Maine decision on school computers fits local districts

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SOUTH PORTLAND — While not the outcome local school technology directors expected, an April 27 Maine Department of Education decision about which computing devices to provide to middle and high school students falls neatly into their plans.

“Oh yeah, we were surprised Maine was given the choice; it is a little bit of a departure from the way it has been done in the past,” Andy Wallace, School Department Director of Technology, said about the decision that made Hewlett Packard the primary vendor for laptop computers, while leaving school districts the option to buy HP tablets or Apple iPads and MacBooks.

The four-year lease program with options to buy gives districts five options for devices, with the HP 4400 operating a Microsoft Windows 7 or Windows 8 platform the preferred choice of Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

On Monday, the School Board voted unanimously to buy iPads for high school students and staff; the tablets will also be the device of choice to replace laptops for seventh- and eighth-graders. The devices are already used by sixth-graders who are not part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative established a decade ago.

At the same time, the School Department will buy about 900 iPads for high school students and educational technicians at an annual cost of $217 per unit spread over the next four years.

The $784,000 cost will be covered by an existing technology reserve fund with a current balance of about $795,000, according School Department Finance Director Rafe Forland. The purchase price may also be discounted by paying up front, Wallace added, and the state will also provide a wi-fi upgrade for South Portland High School, an estimated value of $200,000.

In Scarborough, the HP 4400 is the choice for sixth- through eighth-graders, according to Information Technology Director Jennifer Nichtman.

“For us as a district, we had not outfitted K-12 for Apple,” Nichtman said. HP officials are still determining the exact price and configurations for the 4400, but Nichtman said she was “absolutely thrilled” to learn the company has included a faster processor and doubled the memory on the computers.

The department will discontinue using Apple MacBooks in part because the cost of buying them for sixth-graders not included in the MLTI program was approaching $500,000 as a low estimate, Nichtman said.

Providing sixth-graders with 259 HP 4400 laptops for the next four years is estimated to cost the department about $315,500, according to budget documents.

Nichtman said the lack of keyboards and protective cases for the iPads, plus potential replacement costs due to cracked screens, less memory and questions about tablet compatibility for future online testing, also make the HP a more viable choice.

Unlike Cape Elizabeth and South Portland high school students, Scarborough high-schoolers are not provided laptops or tablets, and rely on about 200 netbooks and other laptops distributed at the library and in foreign language, English and science departments for use only in school.

The netbooks were bought last year with a life expectancy of four to five years, Nichtman said.

Cape Elizabeth Technology Coordinator Erik Kramer said he expects his department to fully join MLTI this summer, and that iPads will replace laptop computers at the middle school. More than 460 tablets were distributed to Cape Elizabeth High School students and staff about a year ago, bought with district funds and a contribution from the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation.

“It is a natural progression for us,” Kramer said. “It is where technology is going.”

The state will fund the purchase of any devices for seventh- and eighth-graders up to the unit cost of the HP 4400. Kramer said the iPad price of $217 per unit means no extra district funding will be needed.

The district will also look into enrolling in the MLTI program for high-schoolers for future technology purchases, Kramer said.

Nichtman said the lack of a keyboard on the iPads was a practical impediment that could not be overlooked, even if an auxiliary keyboard were provided at a ratio of 1:7 per tablet.

“When you think about iPads as a primary device and you have to write a term paper, that would be tough from our perspective,” she said.

Wallace said he does not think students are called on to write as many long papers, and estimated there have been about four requests for keyboards for the 400 tablets now in use in South Portland.

Inexpensive adaptors can also be provided to link keyboards, Wallace said, and he preferred the iPad applications for multi-media learning and presentations.

“Beyond what we had budgeted, we felt the iPad was best,” Wallace said.

Nichtman said there is value in both platforms, and continuity was a key to Scarborough’s choice for laptops.

“I think Apple and Windows both have their place in education,” she said. “Our high school is a Windows environment, so this makes it an easier transition for us.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.