From lunch boxes to laptops – 1:1 project

On Wed 7 Nov 07 I attended a talk by Mr. Angus King, the ex-governor of Maine, at the SCGS. Thanks to Amanda who was so kind to invite me.

Mr. King made a bold move, to introduce a laptop for each 7th grader in Maine, a project that was initiated in the late nineties and got realised in 2000. Over lunch with Seymour Papert, one of the gurus in Artificial Intelligence (he set up MIT with Marvin Minsky) and education (he worked with Piaget in Switzerland for a while), Papert suggested him that he should go for a student / laptop ratio of 1:1. At that time it was around 5 students per computer, whereby the computers were used in the school ground only. Papert said that even a 2:1 ratio of students vs. computers would not make a huge difference.

The reasons for the idea to spend state money on computers for students was with the goal to improve the economy of the state:

  1. more education and technology –> necessity for the future
  2. all state governors were chasing after the same goal –> need to make a difference to have impact
  3. improvements were incremental so far and not keeping up with speed & scale of changes taking place in the world

A good write up of the reasons why, can also be found here.

Papert’s influence on the plans are written up here.

The idea for the project was not met with too much enthusiasm at first for various reasons:

  • controversial
  • fear of change
  • lack of understanding of power of IT/internet

When the project was announced and King got the first questions on it, “Who is going to own the computers?” his immediate intuitive response was: the kids. He had empowerment in mind and the laptops should be taken home, that way the parents would be introduced to them as well. This however was met with great resistance, to have kids owning such an expensive device, expecting they would be careless with it.

One school decided not to wait for the state of Maine to launch the project, and got a local company to sponsor them and they bought laptops for all their students. This became a model school to convince people that the idea actually worked.

Apple won the tender to provide laptops for all 7th graders in Maine. What was interesting is that the tender did not specify any technical details on the equipment. Instead it specified what they wanted to do with the technology, word processing, internet, email, maths, etc. In the end it was left up to the schools whether they wanted the students to take the laptops home with them. About 50% of the schools allowed this. However, the laptops remained property of the school.

Professional development was equally important and time was spent as well to introduce the technology and the new ways of teaching to the teachers first. The teacher’s role is more of coach / facilitator and the students are finding their own information. Each school appointed a lead teacher, and for every 7 schools regular meetings are/were held amongst the lead teachers. A webportal was introduced too. Surveys held amongst teachers showed that 70-80% of the teacher are very positive about the program.

A comparison was done on writing proficiency between a group of students being taught by a teacher who was amongst the high computer use group and a teacher who stuck to the traditional teaching methods. The high use computer group class scored twice as high in the test as the group who did writing in the traditional way.

Student engagement is heightened with the introduction of the laptops. They are more engaged in the learning and being engaged helps them to learn better.

Security: schools have filtered wireless access on the campus, and a remote desktop feature available for teachers plus a history log to check which websites the students have visited.

Next step is to introduce the laptops into the high schools and to facilitate this, all teachers have received a free laptop.

Home internet access is a problem for low income groups or remote areas. There is a private fund that will help the lower income groups to apply for dial up access.

What are the benefits of the project?

  • students learn how to discover and use information (in this world of information overflow)
  • teamwork
  • creativity is stimulated
  • better student engagement

What it doesn’t necessarily do is generate better test results, because the tests are still based on rote learning.

A very insightful and inspirational talk!


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