Wireless initiative delivers


 By Jennifer Huberdeau


PITTSFIELD -- When the first shipment of Apple iBook laptops arrived at Silvio O. Conte Middle School in October 2005, many were skeptical that the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative's $5.3 million pilot laptop program wouldn't be more than another classroom distraction.

On Friday, Berkshire Wireless organizers presented a 150-page final evaluation study, conducted by Boston College's Technology and Assessment Study Collaborative over the course of the three-year pilot program, which shows significant strides being made in the classroom and on standardized tests.

"When we originally talked about the goals of this program over three years ago, we were talking about the desire to transform the very way education is delivered," Damian Bebell, an associate professor at Boston College, who co-authored the study, said Friday. "There is emerging evidence that student achievement was positively enhanced through the access and opportunities afforded by the laptops."

A copy of the 150-page report can be found on the Wireless Inititative's Web site,

Officially kicked off in January 2006, the wireless laptop program put laptops in the hands of 2,130 middle school students at Silvio O. Conte Middle School in North Adams, Herberg and Reid Middle Schools in the Pittsfield Public Schools and St. Mark's School, part of the Pittsfield Public Schools. While the program officially came to a close at the end of the 2007-2008 school year, all three school districts have continued to fund the one-to-one laptop program.

Bebell said that the study, which used numerous methods of data collection, showed that 71 percent of the 175 teachers involved in the program had reported that their students' quality of work had improved through participation in the program.

"That's all well and good, but the defacto mechanism to show improvement for the state is through the MCAS scores," Bebell said. "After analyzing the pass rates on all of the available MCAS subject tests, we found that the eighth graders who had access to the laptops for two years had the highest percentage of pass rates on record."

The study also found a "statistically significant positive relationship" between an increase in English Language Arts MCAS scores and the laptop program.

"We did find a change in math scores, but they weren't significant enough at this point," Bebell said. "I think it will take more time for that impact to become visible."

The study also ran a blind comparison test with a mock MCAS English subject written test, randomly selecting students to take the written portion on a laptop or with pen and paper.

"We turned off all of the bells and whistles on the laptops -- no grammar check, no spelling," he said. "We digitized all the tests and then had them scored. Our scorers did not know how the test had been taken. We found that not only did the students using the laptops on average write more, but that they also scored higher."

The study also concluded that student participation had increased in the classroom and that work quality had improved across the board at the five participating schools.

"One of the major changes I've encountered in my classroom is my role," Sara Luczynski, an English teacher at Conte Middle School, said during a panel discussion. "Because of the setup with the laptops, I've become more of a facilitator than an instructor. Our mantra at Conte has become, 'Ask three [of your peers] before you ask me.' I'm no longer sitting in front of the classroom telling them to read from a book."

Holly Goodrich, an English teacher at Reid Middle School, said that students were more apt to participate in class with a wealth of information at their fingertips.

"We've been able to have many conversations -- asides -- that have resulted because they were instantly able to access the information," she said.

Conte eighth grader, Sarah Royal, 14, said she couldn't imagine school without the program.

"I think it's important for this to keep going," she said. "I don't think people will try as hard without the laptops. I don't think you'll see the effort and that grades will go back down."

Classmate Samantha Andrews, 14, agreed, saying the laptops made it easier to organize writing and enhanced the classroom lessons.

"We're not just using our text books," she said. "We're writing more. It's made our work better."

Superintendent James E. Montepare said his district will continue to have the 1-to-1 laptop program in grades 5 to 7 at the elementary schools, following the closure of Conte Middle School. The program will also continue with eighth graders, who will be moved to Drury High School in the fall.

The district had begun its own 1-to-1 laptop pilot program at the high school, purchasing about 250, 7-inch Asus Eee open software laptop computers in 2008.

"We'd like to have a laptop program in grades 9 to 12 as well, but the current financial situation is going to put a crimp in our plans at the moment," he said. "We will have the laptops available at the high school."