Head into any 7th- or 8th-grade classroom in Maine, and you’ll see something you won’t see in any other state: every student holding a laptop. The free laptops, provided under Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative over the past 15 years, have been expanded to most high schools, as well. But has it changed learning?
Tracy Williamson’s music class at Gorham Middle School is unusually quiet. No kids pounding on bongos or squawking their way through a song on the clarinet. In fact, no instruments are used here.
Instead, each student pulls out a laptop and creates a musical composition from a computer program.
“Every single student can do something, create a musical composition at their own speed, own level, using the resources they want to. Something we definitely could not do at that short amount of time without these devices,” Williamson says.
Student Kyla Piacitelli is working on a photo slideshow with a personalized soundtrack on her laptop. She inserts pictures of her teammates from her soccer team, then she searches for beats and jingles to match the emotions of the photographs.
She says she’s never been much of a musician, and that without her laptop, she’d struggle.
“We were learning guitar in the first unit, and I could not remember for my life how to play all the different things. So I feel like with this, it’s so much easier,” Piacitelli says.
Over the past 15 years, technology has become part of almost any school curriculum in Maine. Laptops and tablets have helped students research topics and communicate with their teachers every day.
Amy Johnson, the co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, says educators have found that the bigger challenge, however, is trying to get students to actually learn with these new tech tools.
“One thing we know is that if you say, ‘Here are computers,’ that doesn’t have much of an impact on student learning,” she says.
Johnson says a device is only one small part of the equation. Schools also need internet access, school leadership who lets teachers experiment and professional development to show teachers best practices. In classrooms where this has happened, she says students have seen higher scores in writing, science and math.
Yet, if you look at standardized test results, Maine’s scores have remained pretty much the same.
“The fact that we’re not seeing large-scale increases in student learning leads us to suspect we still need to do some work with helping schools and teachers understand and keep up with the best ways to use technology for student learning,” Johnson says.
So why has it been so tough to affect student learning? Experts say there are a number of factors.
“When I came here, teachers complained that when it rained a lot, the internet didn’t work. Now that doesn’t make any sense to me, but I heard it enough to say maybe there’s some reason for this,” says Dennis Crowe, the technology director for the Gorham school district.
Crowe arrived almost a decade ago, a full six years after middle schoolers began receiving laptops from the state. He says because of a lack of investment, the computers were mostly used as glorified typewriters.
“In 2008, the high school didn’t have wireless,” he says. “It was generally in disarray. It was because we hadn’t invested in technology.”
With the help of school officials, Crowe improved internet access and added new equipment. In 2009, Gorham paid to give devices to every high schooler, as well.
Now, high school students in James Welsch’s American politics class write blog posts, read one another’s work and share links and articles. He says it has turned the class into an interactive discussion where students learn from one another.
“How can I draw on the amazing resource of the internet? Map databases? So many things. We can put the world on the desk of each kid,” he says.
The paperless push has also encountered some roadblocks. Welsch says he noticed something different in his students’ writing. Essays were suddenly shorter and more disjointed, as if students were distracted and rushing to finish their work.
“Like, there was a disconnect between paragraphs in a single paper. Or a single piece of writing,” Welsch says.
Asked whether that disconnect meant students might watch Netflix in between writing paragraphs, he says, “Definitely. But you could also see an increase in copy-and-paste. Whether it’s from another student. Whether it’s from a piece online. Digital sharing is what these guys do. And that’s something, another piece to combat.”
That led Welsch to take a step backward. In some of his classes he requires his students to write out their essays completely by hand.
“Those handwritten papers, the cohesion is better. It’s one piece of writing, as opposed to a couple of pieces of writing jammed together on the same page,” he says.
Because of these issues, some teachers have decided that technology isn’t essential in their classrooms.
“On my board are four rules: no food, no drink, no drama and no gadgets,” says a teacher who asked not to be identified. “You don’t ever need a laptop in my class. In class, ever.”
The teacher remains skeptical that he can find an online tool to help his students in class, rather than distract them — and he’s not alone.
Across Maine, distraction among students, slow internet access and even cheating have been reported, discouraging some teachers from adopting new programs and curricula.
Johnson says in order to help teachers improve academic results, they need to know where learning is being transformed and see how it helps.
“The next nut that needs to get cracked is for schools to see what good practice can look like, and the wide variety of good practice, so they can say, ‘These are the kinds of things we’d like to encourage more,’” she says.
While teachers and school administrators try to figure that out, students say it’s tough to imagine school without a laptop. Gorham ninth-grader Nikolas Sharon says he needs his for English and history.
“I don’t think I could do it, honestly. I probably would have dropped the class,” he says. “I don’t want to look at a newspaper. I don’t even know where to get a newspaper.”
Sharon says now, he reads the news on his laptop.
Maine Public education reporting is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.