Closing the digital divide


 By Jennifer Huberdeau

NORTH ADAMS - There have always been the haves and the have-nots, and the playing field has never been level when it comes to education. Never before has the monetary divide seemed as evident as now, with technological conveniences such as iPods, cell phones and laptops becoming more and more commonplace in the hands of today's youth.

 One of the key selling factors of school laptop initiatives around the country is the idea that by making technology accessible to every child, the digital divide will become less apparent and give less-fortunate kids access to the advantages middle class children are born with. But can access to a laptop computer in the classroom and at home really eliminate some of the divide that separates the haves and have-nots of the 21st century?

That's what parents in Berkshire County are poised to find out as the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative prepares to roll out the first batch of Apple iBook laptop computers on Jan. 6 to seventh-graders at Silvio O. Conte Middle School in North Adams, and the Herberg Middle and Reid Middle Schools and St. Mark School in Pittsfield.

"There will be no more of those who have and those who don't," said James E. Montepare, superintendent of the North Adams Public Schools.

James Stakenas , steering committee co-chairman of Berkshire Wireless and vice president of administration and finance at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes the computers will give a voice to many students who have remained silent.

"Some children are too shy to raise their hand in class. The laptops will help them make that connection, finding their voice in a different way - whether it's accessing information, or e-mailing an answer to the teacher," he said.

Michael Supranowicz, president of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and steering committee co-chairman, said he believes laptops will give lower-income students the ability to learn computer programs, which in turn will give them a better chance when they eventually enter the workforce.

"Student achievement will increase with the addition of technology. Right now there are 2,200 job vacancies in Berkshire County . Not only will school programs like this help prepare our students for tomorrow, but they will bring young people - looking to start or raise families - back into the communities," he said.

Exploring the possibilities

While none of the committee members expect the laptop initiative to suddenly increase test scores, they believe it will change the learning process - challenging students and staff to explore the possibilities the new technology and educational software will allow for.

In a May 2003 article appearing in Pocket PC Magazine, professor Gary Hall of East Carolina University in Greenville , N.C. , wrote about a pilot program using Hewlett-Packard Jornada 540 series Pocket PCs. The hand-held personal computers were given to second- and fourth-grade pupils at Newport (N.C.) Elementary as part of a collaborative experiment between the school and the college. The program was in its second year when Hall penned his article.

"Students lacking financial resources often do not have necessary technology in their homes. Small and rural schools do not have proper digital equipment in their classrooms. Students negatively affected by this lack of resources are part of America 's rapidly developing digital divide. Their work is often inferior to those who have access to tools that support content mastery. Pocket PCs can be used to provide equal access to everyone," Hall wrote.

During one experiment in which students downloaded an eBook from the Internet, one child, previously deemed a non-reader, amazed his teacher by not only reading the four-page fable "The Ant and the Cricket," but by displaying on-target comprehension skills.

"When quizzed about the story, the student answered correctly each time. The teacher was flabbergasted! He could read; he just chose not to do so under regular classroom conditions," Hall wrote.

Hall also found that learning was not just limited to academics, but transferred into social interactions as well, as students taught each other how to work certain features or programs on the tiny computers.

"Students with unique knowledge of applications share it with their classmates. The sharing seems to be based on common interests in certain functions and not simply on little social cliques, which project coordinators were prepared to break up if necessary," he wrote.

While Hall championed the program at Newport Elementary, little has been written about the resulting academic learning curves from one of the nation's most predominant experiments in providing laptops to students.

The first comprehensive laptop experiment began in May 2001 when Henrico County Public Schools, a 40,000-student district outside of Richmond , Va. , leased 23,000 Apple iBook laptop computers. Spending about $18.6 million on enough technology to place a laptop in the hands of every middle and high school student, as well as every teacher in the district, the district launched the model for the experiments to follow.

Low-income correlation

According to a 2001 article appearing in the American School Board Journal, about 40 percent of the district's students receive either free or reduced-priced lunch. A school-initiated survey found that about the same percentage of the student population also lacked access to a computer at home.

Officials said about 98 percent of their low-income families signed up for the program, which costs $50 in insurance policy fees. The initial 2 percent of parents who balked at the idea, school officials claimed, came from parents who already had computers at home.

Similar to local program

While Henrico County was proving cost issues could be overcome by working out payment plans and providing low-cost Internet access to low-income families, Deer Valley Unified, a 30,000-student district outside of Phoenix, was proving that laptops could help low-income students bridge the gap, providing them with the technology and encouragement to compete on the same level as their more well-off counterparts.

With a program similar to that being kicked off locally by the Berkshire Wireless Initiative, Deer Valley began a pilot program in two low-income elementary schools - providing laptops with unlimited access and free home Internet access to 200 fifth-graders in the fall of 2000.

Speaking to the American School Board Journal a year later in 2001, district spokesman Timothy Tait said "In most of the houses (near) these schools, families didn't have computers, and those that did are not connected to the Internet. "What we've found is that the students who had the (laptop) computers are retaining the increases they made in fifth grade. The schools that are part of the project do better than those that are not."

Statements of support of student laptops were made in October 2005 when the Fullerton School District in Orange County , Calif. , released the results of a one-year study of its initial one-to-one laptop program. While the study failed to show test score improvement above and beyond the students in the districts nonparticipating one-to-one schools, the results did provide date supporting increased interest in school work among those participating students.

"The program is highly popular with participating teachers, students, and parents, who in their strong majority believe that it contributes positively to student learning. With some variation by school, grade level, and subject, students in the laptop program improved in test scores from the prior year at about the same rate as other students in the district," researchers wrote.

The Fullerton School District launched one of the largest pilot laptop programs in California in the 2004-2005 school year. As part of this program, more than 1,000 students at three district schools were provided with laptop computers. Participants in the program included all the seventh-grade students at Nicolas Junior High School (554 students), all the third- to seventh-grade students at Fisler K-8 School (395 students), and two classes of Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and other high-achieving students at Hermosa Drive Elementary School . Similar to the planned Berkshire Wireless Initiative rollout, students were provided with an Apple iBook, wireless Internet access, and educational software.

According to a survey of the 35 teachers involved with the Fullerton pilot, a total of 82 percent of teachers recommended that other schools adopt similar laptop programs. About 84 percent found the laptops raised student interest in class, with 85 percent saying students became more involved in their research, and 79 percent agreed that laptops improved student work ethic.