May 20, 2018
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Schools sort through laptop program options as state deadline looms

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Stephen Bowen, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, displays an iPad science app during a conference in Augusta in 2011.
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Apple-versus-PC debate is unfolding all over Maine this week as school districts face a Thursday deadline to choose which brand of taxpayer-funded computers some 70,000 students and teachers will use for the next four years.

One choice is Apple laptop computers and tablets, which have been a mainstay of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, or MLTI, since its inception under Gov. Angus King in 2002. Another choice is Hewlett-Packard ProBook 4440 laptops, which Gov. Paul LePage and the Department of Education announced earlier this spring are the administration’s preferred machines.

Under MLTI, all of Maine’s 226 middle schools provide computers to every student and teacher. Districts can also opt to provide computers to high school students at their own expense, though they benefit from lower costs as a result of the state-level contract. There were 66 public high schools involved in the program in 2010, according to the MLTI website.

School districts must make their choices by Thursday, and the Department of Education will place its orders for tens of thousands of computers on Monday. The state has said that it will pay for computers for middle-school students up to the cost of the HP machines, which under the contract will cost a total of about $286 per machine, including a $31 network fee.

Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said she couldn’t provide any data about which choice schools are trending toward until the order is complete, though she said the department expects a hefty percentage to stay with Apples, at least in the near term. Cost is just one consideration for offering the HP solution; giving schools a choice is another.

“Obviously Apple has had relationships on the ground in the state now for more than 10 years,” said Warren. “I don’t think there was ever an expectation that HP and Microsoft would come out of the gate and seize the whole program.”

Several superintendents and school technology specialists contacted by the Bangor Daily News said they’re staying with Apple, though many are switching from the laptops they’ve used for the past several years to the iPad, which is Apple’s media tablet. That option costs $217 per computer plus a $49 network fee, which is about $20 less per machine than the HP option.

Among the districts that have made that choice is Regional School Unit 1 in the Bath area.

“It’s the best option for us,” said Dean Emmerson, the district’s technology director. “We really wanted to keep the whole district on the same platform. We have [Apple] Macs pretty much throughout the district.”

Emmerson said RSU 1, which like more than half of the other districts in Maine opts to provide computers to all high school students, can’t afford the HP option, which he estimated would cost the district some $13,000 more than iPads.

Emmerson said another factor is the familiarity students and staff have with the Apple operating system as well as software investments already made and curricula tied to that software.

In SAD 1 in the Presque Isle area, Superintendent Gehrig Johnson said the district is sticking with Apple, though still trying to decide whether to go with iPads or Apple MacBook Air laptop computers, which cost about $319 per student, including network costs. Johnson, who also is superintendent for SAD 32 in the Ashland area, said that district has already chosen the iPad option. A key factor in both districts is compatibility with science and math curricula that has been in place for years.

“We just feel that the Apple is a better product to suit our needs,” said Johnson. “It will be interesting to see how the state fares. From what I’m hearing, Apple is going to do well statewide.”

In SAD 4 in the Guilford area, Superintendent Paul Stearns said his district is also going with iPads.

“We believe the future is in the iPad or tablet device,” said Stearns. “But it was a tough, tough call. We’re going to skate to where the puck is going, not where it is.”

But not everyone agrees. Bruce Johnson, information technology director for RSU 13 in the Rockland area, said his district is going from Apple laptops to iPads, even though he personally prefers the Microsoft Windows-based platform that HPs come with. He said a major factor in the decision was the cost of retraining teachers, which during the summer would run about $60,000 a day for at least two days.

“I think both offerings are good for us, but we have so much time and money invested in Apple,” he said. “To shift gears now would cost more money.”

Schools in the neighboring districts of RSU 40 south of Rockland, and Camden schools to the north, also went with one of the Apple options.

There are numerous districts moving to the HP option, including the Brewer School Department. Finance Director Gretchen Gardner said the district made a decision a few years ago to begin moving toward a PC-based system and that she and other school leaders were relieved when the LePage administration expanded MLTI to include PCs.

“It’s the option that works best for us,” said Gardner. “The school board decided a few years ago that this was the direction we wanted to take. For this opportunity to come along to go with a PC for the state program, it just fits nicely.”

Gregory Potter, superintendent in RSU 19 in the Newport area, said his district is undecided but leaning toward the HP option.

“We feel laptops are a much better solution for a number of reasons,” said Potter. “They’re better work machines … and better options for the kinds of software and programs we’re using in the school district.”

Cameron Evans, Microsoft Corp.’s chief education technology officer, touted the HP solution during a visit to Maine last week and again Tuesday during a telephone interview with the Bangor Daily News. He said familiarizing students with a Microsoft Windows operating platform would serve them well in the workforce, where they’ll find the majority of computers are PCs. That’s also one of the arguments made by LePage in favor of introducing the PC option.

“When you look across the job market and careers that these students will have, they’re going into careers using full-powered PCs that have Windows across the board,” he said. He added that HP is “putting people on the ground right now in Maine” to assist with transitions and technical questions, but that another benefit of a PC-based system is that HP and Microsoft will certify students and school staff to perform warranty work themselves.

Asked whether a low number of schools opting for the HP option would affect the level of customer support, Evans said it wouldn’t.

“We pretty confident that the support we’ve committed to will be met,” he said. “That is not a question in anybody’s mind.”

A representative at an Apple education professional services office in New Gloucester referred questions to the company’s public relations staff in California, which didn’t return a phone call Tuesday from the Bangor Daily News.

Johnson of Rockland said regardless of which option schools choose, students will likely adapt with ease.

“Most young people have three different console platforms, a tablet and a cellphone,” he said. “They just keep moving forward and it doesn’t matter to them.”

Bangor Daily News writers Alex Barber and Stephen Betts contributed to this report.

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