The story of Project Hiller, a laptop initiative launched three years ago at Union Hill High School in New Jersey, is a story of educational vision, effective use of technology, and proven academic improvement. More than anything, however, it’s a story of belonging.
Over the past three years, the Union City School District gave network-enabled laptop computers to 110 incoming freshman students and 70 teachers and administrators at Union Hill High School—an urban high school in a community that is 95 percent Latino, with 72 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. For students selected for Project Hiller, the laptop—and all that came with it—was a powerful gift.
“You could see the motivation in their eyes when they first got the laptops,” recalls researcher Daniel Light of EDC’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT), which conducted a three-year evaluation of Project Hiller. “Some of the students were literally hugging their laptops. Within days, they had all changed the look of their desktops, or they had created their own personal Web pages. It immediately became a great vehicle for them to express themselves.”
The striking thing about Project Hiller, as documented in CCT’s recently published evaluation, is the powerful sense of reciprocal belonging. For students, ownership of a laptop quickly evolved into a sense of ownership within the school and their own learning—which, in turn, gave them a sense of belonging to the school. As one teacher explains in the CCT study, “Project Hiller is more than technology. It is self-reliance, group work, and teacher responsibility. What students need is mentoring and belonging. That is the answer to school reform.”
The Union City Context
For CCT, the special appeal of Project Hiller wasn’t the laptops, per se, but rather the context in which the laptops were introduced into the school. For more than a decade, the Union City School District has conducted a series of experiments with technology designed to advance the goals of a systemwide educational improvement plan. As CCT noted in its evaluation report, Project Hiller presented “a unique chance to investigate the role ubiquitous technologies can play in a setting where many initial challenges associated with urban school reform and technology integration have been overcome.”
In designing Project Hiller, the district had articulated a clear set of goals:
- To retain the best eighth-grade students in the public school system
- To create a cadre of technologically sophisticated students to advance the use of technology among peers and teachers at Union Hill High School
- To improve relationships between students and teachers and, by supporting students’ facility with technology, enhance teachers’ perceptions of students’ capabilities
- To promote collaborative and project-based learning, and make technology more central to core teacher practices
- To increase student performance and outcomes on traditional measures as well as on more innovative measures, such as students’ multimedia project presentations
- To provide urban students with technology comparable to that of suburban schools
The Union City Board of Education committed three years of funding (the 1998–2001 school years) to provide network-enabled laptop computers to 40 incoming freshman students and 20 teachers and administrators at Union Hill High School. In Years 2 and 3, additional cohorts of students and teachers were added, reaching a total of 70 teachers and 110 students directly involved in the program. Half the Hiller spots were reserved for honors students; the other spots were spread among the other three tracks at the school: general, bilingual, and special education. For these tracks, the selection criteria favored attitude and motivation over academic performance.
Because Hiller students, with their laptops, sat side by side with classmates not in the program, CCT researchers had a natural control group to compare with the Hiller students. The unique setup also allowed the researchers and district to watch the ripple effects of the project throughout the entire student population and faculty. For example, the researchers quickly identified a group of students they named “friends of Hiller,” who worked in close collaboration with classmates in the program.
From the outset, administrators made clear that Project Hiller students were expected to produce resources for the entire school. In addition to regular course work, Hiller students worked with teachers to research and produce presentations on academic subjects that would be used in the classroom. “Teachers ask the Hiller students to find information and produce presentations on all kinds of things,” says Light. “For example, one teacher asked them to download spoken-word versions of the Harry Potter books. Or create a presentation for a history class. You see the fruits of the Hiller students’ labors everywhere, and they receive recognition for it, with signs saying, ‘These resources were provided by … ’”
Changes like these are good examples of what CCT was asked by the school board to track in its three-year evaluation of the project. The board was interested in four key domains:
- Students’ academic and social engagement
- Teachers’ and administrators’ beliefs about students’ abilities and competencies
- School culture and climate
To track changes across these domains, CCT designed a multifaceted research strategy, including student and teacher surveys; case studies culled from extensive interviews and observations over the course of the three-year project; and analysis of students’ performance on standardized tests. Results are impressive across all of these realms.
Students’ Academic and Social Engagement
Some of the clearest signs of the success of the project have been the performance of Hiller students on several standardized tests. During the three years of the evaluation, test scores rose significantly for Project Hiller students across all tracks. By the second and third years of the project, participating students scored significantly higher than their non-Project Hiller peers. For example, within the honors track, Project Hiller students scored 414.05 on the mathematics portion of the New Jersey State High School Proficiency Test (HSPT), whereas their non-Hiller peers scored only 396.14.
- Regarding tenth graders’ performance on the HSPT, the mean scores for Project Hiller general track students in each subject were higher than the non-Hiller honors student means.
- On the eleventh grade HSPT, the honors Hiller students scored highest across all three subjects, and the general track Hiller students’ scores were equivalent to the non-project honors students in writing and math. At this level, the test is a state graduation requirement: 100 percent of the Hiller students passed in math, and 98 percent passed in reading and writing.
- The average total SAT score for all Union Hill students was 796; the average for Hiller participants was 978, and the average for non-participants was 762.
Teacher and Administrator Beliefs About Students’ Abilities and Competencies
Beyond tracking the improved performance of students on standardized tests, the CCT evaluation documents the changing perceptions that Union Hill teachers and administrators have of student abilities. In a series of interviews, Union Hill faculty comment on the ways in which the project has raised expectations throughout the school. “The kids are more equipped for technology,” one administrator says. “[They] have more confidence in themselves, in their own abilities, and teachers have to react to that.”
The interviews document the boost in self-esteem that students received from being selected for the project and receiving the laptop—and the raised teacher expectations that accompanied the laptops. “I definitely expect more of them, academically,” says a teacher. “I expect them to be able to do their research and hand in their assignments on time. They have tools right in front of them, so I feel there is no excuse.”
A veteran teacher and department head, who had been skeptical about Project Hiller, explains that one of the successes of Project Hiller has been changing teacher and student expectations. Students met the new and higher expectations because, he states, “it became important for the kid to do a good job for the teacher.” In this teacher’s view, not only did teachers expect more, the students themselves expect more as well.
School Culture and Climate
One of the key goals of the project was to develop mentoring relationships between teachers and students. Or, as one administrator described it, to shift the school culture from “vertical to horizontal,” with teachers becoming seen as partners in learning rather than “dispensers of knowledge.” Project Hiller created a series of opportunities for students to work together with teachers in novel ways—from the initial technology training sessions, where students and teachers sat side by side, to Web teams that carried out various research projects.
“Hiller has built a stronger connection between faculty and students. Hiller teachers get more involved with these kids. And it’s spreading slowly,” says Union Hill’s principal, adding that Hiller will form the nucleus of a mentoring program that will be instituted throughout the school.
Other signs of growing student engagement soon became apparent in the library/media center, which serves as home base for Project Hiller activities. Since the launch of the project, visits by students have grown steadily; today, the media center is full of students every day from 6:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. “This is their space,” comments the director of the media center. “They believe in the library and behave as if they own it. It is theirs.” The evaluators describe a typical scene:
On any given day, a visitor to Union Hill’s media center can find a buzz of activity: students surround a laptop, collaborating on a project; a class works on half of the center’s computers doing research; students read and study independently or hang out with friends. Close by, another teacher and her students complete production of a Spanish language Web-zine on their laptops. Other teachers check e-mail, search for material, submit online special needs student progress reports, or work with students.
Portability and the Impact of Ubiquitous Access
In their application essays for the project—and in early interviews with CCT—many Hiller students revealed a fairly narrow view of technology. They focused primarily on a desire to learn basic computing skills, which they see as critical for entry-level jobs. After a year or two in the project, however, many students begin to see and use technology as a tool for research and intellectual growth. In one example from the evaluation, a ninth grade general track participant was involved in a class project to do field research and write about the impact of different inventions on society:
On his own, he and his partner—who were studying the impact of the automobile—distributed surveys over the Internet to contacts in Miami and rural Tennessee so that they could compare trends in three different locations. They got 10 responses from each site, as well as 50 in Union City, and were able to talk about different patterns of car ownership and driving age in each place. The teacher was pleased not only with the initiative but that the duo asked if they could exceed the 10-page limit for their report.
Daniel Light recalls another student who changed her career goals as a result of her Hiller experiences. “At the beginning of the project, one of the students said [that] technology was important as a job skill. She wanted to be a secretary, and it was necessary that she know how to use a computer,” says Light. “Three years later, she said she needed a computer to learn everything she wants to learn. Now she wants to be a child psychologist, and she’s studying at University of Illinois–Chicago.”
One of the final goals of the CCT evaluation was to analyze the impact of ubiquitous access to computers. In other words, what advantages come with the portability of laptops—and the one-to-one relationships of laptops to students and teachers—versus desktop computers that have been present in the classrooms and libraries for years?
Light comments that the portability of the laptops proved especially useful for high school students: “With high school students moving from classroom to classroom, the laptops are very valuable for storing all of their information and materials. They were particularly helpful with interdisciplinary assignments—so that they could bring the same work with them to history and English classes, for example.”
CCT also observed an increase in productivity. “We saw students working in short spurts between classes because they had constant access to their work and to the server,” says Light. “It’s like us: Now that we’re networked, we tend to work all the time. It’s the same with students. They keep learning and keep thinking all the time. One [graduating] student commented that she would miss being part of an intellectual community. She wasn’t just using the laptop to talk to friends about trends and gossip. They are talking about music and books and authors.”
Looking back over the three-year evaluation, Light says that what strikes him is how well the Hiller experiment actually worked. “Project Hiller provides a good example of the way policy can positively affect classroom teaching and school culture,” he says. “The district had been encouraging teachers to use computers at Union Hill for years, but they had tended not to. They wouldn’t assign presentations, for example, because they didn’t know PowerPoint and couldn’t teach the students how to use it. With Project Hiller, they didn’t need to worry about those kinds of things any more; the students already knew how to use the technology. It shows the potential of what can happen when you enlist students in the process of pushing forward with reforms.”
Originally published on September 1, 2003