Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Kids swap experience at laptop conference

Published in the American Journal

Over 300 middle school students and teachers gathered at Gorham Middle School on Saturday to explore ways schools can take better advantage of the state’s laptop computer initiative and to get a glimpse of the future.

A conference for the middle school students, who are on “iTeams” - groups of computer-savvy kids who help students and teachers alike with day-to-day classroom computing problems - the event taught kids not only how to do their in-school “jobs” better, but also how they can learn more through technology than would otherwise be possible.

Among the attendees were students from Westbrook, Gorham, Windham, Cape Elizabeth and SAD 6. The Cape and Gorham kids gave presentations on how their iTeams work, illustrating different ways they could meet similar needs.

Cape’s iTeam members are numerous enough that as students rotate with their normal class schedules, at least one iTeam member ends up in each classroom almost all the time. The students said they are available during class to help their fellow students and even teachers, who have problems with the laptops.

The team is also open to anyone interested in joining. “If they’re joining the iTeam, it’s because they want to know more,” said one student after the presentation.

By contrast, Gorham’s “tech team” members have hall passes and can be called out of their own classes to solve problems in other rooms. The team members talked about how they became members, often by application, or by being handpicked by teacher Tia Lord.

They have regular meetings and test out new software before other students are allowed to use it.

Members of the group dressed in their school colors and were available on a rotating basis throughout the conference, helping presenters and attendees use the school’s wireless computer network.

Students’ reactions
Students from local schools said they got a lot out of the conference. From Bonny Eagle Middle School, one student said she had learned a number of new troubleshooting skills. At lunch time, two other girls were looking forward to an upcoming session called “Let’s Chat,” helping students and teachers understand how to use Internet “chat” programs to enhance education, while keeping in mind Internet safety guidelines.

From Wescott Junior High School, student Brielle Merrifield said she had learned new stretches and important information about ergonomics while using the laptops, to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Student Spencer Graham said, “Coming here is probably going to help us and help other kids.”

From Cape Elizabeth, students said they saw important differences between the policies governing their use of the laptops, and the policies of other schools.

“I like how we get to take our laptops home,” said one student. Many other schools don’t allow students to leave school with the laptops.

Another student wanted administrative privileges for his laptop, to enable him to learn more about the computer system.

A third student not only learned practical skills – “how you can use a camcorder to make animations that are pretty smooth” – but also attended a presentation by Jen Gagne, a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There, he learned that MIT students are being issued laptops too, though only one computer for every three students, and use some of the same software Maine’s middle-schoolers are using.

MIT students also submit homework assignments electronically, just like many of the state’s seventh- and eighth-graders. “These skills are essential,” Gagne said.

Technology projects
Other presentations explored the possibilities of laptop-enabled learning. Scarborough teacher Jim Doane showed other teachers how to plan an iMovie project, from organizing information before filming, through to filming and on-computer video editing. He used his own class work as examples, showcasing student-made videos on health issues.

After doing research projects on health subjects, students worked in groups to create public service announcement-style television ads about the issues. One on suicide had a particularly stark image: a coffee table covered in pill bottles and pills, with a hand slipping away, down to the floor.

The Maine Historical Society showed its Maine Memory project, which is looking to partner local historical societies with middle school students to digitize old photos and documents. Having them available on-line expands people’s access to them and helps reduce wear by researchers, who now must handle the artifacts. The two-year-old project has 130 organizations working together, and they have digitized 4,500 documents.

Other projects include tracking lobsters from where they are trapped to where they are finally purchased and consumed, linking Maine lobstermen to diners across the country, some of whom have begun corresponding regularly, according to a presenter from the Island Institute.

Future of program
How much learning can actually take place using the laptops depends on how far the project goes.

It is in the second of a four-year contract, in which the hardware now in use by seventh- and eighth-graders will be reused for two more years by students in those grades.

The big question is what happens to this year’s eighth-graders, when they get to high school and are forced to return to working with papers and pencils, rather than electronic documents.

“We actually will be making a bigger divide than we started with,” said Bette Manchester, who supervises the laptop project for the state Department of Education. Some state money may become available to help poorer districts afford laptops for their high schools, but many districts are already exploring buying their own machines.

Apple Computer has put together a package by which every Maine family with a child in public school can get a discount on purchasing their own Apple computer, according to Shaun Meredith, Apple’s manager of the laptop project.

School districts also qualify for a four-year lease at $1 per computer per day, if they want to buy their own computers.

One district many are looking to for insight about the future of laptops is Guilford. A small town north of Augusta, it got a private grant in 1999 to begin installing laptops in its middle school. When those students left the middle school, “they went to the high school and lost their machines,” said Crystal Priest, the schools’ technology coordinator. “It just killed them.”

Parents were in an uproar as well, because the laptops had improved student attendance, discipline and academic performance, even in a district with historically low per-pupil spending, Priest said. “It just opens up resources you wouldn’t believe.”

Last year, the schools got a grant to give each high school student a laptop. “The teachers were overwhelmed when we first started,” with only three days of training in the summer to prepare them.

Now, in the second year of the high school effort, “we couldn’t go back to teaching without them.”

In addition to curriculum-expanding work, like a planned collaboration with a school in Thailand, “the kids that normally struggle” are doing better in all their classes, discipline referrals are down 50 percent at the high school and attendance is up. A manufacturing technology teacher instructs students on how to repair hardware.

“It’s just been incredible,” Priest said.