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Maine's huge laptop program: Lessons learned

Former Maine Gov. Angus King reveals four hard-won lessons learned from battle to supply students with laptops.

Yesterday, Maine announced a $41 million deal with Apple to supply 30,000 laptops to Maine students and teachers. The contract continues an earlier program for another four years. But Maine's groundbreaking program comes at the end of a rough road, former Gov. Angus King discussed at a keynote address at the Anytime Anywhere Learning conference.

Blogger Andy Carvin took copious notes on the talk, including King's assessment of what was learned. So if your state wants to start handing out laptops, pay attention.

What did we learn? If you're thinking of doing something like this, go to one vendor. Don't spread it around - you want one throat to choke. When something goes wrong, you don't want the computer company blaming the network company. Get one vendor who can deal with the whole issue and be your partner. For us, Apple was a real partner. They moved people to Maine, were fantastic with repairs, a real partner.

Things also have to work. If you're gonna do this, the damn things have to work. If something doesn't work more than once or twice, the teachers will fold up the laptops and go back to the book. Reliability is a huge factor in this. A teacher just isn't going to put up with it otherwise.

Third - you can't spend too much time or money on professional development. The best thing we did was focus on professional development from the very beginning, starting with a grant from the Gates Foundation. This is not a hardware project. It's an educational project. This device is something that assists teachers, not replace them. So you need to help teachers integrate it into the curriculum. If all you're doing is buying hardware, it's going to be a failure, and I don't want that to happen because my name is associated with this kind of project.

Fourth - assessment. This obsession with testing is focused on rote knowledge. It's not capturing what these tools can really do. It's a tool that helps you solve problems, which is what life is all about. It's not for memorizing what year Columbus discover America. But the tests are testing that kind of knowledge. So do not - do not - promise your school board that one-to-one laptops will improve test scores, or you'll be out of a job. You can say they improve writing skills - all the research is showing this. But it's really about problem solving.

The model of education for 500 years has been a teacher becomes an expert and dumps data on kids. Thomas Jefferson could know everything, but now, no one can, because there is so much more knowledge out there today. We should look at law school as a model, because there's too much damn law. Nobody can learn all of it. Instead, you learn how to ask the right questions, identify the issues, and find the law. That's a much better model for kids to learn in a knowledge-rich society. It's a different kind of learning. Like they say, we've gone from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. We're not going to beat the rest of the world on rote learning.