Keeping the Wireless Learning Initiative alive



PITTSFIELD - The $5.3 million Massachusetts pilot program that put laptop computers into the hands of more than 2,000 local middle school students and teachers has officially ended.


But the heart of project known as the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative still has a pulse.


"In regards to the original steering committee, our jobs were complete in June, but we're not disbanded yet," said Michael Supranowicz, a co-chairman of the BWLI Steering Committee.


The three-year pilot program officially concluded in June with its 2008 Summer Institute on teaching through technology.


But schools and investors are anxiously awaiting the results of a Boston College evaluation on the project and working to keep the program up and running in the meantime.


More than 2,300 Apple G4 wireless iBooks have been distributed to sixth- through eighth-graders and their teachers at Conte Middle School in North Adams; Reid and Herberg middle schools, as well as Grades 6 and 7 at St. Mark School and Grade 8 at St. Joseph's Central School in Pittsfield.


Additional infrastructure, such as wireless connections and laptop carts, have been furnished, as well as technical support personnel and educational technology administrators.


Data also has been collected since December 2005 by Boston College's Technology and Assessment Study Collaborative with the goal of completing a comprehensive evaluation of BWLI and how technology can affect student learning and how teachers teach.


"Ideally, these results will provide policymakers an objective assessment of how the program impacted teaching and learning," said lead BWLI evaluator Damian Bebell.


Two of three annual evaluation reports have been published, along with quarterly and abstract documents.


"But we're chomping at the bit now for the final report," Supranowicz said.


This final document to be produced from the pilot program will include an analysis of three years of survey data as well as 2008 student scores from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).


Preliminary results could be available as of late fall, with a final report due out by March 2009, according to Bebell.


"Specifically, we will document how teaching strategies changed and how these changes impacted students," he Bebell. "I would hope that this information would be used to make more informed decisions about how to allocate and support technology in Massachusetts schools."


In the report, students and teachers are surveyed about their frequency of the use of technology, when and where they use it, and so forth.


Similar data has been collected from two "non-laptop" middle schools in Westfield for comparison.


So far, the Boston College reports have found widespread use of technology by both BWLI teachers and students. Usage is high with core subjects like reading and social studies; usage has been less in math classes.


The most frequently reported technology use: using a computer "to find information on the Internet."


Interestingly enough, during the first year of the program, there were worries that students were using the laptops more for computer games and socializing through online chat programs than for academics.


St. Mark teacher Mark Clatterbaugh said that now, he feels students use cell phones to text message more so than using Web-based applications. During the 2006-07 school year, students sending and receiving e-mail on the laptops was reported as one of the least frequent uses of technology.


Whatever happens after the final report, the one thing that will certainly continue with technology is the dialogue.


"The conversation is how we infuse all teaching and learning through the district with technology," said Keith E. Babuszczak, assistant superintendent for career/vocational technical education for Pittsfield Public Schools.


He said this year, the district will be focusing on teacher training and professional development in technology until more information is learned about the impact of the laptops on student academic performance.


"The whole thing's evolving, and partnerships too," Babuszczak said.


James Montepare, superintendent of North Adams Public Schools, agreed. "We've made bridges," he said. "In order for all our districts to survive we need collaboration."


North Adams, for example, has goals to expand technology into its elementary and high schools.


The high school has been made wireless, and the district has started adding wireless infrastructure to the elementary schools.


Independently, North Adams has put together its own survey based on a two-week pilot program that introduced 50 ultra-light 7-inch laptops known as the ASUS Eee PCs to students at Drury High School back in April. The project cost $20,000 in school choice funds.


"The biggest issue is where you find the money to do this," Montepare said. "More time, energy and better funding needs to be put forward. We're hoping that (Department of Education) sees the writing on the wall."


Donald Dubendorf, BWLI steering committee chairman and president of Berkshire Connect Inc., said that until the final Boston College report comes out, it's too early to either "confirm assumptions or upset others" in regards to the success of the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative.


"This is not an effort based on hopes and maybes and ifs," he said. "You've got to get good data.


"The fact of the matter is, young people who are struggling with learning in any age - be it 1850, 1980 or 2008 - are apprehending the world in ways we never understood well," he said. "One of my compelling hopes is that at best, this approximates how young people are apprehending the world and help them to overcome it."


To reach Jenn Smith:, (413) 496-6220.


A sample of what BWLI schools have done with their laptops:




  St. Mark Middle School: Taught younger students how to operate educational computer games; created social studies presentations; composed a yearbook for the seventh grade.


  Conte Middle School: Created videos on a solar oven research and fundraising project for Africa and local history; made Internet safety brochures for the community; became immersed in world culture "virtual tours."


  Pittsfield Middle School: Created a variety of PowerPoint and iMovie presentations; made their own podcasts; participated through the BWLI Academy in a range of things, such as practicing math and building rockets.




  Taught other teachers how to use the technology and various hardware, software and Web-based applications.


  Set up class Web sites and used online programs to assign and collect homework and post grades.


  Used the laptops to create classroom presentations such as slideshows, interactive worksheets, spreadsheets and more.


BWLI Timeline


2003: Plans for what will become the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative are formulated, based on a program already under way in Maine. The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce Educational Council holds a forum in July; former Maine Gov. Angus S. King Jr. visits Pittsfield in September; Berkshire legislative contingent travels to Apple Computer's headquarters in California in October.


2004: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney vetoes $2 million earmarked for the laptop initiative. The funding is restored one month later when the House and Senate override Romney's veto.


2005: Private sector announces fundraising plans in January; BWLI Steering Committee members tell the Pittsfield School Committee in May that laptops will be available in the fall; teachers begin training for the laptop initiative in July.


2006: BWLI begins in January, behind schedule, with the first rollout of 711 computers to seventh-graders in Pittsfield and North Adams; the three participating school districts sign a renegotiated lease with Apple in August that reduces the amount the private sector is required to raise; the final two rollouts of laptops are done by December.


2007: A total of 2,305 Apple iBook G4 laptops have been distributed to date; an after-school program known as the BWLI Academy is approved in October to help both students and teachers with the technology; U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry visits the program in North Adams in October.


2008: North Adams Public Schools puts a contract out to bid in January to expand the laptop program from Conte Middle School to Drury High School; an announcement that private sector contributions surpassed the $1 million mark is made in February; Drury classes participate in a two-week pilot program with 50 new 7-inch ASUS Eee ultra-light laptop computers in April; BWLI program officially lapses at the end of June.


March 2009: A final evaluation report on all three years of the program is due to be released.