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Maine: Maine Learns'

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It's just another day in middle school. Students file into class while others file out with their backpacks slung low. They take their seats while you rummage on your desk for class materials and check to make sure that you updated the board for the new class. Once seated, the students pull out their laptops and begin launching projects, searching for resources or sending brief messages to friends before class starts. You check your laptop quickly for new e-mail before starting the class. The class then continues its research from yesterday, with students finding resources online and adding to multimedia presentations that they will make before the end of the week. Simultaneously, you circulate through the room encouraging, questioning and facilitating the students' efforts.

Is this a futuristic vision? Not in Maine. Here, middle school classrooms like this have become the norm. Maine is the first state in the nation to make real implementation of one-to-one (ubiquitous) computing through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). As its ultimate goal, MLTI has the provision of a laptop computer for every public school student and teacher in grades 7-12. Currently, portable, wireless computers are in the process of being deployed to every seventh- and eighth-grade student and teacher in Maine - accounting for more than 37,000 devices in Maine's 239 middle schools. Thus, the initiative seeks to transform teaching and learning in Maine's public schools. Educators involved in the program have identified four keys to success: technology access, a focus on learning, leadership, and context-embedded professional development. This is the story of that initiative and the elements that have led the initiative toward success.

Access to Technology

Clearly, one key to the success of MLTI is access to technology. Students and teachers received 12" Apple iBooks with built-in wireless technology; a CD-ROM drive; a case; and a full complement of software, including AppleWorks, iMovie and iPhoto. By giving laptops to all seventh- and eighth-grade public school students and teachers, a powerful learning tool has been placed in the hands of everyone, not just in the schools that were early adopters or in the few families who could afford it.

Focus on Learning

Maine is on a journey to transform teaching and learning in our public schools. Just as medicine and science have been radically changed by the arrival of new technologies that allow them to meet human needs which could not have been addressed 10 years ago, we expect to see students learning in ways their parents' generation never imagined possible.

While this journey of change is driven by the introduction of new tools for educators and students, it is not focused on the technical tools. Rather, the focus is clearly on the opportunities the new tools provide to rethink the way we do our work in school communities. MLTI is supporting teachers to effectively engage all students in meaningful work, thereby facilitating the creation of environments where teachers and students are learners and are supported in taking charge of their own learning.

According to the document "D'es Technology Improve Student Achievement?" from the Educational Research Service, "The true value of technology for learning lies not in learning to use technology, but in using technology to learn." This is the approach Maine is taking. MLTI has emphasized learning in at least five arenas: assessment for learning, universal design, place-based learning, project-based learning, and online research.We believe that students must learn to work with their teachers to understand the learning targets and specific concepts. They also must be able to evaluate quality work and provide evidence of their own learning that meets high standards. This means that students participating in their own assessment need to guide instruction for improved learning, not just measure what they have learned.

Leadership

The MLTI leadership team understood that if there was going to be real school change, things had to be done differently from what has been the norm in other large-scale technology projects. Whereas previous major technology infusions had been seen primarily as technology efforts, MLTI was going to be different. Projects seen as "primarily about technology" tend to be led and administered by technical staff, not educators, and this is where the vision of MLTI helped make clear that it had to be done differently.

We started with the MLTI vision: Students and teachers making creative, engaging and effective use of technology tools and resources. This allowed us to ask, "If this is really to be about improving teaching and learning, then who should help lead this project?" Put this way, there could be no question whether classroom teachers needed to have a major leadership role. After all, these would be the people with the greatest responsibility for creating rich learning environments and are, in truth, the foundation of our education system. Technical staff would be crucial and invaluable team members, but teachers needed to take the lead.

One of the design team's first tasks was to create a Teacher Leader Network. With grant support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we asked that each school identify a teacher leader to work with the building principal and technology coordinator to move this project forward. We suggested that these teacher leaders be selected based on their demonstrated skills in classroom teaching and building collaborative relationships with their colleagues. We were not looking for the most technically proficient, but for those who were comfortable with technology, those who were well connected with their fellow teachers, and those who had an interest in supporting the growth of MLTI.

These regional MLTI Teacher Leader Networks - composed of teacher leaders, building principals and technology coordinators - began to meet in face-to-face daylong meetings to explore the work, shape the purpose of the work, and learn together about change in schools and the new tools. Throughout the year, these teams were also given opportunities for leadership training.

Professional Development in Context

A challenge to the initiative is that education technology represents a significant expansion in educational materials, tools and resources available to teachers. Although there is enormous potential here to engage every student in meaningful learning, these tools are new to teachers.

Training for teachers began in the summer of 2002, with two days of initial staff development focused on learning how to use the tools on their new laptops. We knew that would only be the beginning and that schools and other organizations would have to help provide support. Feedback from the Teacher Leader Network meetings, however, confirmed that although other statewide projects and organizations were contributing, the need was enormous. Teachers' learning curves were steep as they struggled both to catch up to the students' comfort level with the technology and to learn how to teach effectively with this powerful tool.

The design utilized for content meetings - one in which professional development was provided during the school day and had a focus on collegial sharing - has been so successful that we plan to continue the program into future years. During the summer, content area leaders met with teacher leaders to share curriculum ideas that will be part of next year's rounds of content meetings. This sharing is statewide thanks to our virtual connections using e-mail and MaineLearns.org.

Conclusion

Our motto, "Maine Learns," speaks of the continued journey into learning in new ways. Certainly we are onto something good with our increased collaboration among students and community members both here in Maine and worldwide. But we all understand that any clearly defined "end goal" of MLTI is nowhere in sight. And as we look for markers of success, we must use the same tools we ask the students to use. Maine is focusing on the MLTI journey, clearly embarking on an unprecedented attempt to redefine teaching and learning statewide and across the grade levels. While the seventh and eighth grades are well on their way, now is the time to plan for high school and postsecondary education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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