“From Lunchboxes to Laptops:” Maine’s Laptop Initiative

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“From Lunchboxes to Laptops” -Previous Governor Angus King

For over a hundred of years, Maine found itself in the “bottom third of states – in prosperity, income, education, and opportunity for [its] kids” (Curtis, 2013). In order to increase Maine’s reputation, previous Governor Angus King discussed the possibility of increasing the academic success of his state by creating a smaller student-to-computer ratio within the public school systems in the 1990’s. At the time, Maine had a 5:1 ratio of students to computers. Governor King proposed decreasing this ratio to 2:1. He first proposed this idea to MIT scientist, Seymour Papert, who was a child behavior specialist. Papert suggested decreasing the ratio even further to 1:1. This 1-to-1 ratio would mean that every student would receive their own laptop. Papert argued that a laptop is “the intellectual tool of our time” and a 1-to-1 ratio would be “magic” (Curtis, 2013). Governor King wanted to do this to make a change and wanted it to be better than what everyone else was doing. The changes Maine had previously attempted were not working. The following essay investigates the implementation of the 2002 Maine Learning Initiative for laptops in middle school classrooms, and how this technology has either helped or hindered student learning and teachers’ ability to teach.

Initially, the 2002 Maine Learning Initiative for laptops was viewed favorably by the original supporter, Governor Angus King, because to him, technology meant a higher status for Maine and he believed this program was a better use of the state’s funds. However, by 2009, the program became too costly, and by 2016, a major shift had occurred. Despite the initial positive results that laptops were seen to have on student and teacher learning, collaboration, and behavior, Maine began to question the feasibility and affordability of implementing this new protocol. Switching every public middle school to a 1:1 ratio became too expensive and teachers were transforming their practices at a slow rate. The current Governor, Paul LePage, criticizes the program for the lack of training that the teachers receive. Furthermore, the Education Department in Maine also voiced its own concerns because the Maine Learning Initiative is now moving away from its originals goals.

In 2002, King was able to move forward with his idea, and he distributed laptops to every seventh grade student in the state. Through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, this made Maine the first state to implement a 1-to-1 laptop program. By the fall of 2002, Maine had distributed 17,000 Apple laptops to the seventh graders and their teachers in 243 middle schools across the state (Garthwait and Weller, 2005). The laptops included “built-in wireless technology; a CD-ROM drive; a case; and a full complement of software, including AppleWorks, iMovie and iPhoto” (MEPRI, 2003). These laptops were expected to last until the students graduated high school. Today, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative has provided laptops and tablets to 66,000 of the 183,000 students in Maine (Herold and Kazi, 2016). The reason why not all students have a laptop is because of the tight funds and budget. Even though all levels of schooling in Maine have the same goals for the 1-to-1 initiative program, the money that the middle school receives versus the high school differs. The middle schools in Maine “receive money for software, hardware, network infrastructure, warranties, technical support, professional development, and data-backup services,” whereas in the high schools in Maine they only receive funds for “the wireless-network infrastructure that is installed by the state to support the laptops” (Ash, 2009). As a result, in 2009, when costs were increasing and economic times were tough, only “50 percent of the high schools in Maine [had] allocated and dedicated the funds to advance this program” (Ash, 2009). As a whole though, by giving students a laptop, especially the ones who could not afford to buy one for themselves, the state of Maine has provided them with a powerful learning tool.

Having technology very accessible in these Maine classrooms has made students learning more successful. It has increased test scores in the subjects of science, writing, math and English. Students have edited papers more often than before and have received more feedback on their writing. The mathematics score for the eighth graders “rose from 30 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2011” (Morell, 2012). When students use laptops to search the web, they use a wider range of sources. While working with laptops, students have gained experience in project-based learning, learned how to access resources on the internet, work collaboratively with others and have increased their problem solving skills (Zheng and Warschauer, 2016).

From the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2002, positive changes occurred in the students’ behavior. Attendance rates increased, discipline problems declined, detention slips went from 29 to 3, suspension rates went from 5 to 0, and overall 91% of the students’ grades improves (Curtis, 2013). One student said, “I have never handed all of my homework in because I always lose stuff,” but “now I hand everything in because it is right there on my laptop” (Curtis, 2013). Students found themselves to be more interested in their work because it was more fascinating to search on a laptop.

By having laptops in the classrooms, it has also helped teachers. Teachers have mostly used the laptops for researching about lesson plans, finding instructional material and to communicate with other administrative staff. To be exact, in 2002, 55% of teachers used laptops to communicate with other teachers (MEPRI, 2003). They often exchange curriculum and instructional ideas. Maine teachers do not just do this with other Maine teachers, but also with teachers in different countries. One teacher said, “I am currently working on a unit with a teacher in Milan, Italy. We are going to have our students collaborate on a project of some sort” (MEPRI, 2003). When technology is in the classroom, it helps them convey information to students in ways that have never been done before. Instead of going to the library and having to find books for the students, they can all access resources on their computer. It helps teachers and students by having “information at their fingertips” (MEPRI, 2003). By teachers using their laptops a few times a week to more often, it has opened up many opportunities for them.

Implementing the 1-to-1 ratio throughout every school helped King to achieve many of the goals that he set out for the state as its governor. King wanted Maine “to have the most digitally literate society on earth” (Watters, 2015). His goal was to prepare students for the future economy, which highly relies on technological literacy and innovation. This goal came from the fact that “70% of business and information technology (IT) professionals nationwide report that their companies are concerned about the Digital Divide because they, and the U.S. economy in general, need more IT talent” (MEPRI, 2003). King’s initial idea to help increase his state’s national ranking ended up turning Maine into a national leader in terms of providing students with laptops for learning. His effort to improve his own state’s reputation resulted in a movement that improved student learning throughout the entire nation. Governor King had effectively “put Maine on the technological map” (Curtis, 2013).

Even though the Maine Learning Initiative is accomplishing Governor King’s goal of making Maine a “world leader” in the technological world, the program has cost the state a large amount of money. When the 1-to-1 laptop program was first discussed, King suggested that $50 million should be taken from the state funds and that $15 million should be raised, for a total of $65 million devoted to the program (Watters, 2015). King argued that this was a worthwhile investment, as funds are used to fix the roads every year, but this was a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something transformational instead of incremental” (Watters, 2015). After thoroughly discussing the budget for the laptop program, he decreased the budget for this program from the initial $65 million to $15 million (Watters, 2015). Instead of funding the 1-to-1 initiative all at once, Governor King decided that the funding would “be dependent on annual re-appropriation” (Watters, 2015). Currently, the Maine Learning Initiative costs $11.5 million per year, with $10.5 million used on Apple products and $1 million on H-P products (Gallagher, 2016).

With such a high yearly cost, Governor LePage argues that the price is not worth the effectiveness of the program. He said, “It has been a massive failure,” and continued, “It’s been a failure and we all know it but we keep doing it because we’re used to doing it” (Cousins, 2016). Governor LePage is skeptical of the Maine Learning Initiative and has asked for a review of the program. He thinks that the 1-to-1 initiative is failing because there is not enough training for the teachers and students. There has not been adequate training to demonstrate to them how to use the laptops to their fullest capacity for education. LePage critiques former Governor King, by saying that “we should have been doing that [the training] 15 years ago” and not waiting until technology catches up with us (Cousins, 2016). Even in the early years of the program, when people thought it was most effective, teachers reported that they felt as though they “need[ed] more time and professional development” (MEPRI, 2003). LePage thinks that schools have been focusing more on the device itself, such as “which devices schools will get, for what price, etc.,” but not on the learning the laptops can and should be providing. Governor LePage, himself, believes that the Maine Learning Initiative “has been flawed from the start and that the focus needs to shift” (Cousins, 2016). According to the Department of Education, there will be changes to the initiative in the next couple years.

As for the students, many children may become distracted by the computers by searching websites that are not school related, such as Facebook and YouTube, during the school hours. Additionally, students may encounter technological issues that slow down and distract their learning (Morell, 2012). For example, with a large number of people on the same network at once, internet access and network connection can become slow. One student reported, ““These computers aren’t completely stable, because I had a project that I saved on the server and on the desktop and both of these things got messed up with the file” (MEPRI, 2003). This means that sometimes technology is preventing students from completing their work efficiently, rather than enhancing their learning.

The current contract, which was signed in 2012, provided funding to the public middle schools for the 1-to-1 initiative until 2016, with the ability to add on one year extensions, giving Maine the opportunity to decide whether or not they would like to continue with the program on a yearly basis. Bill Beardsley, the Deputy Education Commissioner, stated that this somewhat flexible contract “gives us a chance to regroup, to think it through,” and continued, “Should we still be doing the concept of what Angus King came up with, or a new concept?” (Cousins, 2016). Governor LePage is keeping a close eye on the Education Department because he wants to ensure that the initiative is having positive effects on student learning. He plans to look at test scores, attendance rates, engagement within the classroom, and the behavior of students. When the contract for the 1-to-1 program expires at the beginning of the 2017 academic year, LePage will no longer be the governor, so the Education Department will have to do their “homework for whoever the decision maker will be” (Gallagher, 2016).

The Maine Learning Initiative Program did achieve one of Governor King’s goals to “put Maine on the technological map” and to boost the reputation of the state (Curtis, 2013). By providing almost all teachers and students with a laptop, the program has created immense learning opportunities for all people involved; however, there have also been downfalls and challenges involved. The 1-to-1 initiative was successful in that it allowed students to search the web for projects, write papers at school and at home, and to make learning more fun. For teachers, the laptops have helped them to easily search for lesson plans and to communicate with other teachers overseas. Even though there are a large amount of benefits to this program, the technology itself, the training that teachers receive, and the need for funding are all examples of challenges and downfalls to the program. Now, in 2017, the program is still being questioned for its effectiveness, and I am curious to see where it goes from here. From what other states have done and the research I have found on the use of technology in the classrooms, I would recommend that the next governor of Maine provides enough funding for the program to continue for a few more years until data can be collected on its effectiveness for student learning and teachers’ ability to teach.


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Cousins, Christopher. “LePage Calls Maine’s Student Laptop Program a ‘massive Failure’ | State & Capitol.” N.p., 14 Oct. 2016. Web. 1 May 2017.

—. “LePage Eyes Changing Laptop Program Launched by Angus King.” The Bangor Daily News. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 5 May 2017.

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Gallagher, Noel. “Maine Officials Extend Student Computer Contract – Portland Press Herald.” Press Herald. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 5 May 2017.

Garthwait, Abigail, and Herman Weller. “A Year in the Life: Two Seventh Grade Teachers Implement One-to-One Computing.” (2005): n. pag. Print.

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Morell, Ricki. “King’s Laptops Leveled Playing Field, but Academic Benefits Hard to Assess.” The Bangor Daily News. N.p., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 5 May 2017.

—. “Maine’s Decade-Old School Laptop Program Wins Qualified Praise.” The Hechinger Report. N.p., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 5 May 2017.

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Zheng, Binbin, and Mark Warschauer. “How Maine Schools Proved Why Schools Everywhere Should Provide One Laptop per Child.” The Bangor Daily News. N.p., 24 June 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.