Thursday, August 22, 2002

Laptops arrive in local schools

Published in the Current

Defying state budget cuts and legislative criticism, delivery truck drivers dropped off precious cargo at middle schools across Maine in the past week. The word raced down school hallways and into administrative offices, quiet with students home for summer: Laptops!

Indeed, contrary to the wishes of some state legislators and fulfilling the dreams of middle school teachers and administrators, 160 Macintosh iBook laptop computers arrived at Cape Elizabeth Middle School Aug. 13, according to Gary Lanoie, the district technology coordinator.

“We’re very excited,” said Principal Nancy Hutton.

Judging from traffic on the state’s educational technology e-mail, Lanoie said, it appeared that most districts across the state received their laptops last week. The new arrivals are to equip each seventh-grade student with a personal laptop computer, to be taken from class to class throughout the day,
and even home from school at certain times and under certain circumstances.

About 20 laptops arrived in Cape at the end of June, so teachers could familiarize themselves with the equipment before having to teach students to use them.

Lanoie and a two-person staff have the grueling task of configuring 160 laptops to look and operate exactly alike. There is software to help with the project, but the real challenge is setting up an initial computer installation, which can then be “cloned” to the rest of the computers, Lanoie said.

Part of the problem is that the computers have multiple layers of security restrictions, and installations must take them into account, to ensure that students neither have too much access to software and settings, or too little.

Fortunately, Lanoie said, tech coordinators around the state are working together and collaborating via e-mail to solve the problems that arise. Lanoie himself found a good piece of software for cloning computers, and sent a note to his colleagues about how to make it work most effectively.

There is also a hefty manual of suggested policies and procedures for districts to use when handing out the laptops to students, and administering their use.

“There seems to have been a lot of thought in preparing the program,” Lanoie said.

He will also have some help on the ground: 19 seventh-graders have signed up to be what Lanoie is calling the “iTeam,” kids who will help each other and their teachers handle the small everyday glitches of computer use, and who can assist Lanoie in troubleshooting problems as the computers are used throughout the school.

Because of state budget woes, the laptop program was in limbo for much of the past year, and school officials were constantly qualifying planning around the laptops with phrases like “if the laptops arrive.”

The state endowment intended to pay for the program over the course of the next four years has been raided several times by Gov. Angus King to cover an increasing state budget shortfall, but the account still has money in it.

State Attorney General Steven Rowe had advised the governor earlier this summer that the state could break the contract it made with Apple to provide the laptops, additional equipment and training, but breaking the deal could cost as much as it would to go forward, according to Rowe’s interpretation of the contract.

Legislators had criticized the program because of its anticipated cost: $37.2 million over four years, which they said could be used for other things.

But the first phase of the project is in place. Next year will see another large shipment of laptops, to equip each eighth-grader with a machine as well.

Now that the laptops are here, the focus is on using them. Cape’s seventh-grade teachers are excited about the prospect and have said they are looking forward to seeing how they can use them, despite some trepidation about what the changes may mean when classes start using laptops in earnest.