Schools should make their own decisions on laptops

Posted May 25, 2009, at 5:44 p.m.

Come fall, all students in Maine’s 120 public high schools are on tap to receive a laptop computer, as the state moves to expand its one-to-one computing initiative to encompass all of secondary education.

Launched in 2002 with seventh- and eighth-grade students and teachers, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative has attracted nationwide attention. As the first state to integrate laptops comprehensively into middle school education, Maine became an instant front-runner in the global race to prepare young people with the knowledge and skills they need to compete in the world today.

The expansion of the program to high schools statewide offers a tremendous opportunity for Maine to once again demonstrate national leadership in the transformational use of educational technology to improve student engagement, 21st century learning and results.

Notably, for the first time in the history of the program, school districts can make their own decisions about the laptop solution that best fits their needs and exercise local choice about how their technology dollars are spent. The state Department of Education once again has provided the computer configuration for school use of 100,000 new laptops — at a cost of about $25 million per year from existing funds dedicated to educational technology. School officials, however, can opt out of the deal and explore their own solutions.

It’s an option they shouldn’t take lightly. Today, there are great values in the laptop market, thanks to increased competition, affordability, reliability and performance, which merit a closer look.

Technology changes quickly, making it imperative for districts to consider carefully the best solution for their teaching and learning needs now and for the coming few years. Many more technology providers are targeting the education market and offering high-performance laptops specifically designed to meet the demands of 21st century learning.

The latest products are rugged, durable and built for Web connectivity — perfect for on-the-go learning, communication and collaboration. They allow teachers and students to connect and share projects with their peers around the world. They support students in learning new kinds of skills that are in demand in the global econ-omy, including critical thinking skills for analyzing complex issues, problem-solving skills for tackling multidisciplinary challenges, creative skills for developing innovative solutions, and online social networking skills for teamwork and collaborative projects.

These kinds of technology-enabled skills are ever more essential for success in college, careers and citizenship — and they are critical to the nation’s long-term competitiveness. They also embody the original vision of the state’s laptop initiative — to “transform Maine into the premier state for utilizing technology.”

The state’s program will allow districts to buy laptops for $242 per student per year over four years, which covers the capital costs, but districts are responsible for ancillary expenses that could add up. Gartner Inc., a leading information technology research and advisory company, advises Maine districts to take into account the total cost of ownership, which is often a “make-or-break issue” with one-to-one laptop programs, including local technology administrative and support staff salaries; curriculum development that includes a laptop component; and infrastructure costs (for example, providing or maintaining high-speed Internet access).

The cost of additional technical support staff, for example, is not trivial, especially in these challenging fiscal times. Some districts believe they will need to hire specially trained technicians, at salaries of upwards of $45,000, to roll out and maintain the state-provided laptops. Even with the possibility of some new funds over the next two years from the federal economic stimulus package, districts may have to dig into their already tight budgets to come up with additional dollars to fully support the high school laptop program — now and after the stimulus funding is exhausted.

By many accounts, Maine’s laptop program has been successful in engaging middle school students in learning. But a one-size-fits-all approach to laptops in high schools — with their many different learning environments and student populations — may not make sense educationally or financially for every district.

Already, about 30 districts have provided laptops for high school students outside of the original state initiative, crafting their own solutions to meet their particular needs. This is a wise strategy. Laptops and other technologies are most effective when they are carefully selected, well-integrated into district and school technology systems, and well-aligned with specific educational goals.

Maine’s state motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead.” Isn’t it appropriate for school officials to make the high school laptop decision in that uniquely Mainer spirit of leadership and independence?

Mark Horan is the global head of Dell’s education division.

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