 percent of students who used the machines met the province’s writing standards. Before the laptop program, only 70 percent of students were able to meet the requirements, the study said.

Across the country, one-to-one computing initiatives have been gathering steam as educators and policy makers continue to explore the direct link between technology and student achievement. With this research, many now say the connection is indisputable.

“These studies are vital,” said PCHS Principal Kevin Jordan. “You can listen to what other people say … but this really validates the entire process.”

The Maine study, undertaken by the independent Mitchell Institute and conducted by the Great Maine Schools Project with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is among the first to examine one-to-one computing in a high school environment. The findings reflect information gleaned from the first two years of the project.

In all, 285 students in grades 9-12 and all 26 teachers were given a laptop computer to use at home and at school. Every machine was outfitted with a wireless access card to provide access to the internet from anywhere on campus.

Seventy-nine percent of the students said laptops make lessons more interesting, and 60 percent said they felt more motivated to complete assignments using a laptop.

What’s more, most students agree that laptops have improved the quality of their schoolwork. According to the study, more than half (54 percent) of students say having a laptop has improved their grades, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of teachers agree that student achievement in their classes has improved since the laptop program began.

Jordan said teachers and students use the laptops in a variety of ways, from conducting research and creating PowerPoint presentations to completing web quests. For teachers, Jordan said, “this is just one more part of their arsenal.”

According to the study, more than 70 percent of teachers reported that the laptop program has improved student interaction with teachers and has improved interaction among students, especially those traditionally defined as “at-risk” or “low-achieving.” More than three-quarters of teachers said the laptops had improved their students’ engagement, class participation, motivation, ability to work in groups, and ability to work independently.

Where low-achieving and at-risk students are concerned, Jordan said the laptops “seem to engage them and keep them engaged.” He believes that’s because the interactive nature of the technology appeals to students with very different learning styles.

“Face it, we’re in a digital world now,” he said. “This is just one more mode for them to utilize.”

To implement its high school laptop initiative, PCHS used more than $500,000 in donations and grants to purchase iBook laptops from Apple Computer for every teacher and student at the school. Also included in the price was the cost of installing wireless internet access throughout the building.

But the process isn’t quite as easy as plug-and-play. Jordan said it does take time for staff and students to become acquainted with the technology.

To prepare for the integration at PCHS, some of the school’s more tech-savvy students were invited to participate in a four-day “boot camp” covering everything from performing simple repairs on laptops to loading software and computer programming, Jordan said. Those students, in turn, were asked to provide on-site technical support throughout the initial deployment, he said.

It didn’t hurt that many of the students already had a leg up on the technology, he added. PCHS remains the only high school across the state to have successfully implemented a schoolwide laptop program, but it is far from being the only school.

As part of his legacy in 2002, former Gov. Angus King launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the first one-to-one computing program in the country to provide laptops to every seventh and eighth grader throughout the state. Because the majority of PCHS students hailed from middle schools where laptops are now the standard, Jordan said it wasn’t hard to find good help.

“We sort of utilized the kids as experts,” he said. “It was a kind of train-the-trainer model … with the kids as facilitators.”

Jordan said he hasn’t seen any drawbacks to using the technology, save for the tendency of students to use instant-messaging software to exchange quick-witted virtual notes with one another. But that’s nothing that “good-quality classroom management” can’t fix, he said: “It’s all about setting the culture of the schools as time goes on.”

In British Columbia, educators also are having success with a laptop program. In February 2002, Peace River North–a school for middle-grade students, part of the province’s School District 60–initiated the Wireless Writing Project, a classroom-based, one-to-one laptop program designed to spur student achievement in grades six and seven, particularly in written expression.

What they found was encouraging.

In May 2003, 92 percent of the school’s students produced writing samples that met expectations on the BC Performance Standards–the student assessment metric used by the province–compared with 70 percent of students on the pretest. The project also found that teachers, parents, and students were enthusiastic about the integration of laptops and what impact the machines would have on student achievement, motivation, and attitude.

Teachers, parents, and students describe positive changes in other aspects of achievement as well, most notably technology skills and student attitudes, motivation, and work habits. Since moving to the laptops, researchers say students appear to be better organized, more responsible, and more confident.

Success stories like these might spur other states and school systems to invest in similar programs. Already, some enterprising states are following Maine’s lead.

In New Mexico, for instance, Gov. Bill Richardson recently announced plans for a new statewide laptop program that officials say they modeled after the Maine program.

Called the Governor’s Laptop Learning Initiative, the program reportedly will provide laptop computers to all seventh graders and their teachers. More than 700 students and 80 teachers in six schools will receive laptop computers in the first phase of the initiative, with the goal of eventually providing computers to every seventh grader in the state.

According to published reports, the cost for each laptop is $1,128, including grade- and curriculum-specific software. Dell Inc. is providing the laptops for the initiative.

In New Hampshire, the Associated Press (AP) reported that more than 400 students and 40 teachers at six middle schools recently received laptop computers as part of a $1.2 million grant initiative. According to AP, the schools also received projectors, printers, digital cameras, a server, and a wireless network connecting the laptops to each other and to the internet.

Officials say their program, too, was inspired by the one in Maine.

One hope is that the machines eventually could replace textbooks, said Betsey Cox Stebbins, principal at Armand R. Dupont School, one of the six participating schools. “It would be wonderful to see lighter backpacks,” she said.

Pupils will return the laptops at the end of the school year for use by the next class of seventh-graders.

Michigan also is in the process of rolling out its version of a statewide laptop program. Because of recent budget cuts, however, the extent of that initiative–which lawmakers have dubbed Freedom to Learn–is still uncertain.

See these related links:

Great Maine Schools Project
http://www.mitchellinstitute.org/Gates

Report: “One to One Laptops in a High School Environment”
http://www.mitchellinstitute.org/PCHSinterimrpt.pdf

Wireless Writing Project
http://www.prn.bc.ca/Wireless_Writing_Program.html