ORONO, Maine — When it comes to technology, Chris Jones of Litchfield is one of those kids who outshines everyone around him, but he wasn’t always that way.
Before Jones’ seventh-grade year, his parents bought him a Dell Windows-based laptop computer.
“That didn’t last very long,” said Jeff Jones, his father. When Jones entered the seventh grade, he was given an Apple iBook, just like tens of thousands of other students in Maine as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative spearheaded by former Gov. Angus King. With an Apple in his hands, Jones’ love for technology exploded.
“Suddenly, I just wanted to explore,” said Jones to the Bangor Daily News. Today Jones is one of the go-to guys at his school for tech support — even for the people who make careers out of fixing computers. He’s also a computer programmer working with a team of people from around the world on a new mobile email software application called CrystalMail. It might just be the next big thing in the ever-expanding world of people who access the Internet through their hand-held devices.
“When we’re talking with investors, we don’t advertise the fact that half of us are still in high school,” Jones said to some 1,100 students at the eighth annual MLTI conference at the University of Maine on Thursday.
There are more than 72,000 Apple computers deployed in the MLTI program. Every middle school and about 55 percent of Maine high schools are part of the program, which according to Jeff Mao, the Department of Education’s learning technology policy director, costs the state around $17 million per year. That works out to $242 per student per year, he said, which includes technical support and educational programming for teachers.
“For $242 a year look at what we’re doing for our students,” said Mao. “By comparison, we spent about $90 million on diesel fuel every year to transport students.”
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who attended the first part of the conference, said Maine’s one-of-a-kind laptop program is the envy of education officials from other states.
“We get calls all the time from people wondering how it’s working,” said Bowen. “Maine’s out in front on this and a lot of other states are watching what we’re doing.”
Asked if he and Gov. Paul LePage would continue to support the program past the 2012-13 budget proposal — which includes funding for MLTI — Bowen said the subject hasn’t yet been broached.
“I don’t know what the governor’s vision is for this program,” said Bowen. “I haven’t had a chance yet to sit with him and talk about it.”
Calls and an email to the governor’s office Thursday were not returned.
Though not every student uses his or her MLTI laptop to delve into technology like Jones did, participants in the conference insisted that they’re invaluable for lessons in the classroom and crucial when it comes to the elusive task of accomplishing computer literacy for Maine’s graduates.
Kat Murphy, an eighth-grader at Tremont School on Mount Desert Island, said her laptop has given her a powerful tool with which to pursue her passion for photography — mainly portraits and plant still-lifes.
“They make our schoolwork more fun,” she said. “Class isn’t just pen and paper anymore.”
Despite the success stories, the MLTI program isn’t without its critics, people who think it’s a waste of money or that the students don’t take care of the machines. A commenter identified as “jersey” on an earlier version of this story at www.bangordailynews.com summed it up this way:
“Those laptops are a nuisance and a waste of education dollars,” wrote jersey. “A computer lab would be just as efficient and much less expensive. In our school a quick look was done and it was determined that, at any given time, over half the students on their laptops were on Facebook, music, video, etc (not related to education).”
Indeed, many students at Thursday’s conference were on Facebook or playing video games, but that doesn’t diminish their value, said Angela Roy, a career education, accounting and computer sciences teacher at Oak Hill High School.
“I think situations like that are far fewer than all the good things that are happening,” said Roy. “When you do something as huge as giving laptops to everyone, there will be a few kids who give the program a bad name. The truth is they’re a wonderful tool.”
For information about the MLTI conference, visit www.maine.gov/mlti/studentconference/index.shtml.