When the Internet and digital tools first rose into popular consciousness, one major concern was that the barriers to access them would create a “digital divide” between rich and poor. Those with access to expensive new technology, the thinking went, would rocket ahead of those without it.
The Maine Learning Technology Initiative was one of the earliest and largest efforts to bridge that divide. Starting in 2002, it provided a laptop to every seventh and eighth grade student in Maine. It now distributes about 66,000 devices annually, including some to teachers, at a total cost of about $11.5 million per year.
But that investment hasn’t provided clear returns. According to NPR, the state’s standardized test scores have not increased in the 15 years since the program started, and state leadership is beginning to reconsider the initiative.
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Maine governor Paul LePage, for one, has called the program a “massive failure,” even after the Maine Department of Education renewed a contract with Apple, which provides 95% of the devices in the program.
The most troubling part of the program’s outcomes is that it doesn’t seem to have closed the digital divide between rich and poor. Amy Johnson, an education researcher, told NPR that low-income and rural students get less training in how to use their laptops than those in larger and better-funded schools.
There are mitigating factors: Maine hasn’t emphasized the training teachers need to help students get the most out of digital resources, which LePage has said is improving; and, as always, standardized tests don’t necessarily capture the entirety of students’ progress.
At the same time, the cost of digital tools has plummeted, and the ubiquity of smartphones has helped close the digital divide further. But according to a 2016 Pew Survey, those changes still leave some with barriers to learning and employment.