LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Maine did something that was revolutionary in education 15 years ago. It gave every one of its seventh and eighth-graders a laptop. The program expanded later to include some high schools. It's still the only statewide initiative in the country costing $12 million a year. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg looks at its impact.
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ANGUS KING: The whole Encyclopedia Britannica's in here.
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: When Maine's then-governor Angus King first proposed the program in 2000, he saw it as something transformational. The internet was still relatively young, but King wanted every student in Maine to have access to it. Here he is talking about the program on Maine Public Television back then.
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KING: Go into history class - and the teacher says, open your computer, and let's go to rome.com. And we're going to watch an archaeologist explore the Catacombs this morning in real time. What a learning tool that is.
FEINBERG: Alison King - no relation - was just a toddler when the governor was making these announcements. But now as a high school senior in Gorham, Maine, Allison says she couldn't imagine school without her laptop.
ALISON KING: I use my laptop, like, 95 percent of the day and for most of my classes.
JAMES WELSCH: All right. Close the laptops for a second.
FEINBERG: Alison uses it all the time in this class, American politics. Her teacher James Welsch says when he arrived in Gorham seven years ago, he'd never seen so many of his students with computers. So we jumped head-first into integrating them into his lessons.
WELSCH: I was like, how can I draw on the amazing resource of the internet (laughter)? Or, like, we can put the world on the desk of each kid.
FEINBERG: Students now publish blog posts, read each other's work and the send one another videos and articles - all online. But Welsch's paperless push has also come with some roadblocks. He noticed that when some students turned in their essays online...
WELSCH: There was a disconnect between paragraphs in a single paper or a single piece of writing. You can also see there's an increase in, you know, copy and paste.
FEINBERG: Welsch learned what a lot of teachers and policymakers in Maine have come to realize over the past 15 years. Amy Johnson researches education policy at the University of Southern Maine.
AMY JOHNSON: One thing that we know is if you just say, here is computers, that doesn't have much of an impact on student learning.
FEINBERG: She and other researchers have found that one-to-one, one-student-one-computer technology, implemented the right way increases student learning in subjects like writing, math and science. Those results have prompted other states like Utah and Nevada to look at implementing their own one-to-one programs in recent years. Yet after a decade and a half, Maine has still yet to see any measurable increases on statewide standardized test scores. That's part of why Maine's current governor, Paul LePage, has called the program a, quote, "massive failure." But Johnson says it's tough to measure the effects using a simple test. And she says teacher training is necessary to get results. But the state de-emphasized some of that training in recent years.
JOHNSON: So the fact that we're not seeing large scale increases in student learning leads us to suspect that we still need to do some work with helping schools and teachers keep up with the best ways to use technology to improve student learning.
FEINBERG: Johnson says this has created a new kind of divide in Maine. Students in larger schools with more resources have learned how to use their laptops in more creative ways. But in Maine's smaller schools, many students are still just using PowerPoint and Microsoft Word.
JOHNSON: I think it is a real issue for our smaller and particularly more rural schools.
FEINBERG: Some educators also worry that new funding cuts could leave those rural schools even further behind. However, officials say these challenges shouldn't make people forget about the original goal of the program 15 years ago - to give every student in every part of Maine access to the same digital tools.
WELSCH: You have a big assignment this time around.
FEINBERG: And Gorham student Nikolas Sharon says he couldn't imagine his social studies class without it.
NIKOLAS SHARON: I probably would have dropped the class act for the fact that I don't want to look at a newspaper. I don't even know where to get a newspaper.
FEINBERG: For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Gorham, Maine.
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