Since the $5.3 million Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative began in January 2006, understanding the relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle has become a visual experience in Mark Clatterbaugh's math class at St. Mark School.
Instead of writing the information on the blackboard, Clatterbaugh had his seventh-grade students use their laptop computers to access an application on the Internet that explained how the relationship between the two measures of a circle are expressed by the number pi.
"The circle is on a ruler, and you can move it to examine the diameter and the circumference," Clatterbaugh said. "It gave them the opportunity to not only know that (the numerical value) of pi was 3.14, but to understand what it means visually."
Before his students had laptops, "I would have just said that pi is equal to 3.14," Clatterbaugh said. "I really would have taught them a rule. Even the very brightest students would have asked how it worked."
The BWLI, which has distributed 2,305 laptops to sixth- through eighth-graders and their teachers in Pittsfield and North Adams, marked its first anniversary last month, and the increased use of technology in the classroom was the major finding in the initiative's first evaluation. That report was prepared for the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in Westborough by an assessment team from Boston College's Lynch School of Education.
"People will say, 'Of course, (teachers) have been given laptops; the use of technology will go up'. But that's a big assumption," said Damian Bebell, who co-heads Boston College's evaluation team. "There are people who are still fighting digital cameras. The integration (of technology) doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen. ... In some cases, teachers have five, 10 or 15 years of teaching the Civil War. They have their way of doing this."
Individual teachers are given leeway to determine how the machines are used in the classroom, and at least one teacher never used the laptops last year, according to a school administrator.
The goal of the BWLI, which was formed through a collaboration of the state Legislature, the private sector and the three participating school districts the Pittsfield and North Adams public schools, and the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield is to help improve student achievement and transform the way education is delivered in the two cities. The three-year initiative is being used as a pilot program by the state.
|» BWLI chronology|
Due to a renegotiated lease with Apple Computer which saved the BWLI nearly $230,000 and donations from the private sector that topped $1 million this fall, all 2,305 Apple iBook G4 laptop computers are with students and teachers at Herberg and Reid middle schools in Pittsfield, at Conte Middle School in North Adams, and at St. Mark and St. Joseph Central High schools in Pittsfield.
St. Mark seventh-graders who received laptops in January 2006 are now attending eighth grade at St. Joseph's.
The evaluation, based on surveys and assessments conducted between December 2005 and June 2006, is the first of three reports that the Boston College team will release during the three-year program. According to BWLI steering committee members, this comprehensive process makes the Berkshire program unique compared with laptop initiatives in other states.
Data for BC's second report, containing observations gathered during the current academic year, will be compiled this summer and should be released in December, Bebell said.
"What we're seeing is a lot of change in a short period of time," he said. "What is really going to matter over the next year and a half is if the jump in the use of technology is going to be sustained or if (the laptops) go back on the shelf."
Herberg Principal Christopher Jacoby said one year isn't enough time to determine how the laptops have affected academic performance.
"I think it's too early to tell," he said. "We saw improvement in both math and English language arts in our 2006 MCAS (tests). But it was in all three grades, not just seventh. So you can't attribute that to the laptops. I think you need a couple of years to get a sense if the laptops are making a difference."
Jacoby did cite a measurable positive effect of the computers, however.
"Our discipline referrals are down this year, and I think that is in part because of the laptops. So the kids are more engaged."
|» BWLI assessment|
"The laptop has opened up a whole new world for her in a great way," Nancy Macauley, a leader of Reid Middle School's Parent-Teacher Organization, said about her daughter, Safari, an eighth-grader.
Safari, an honors student at Reid before the laptop initiative began, said using the new technology has helped her understand subjects in a different way.
Safari said students in one of her classes studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by listening to one of his speeches on the Internet.
"It's made my horizons more open," she said.
Students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Herberg said doing homework on laptops is more interesting because they can type instead of write, change word fonts, and not carry as many books. The entire middle-school mathematics textbook, and some middle-school science books, are online.
"You never get bored with it," said Jonathan Hunt, a Herberg eighth-grader. "There's always something to update on it, like documents, Word or PowerPoint."
Other school systems that have experimented with laptops in the classroom have run into difficulties. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that some parents and educators in programs similar to the BWLI are having second thoughts because of higher-than-anticipated costs and the potential for students to use the laptops inappropriately.
The mother of a sixth-grade student involved in a laptop initiative in Fullerton, Calif., pulled her daughter out of that program after she spent most of her class time text-messaging friends and planning her own Web page on MySpace.com.
"School was one big, happy gabfest," the woman told the Wall Street Journal.
Locally, misuse of the computers might be an issue, according to statements from some students.
In written comments provided to The Eagle as part of a class assignment last spring, several seventh-graders at Reid said they had noticed laptops being used for nonacademic pursuits, including downloading games and hacking into previously blacked-out sites.
To cut down on inappropriate use, all four schools originally involved in the BWLI have screening and blocking devices to prevent children from accessing forbidden Web sites during the school day, and have held laptop information meetings for parents.
And, as the technology becomes more familiar, the novelty of playing around may be wearing off: Michaela Murphy, an eighth-grader at Herberg, said she thought youngsters played more with their laptops when they first received them than they do now.
Disciplinary measures are taken if students are caught using their laptops inappropriately. Students can lose their computers for one day or several days, depending on the severity or frequency of the infraction, according to teachers and administrators.
St. Mark history teacher Matt Collins, meanwhile, said some parents have complained that their children spend too much time playing on the computers, though just as often he hears that described as a positive. Either way, he said, parents should set more guidelines for computer use at home.
As of Thursday, 57 percent of the Pittsfield public schools' middle-school students (811 of 1,427) were allowed to take their laptops home. The take-home fee of $50 actually an insurance policy parents pay against accidental laptop damage is less than the $78 charged in the Fullerton program.
"You're always going to have characters who try (inappropriate use)," Collins said. "Then I have to lay down the law. I've had problems with text-messaging, but it's the same as last year. New player, same game."
"You're talking about 12-year-olds here," said Herberg social studies teacher Michael Taber. "They're going to sneak into the occasional game Web site. You catch them and you take (the laptop), and they learn their lesson.
"But I don't really think that that's a huge issue," he added. "I think most of us are pretty much on top of it."