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Laptop Program Hasn't Closed Technology Skills Gap For Rural Schools

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Student Joshua Willey builds a miniature wind turbine. He is using his school laptop to measure the voltage, current and resistor.

When former Gov. Angus King began an effort to give every 7th- and 8th-grader a laptop in 2001, one of the goals was equity, a way to ensure that students have access to the same kind of technology whether they live in Cumberland, Washington or Oxford County.

Fifteen years later, the program still gets computers to those students. Yet, geography and school funding have made using that technology a lot harder for many rural schools.

This is the second of a three-part report. To read part one, click here. To read part three, click here.

Joshua Willey is having a frustrating morning. Inside a classroom in Portland’s King Middle School, he glues together a few dowels and pieces of cardboard to build a miniature wind turbine. But when he tests it out, it snaps.

“Wait, I see what went wrong,” Willey says to his teacher. “I need to pull the blades more at an angle. Because before, it was really whooshing around.”

After a few attempts, Joshua fixes the prototype. But simply building this turbine is only one part of the lesson.

Teacher Gus Goodwin points to one student measuring an electric current. Others are designing turbine blades on a computer and producing podcasts about their projects with headphones and a mic. He says technology takes this learning to a different level.

“I think you kind of engage more with what you’re studying,” Goodwin says to one student. “For example, the wind turbines, seeing that graph on the computer. I think it helps you kind of understand. What’s going on in there? That’s voltage and that’s current, that’s the resistor. You can actually visibly see that. And I that think it definitely deepens your learning.”

Deeper learning. When supporters talk about the power of technology in education, this is the kind of project they mean. Teachers at King say they’re able to provide it to their district — where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — because they’re constantly collaborating and sharing digital tools.

Research shows doing that in a rural, isolated school is a lot harder though.

About 300 miles north, at Caribou High School, English teacher Shannon Sleeper stands at the front of her class and ask them questions. Her students answer aloud, but many are also busy typing responses in a fully online classroom that she’s created.

“OK, so did anything stand out to you?” Sleeper asks the class. “Of how someone else sees their transformation, their perspective?”

This is the first year that Sleeper has been able to use this technology. More than half of the high schools across Maine have paid for laptops or tablets for their students through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative since 2009. But Caribou never had the resources until this school year, when it bought Chromebooks for every high schooler. Principal Travis Barnes says giving every student a device, instead of forcing them to share them, was necessary.

“Teachers were ready to move their classrooms forward,” Barnes says. “They just didn’t have the one-to-one. That ratio to make that happen for students.”

In just one year with the new devices, the high school has already made progress in classrooms like this one. Superintendent Tim Doak says he’s proud of the changes, but he is also frustrated that many rural schools often lack the resources to integrate technology earlier. An obstacle that can set them behind.

“Not to pick at our partners in the southern part of the state, but if you’re not living on the I-95 corridor, you do lack resources,” Doak says.

“I think it is a real issue for our smaller, and particularly, more rural schools,” says Amy Johnson, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

Johnson says this is a problem for rural schools statewide. A piece of the reason, she says, is how new ideas spread. She says technological change often originates with one or two teachers who then spread their knowledge across a building. But in an isolated school, that’s more difficult, she says. Teachers are already stretched thin.

“When you’re in a small school, not only do you not necessarily have access to talk to other people, but the chances of you having an innovator or an early adopter in your school is smaller,” Johnson says. “Because you just have fewer teachers. So just the random chance of running into a new idea, because you happen to run across it in the lunchroom, all those things are less likely when you’re in a small school.”

Then there’s the question of resources. School budgets are already tight in many districts. Mike Muir, the former director of MLTI, says when a school has to choose between laying off teachers or cutting a foreign language program, it’s nearly impossible to focus on adding digital tools or more tech staff.

“When you have very few resources, not enough to address the needs of the school and provide a public education, you have to pick and choose,” Muir says. “And they’re not easy choices.”

Add it all up, and that’s made a big difference. Researcher Bernadette Doykos surveyed Maine’s schools and found that even though every district receives devices, the way they’re used tends to be different in high-income and low-income areas.

“In lower-income schools, they were using them for more traditional activities. Research. Word processing,” Doykos says. “Whereas, in higher-income schools, we saw more of the collaboration and development of more 21st-century skills using technology.”

The state found a partial solution to this back in the early days of the laptop initiative. Bette Manchester, the first director of the program, says every middle school designated a “teacher leader” who would connect with other teacher leaders around the state. The group would sort out problems and find new resources they could bring back to share with other teachers.

“We found having the statewide teacher leaders — and they were only paid $1,000 a year, and they did enormous work — really helped to kind of even out what’s going on and what are the needs,” Manchester says.

The program still exists. But those stipends to teachers were cut, and Johnson says the program was downgraded before being recently revived.

“And when those teacher lead roles kind of went away, that community also fractured a little bit,” Johnson says.

Despite the challenges, many rural schools say having access to technology does make a difference. Caribou High School student Calvin Mochler says without his Chromebook, he couldn’t have handled more difficult classes that require technology every day.

“I probably would have dropped a few of my classes because it would have been so hard,” he says. “The English classes where you type up a lot, have a lot of discussions around language, composition, all that.”

School officials hope students will soon be able to take more college classes online. On the surface that may not seem like a big goal, but they say it’s one way that technology can make a difference in the lives of young people in rural parts of Maine.

Maine Public education reporting is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.