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The Maine iBook Initiative: A Battle Between Lemmings And Learning

The Maine iBook Initiative: A Battle Between Lemmings And Learning

by , 3:00 AM EDT, July 17th, 2002

I spent the 2001-2002 academic year as the technology director and technology instructor at a college preparatory school that specializes in the education of gifted and educationally challenged students who do not do well in traditional settings. By definition, a prep school curriculum is tailored to the entrance requirements of competitive colleges and universities.

After spending time in an educational environment as an instructor and program director, I believe a fundamental change is occurring in American education. For generations much effort was focused on memorization of facts and figures. In the Information Age an importance is being placed of training students to access and retrieve information, make critical decisions as to the validity of the information accessed and retrieved and the matriculation of that information into reports and the knowledge-building process.

For today's students, competence in the research and learning methods of the Information Age represents a new form of literacy. This form of literacy is fast becoming essential for academic success.

For this reason I've followed the development of the Main iBook initiative. From the time the program was first announced, through the sometimes unsettling budget battles between Governor Angus King, Jr. and a loud and vocal group of legislators who continue to oppose the initiative, I have been interested in this process.

The initiative in Maine involves providing middle school students in the state with an Apple iBook and providing training to teachers who are leading the state's middle school students in embracing the Information Age through the introduction of a more technology-based school curriculum.

Angus King, Jr. is one of two governors in America elected to office as an independent. His vision for Maine and his plans to address the needs of the citizens of Maine appealed to voters in a powerful way. He was able to buck the entrenched two-party system and be elected to the state's highest executive office. That same vision is embodied in Maine's iBook initiative.

Despite the fact that a majority of the members of the state legislature approved funding for the initiative, two Republicans legislators, representing the group of vocal critics, recently sent a letter to the state's attorney general concerning the initiative. The two politicians were inquiring as to whether or not the initiative could be cancelled without penalty or additional payments to Apple Computer.

In a response to the letter from the two Republican legislators, Maine Today points out that the question posed by the two Republicans is the wrong one. The question should be: Can the state afford not to provide students with what they need for achieve literacy in the Information Age and thus be prepared for modern-day careers and employment?

Much is made of the political affiliation of many of the legislators who have chosen to remain steadfast in their opposition to the initiative. As a Republican myself, I find it interesting as well. I served the Republican Party faithfully both at the local level in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C. during the late 70s through the mid 80s. My service to the party only ended when I began service in a variety of positions in a national Republican Administration.

Some might call me a "dyed-in-the-wool" Republican. I remember someone once stating that I was probably born in "Barry Goldwater blue." From my vantage point the continued opposition of the Republican legislators to the iBook initiative does not speak well of the party.

Why? Because in the end, the issue isn't one of money. It's an issue of innovation and change. Maine faces a significant budget shortfall, but canceling the iBook program will not solve the budget problems. The ones who are hurt most by the repeated attacks on the initiative aren't Governor King and his supporters, but the ones who will eventually be charged with growing Maine's economy and sustaining the state's quality of life – the children of Maine.

I am a native New Englander. I spent time as child over many summers in Maine, enjoying the state's beautiful geography and appreciating its rich colonial history. It's one thing to celebrate the past, however, and it's another to compel children to live in it. That's what will happen if these two legislators have their way.

As a life-long Republican, I have no doubt there are many issues on which I might disagree with the political positions of Governor King and his staff. The Maine iBook initiative would not be on that list. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It's not an issue of conservative versus liberal but it is an issue that will determine whether or not the children of Maine are properly prepared for the challenges of working in the New Economy.

If this were an issue of dollars and cents, I'd update that old education slogan "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance," to "If you think iBooks in schools are expensive, try technology illiteracy." In this case, however, it's an issue of dollars making sense. Since the dawn of the personal computer era, there has been one company that has done more to revolutionize education in schools than all of its competitors combined. That company is Apple Computer.

The decision to purchase iBooks for the middle school students in Maine is both technologically sound and fiscally shrewd. Apple Computer has committed time, resources and expertise well beyond what the company might have gained from the volume sale of iBooks to the state. It was Apple Computer that first brought computers to schools and today has given a rebirth to the power of Unix, not in university research labs but in the hands of America's students. The same technology that powers the Internet and corporate America is empowering middle school students in Maine.

I have seen the difference Apple computers can make in the classroom, especially with students who are challenged to meet rigorous standards. Dollar for dollar, Apple computers are the most cost effective, full-featured computing tools available in education. Built-in Ethernet, wireless options, FireWire and Apple's iApps are just some of the many standard advantages.

My concern is that the Republican legislators who continue to oppose the iBook initiative are less interested in saving money and more interested in preserving the status quo. Canceling the iBook program will not solve the state's budget problems nor will it save the state money when a cancellation would cause a disruption to already-planned classroom programs. If the two legislators were really concerned about saving money they would have compared the cost of other technology options and most likely come to the same decision as Governor King as to the best and least expensive way to provide technology literacy programs to the students of Maine. In my view, these legislators simply don't like change.

The hallmark of our economy is that growth is sparked by innovation. The kind of innovation that increases productivity, fosters the development of new products and leads to improvements in the American quality of life. Innovation has its genesis in the classroom long before the results of educated and innovative thinking find their way to store shelves and product showrooms.

It was innovation that brought renewal to the Republican Party in the post-Watergate era, following the economic malaise of the late 1970s. It was new ideas that helped the party win the Presidency in the 1980s and gain majority control of both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate in the 1990s. It's a lack of innovative thinking that may cost the party its majority position in the House of Representatives this November. In my view, the antics of these two Republican legislators in Maine are not helping the party's cause. They are a throwback to the pre-Watergate Republican Party. They are the keepers of complacency and purveyors of the status quo. Claiming to balance the books by championing an action that denies the needs of children is no way to win friends and positively influence voters, especially in Maine.

In business, people who mindlessly adhere to the status quo are called lemmings. In today's politics, candidates and office holders who do the same are eventually called electoral losers.

Robert Paul Leitao is a Los Angeles-based financial and computer consultant specializing in the needs of non-profits organizations and small educational institutions. He has been a Mac user since 1986 and a Internet writer since 1996.

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