When Maine Governor Angus King first proposed last year to provide a laptop computer to every middle school student, many educational technology experts considered it to be a courageous experiment, but were concerned that it put the cart before the horse—that technology would drive, rather than serve, educational practices. “In past studies, we’ve found that the more successful technology integration programs were those that focused first on the academic environment and then on how technology could best enhance that environment,” says EDC Vice President Glenn Kleiman, director of the Center for Online Professional Education (COPE). “What’s impressive about the Maine technology program is that the laptops are already leading to very positive results in classrooms throughout the state, and that many of the teachers, administrators, and parents who were skeptical at the beginning are becoming convinced that every student having a laptop computer is really improving students’ engagement and learning.”
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) began last fall, when every seventh grade student and teacher in every public middle school received a laptop, for a total of 20,000 laptops in use. Next fall, that number will rise to 36,000, when the state will provide laptops for all seventh and eighth graders and their teachers.
“There are a number of positive things that are happening as a result of the laptop initiative,” comments EDC’s Pam Buffington, who is serving as the MLTI mathematics mentor for teachers throughout the state. “Administrators report that they’ve seen an increase in attendance and a decrease in disciplinary action. Some schools report that there has also been a significant drop in the number of seventh graders needing summer school.” Buffington adds that many principals and teachers are finding the technology to be a “great equalizer,” which is leading to improved achievement by students with special needs and other at-risk students who have previously struggled in school.
MLTI is the largest and most ambitious of about a half-dozen large-scale “ubiquitous computing” initiatives and hundreds of small ones underway throughout the country. Each of these initiatives provides a computing device for every student and teacher in participating grades or classrooms, ranging from the Macintosh iBooks in Maine to Alphasmart Danas to Palm Pilots. The goals of the initiatives are varied, according to Andy Zucker of EDC, who oversees a project to coordinate evaluations of these experiments in ubiquitous computing. “What’s driving the move to laptops? It’s not just test scores,” says Zucker. “In Henrico County [Virginia], it’s the digital divide, equalizing access to technology. In Maine, the economic situation was also a major driver. As traditional industries in Maine decline, Governor King [who left office in January 2003] saw the laptop initiative as a way to prepare students for high-tech jobs, which would encourage high-tech industries to locate in Maine.”
In addition to providing the laptops, Maine is providing professional development workshops and resources aimed at helping teachers in all subject areas integrate technology into the curriculum. Those workshops have been particularly valuable for mathematics teachers, who have tended to be “late adopters” of technology, according to Buffington. “Most of the Maine mathematics teachers have had a computer in their classroom, but they made little use of it,” Buffington says. “One of the reasons for that is that, in the past, workshops about technology integration in math class have tended to focus on the use of spreadsheets, which have a high technical overhead. It takes quite a while for teachers and students to learn how to use a spreadsheet for instructional purposes. By contrast, Web-based interactive tools found on the Internet are much easier technologies to bring into the classroom, even though math teachers have previously held the belief that there were few good tools on the Internet to support what they have to teach.” (This observation is consistent with findings from the National Teaching, Learning, and Computing Survey, which found that math teachers lag behind teachers in other content areas in the use of the Internet and software tools, perhaps because they emphasize calculators as the technology of choice for mathematics instruction. For more information on this study, visit the Teaching, Learning and Computing Web site.)
Buffington has identified a range of mathematics resources on the Internet that are specifically designed to supplement existing curricula and that use technology to teach mathematics concepts in unique and powerful ways. Many are small software applications (called “applets”) that work as virtual “manipulatives”—such as online algebra tiles, geoboards, tangrams, and fraction bars—that enable students to explore mathematic concepts and relationships through building physical or pictorial models (see Resources for links to these Internet pages).
For example, one applet called Plop It from Project Interactivate focuses on measures of central tendency (mean, median, and mode). When using this applet, students enter data, and the applet displays a bar graph along with the three measures of central tendency. As students change the data, the graph changes as well. This enables students to explore, for example, how the mean and median change when you add a few extreme values to a set of data. “In traditional ways of teaching central tendency, kids tend to focus on the algorithm without really understanding the concept,” says Buffington. “The applet provides an interactive component and different visual representations, along with a sense of immediacy. They see the changes happening on the screen.”
“Tools like these have been on the Internet for a while, but teachers haven’t
been able to find them,” adds Buffington. “I’ve taken the time
to do that background research for them.” She says that teachers have little
trouble incorporating the applets into their teaching: “Anyone who can
use a browser can easily use the applets.” In fact, the applets are often
easier to manage than physical manipulatives, which are costly, take time to
distribute and put away, and can be a challenge to administer in the classroom.
Because of the ease and availability of the technology, Buffington can focus the workshops she runs for teachers and regional coordinators on the mathematics content and effective teaching methods. The coordinators try out the applets as learners and then discuss their uses and benefits. “The teachers are thrilled, according to the pre- and post-workshop questionnaires I’ve collected,” says Buffington. “Teachers come in saying there isn’t any value on the Internet, and they come out saying, ‘I’m going to do this tomorrow.’”
Buffington has also gone into Maine classrooms to use the applets with students. She finds that the applets are particularly effective with students who haven’t excelled in mathematics in the past. They open up new entry points to deeper mathematics for students who may have struggled with traditional algorithms, for example, and they are particularly valuable for students who are strong visual thinkers or best at learning through hands-on explorations.
On a larger level, Buffington is finding that the presence of the laptops opens up discussions with teachers that may not have been possible before. “School reform is never easy to discuss with teachers,” she comments. “If you ask teachers to change the way they teach, they take it personally. But if you present them with a laptop, the computer becomes the focus of the conversation, rather than the teacher. It’s no longer a personal issue. And discussions about the laptop can open up other topics that were hard to raise before—such as restructuring the classroom setup or the class schedule.”
Originally published on September 1, 2003