As students return to schools across Maine this fall, many are being handed tablets instead of laptop computers.

All Maine seventh- and eighth-graders and many high school students are getting new iPads, MacBook Airs or Windows-based laptops, but the iPad is now far and away the most dominant technology. It will be used by 60 percent of schools this year, marking a major evolution in Maine’s pioneering “school laptop” program.

“Tablets are absolutely the future in education,” said Andrew Wallace, director of technology for South Portland schools, which gave iPads to some sixth-graders three years ago and liked the results. “The portability of the device is unrivaled by anything else, and we know from polling our students that they’re accessing their homework and collaborating on the school bus home.”

The iPad didn’t exist when the state last bought computers for schools, in 2009. Now, across the country, it is often the technology of choice for school districts that are providing computers to students for the first time.

The devices were delivered to Maine schools this summer under contracts negotiated in the spring between the state and Apple and Hewlett-Packard to supply the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.

Schools were given multiple options, a major change in the 11-year-old program, which previously supplied an Apple computer to every seventh- and eighth-grader at state taxpayers’ expense and helped many districts supply laptops to high school students at a discount.

Sixty percent of participating schools chose Apple’s iPad, and 30 percent selected Apple MacBook Air laptops. Only 10 percent — 33 schools — chose the LePage administration’s preferred option, the Windows-based Hewlett-Packard ProBook 4440, according to the state Department of Education.

The switch to iPads will serve Maine students well, said Chris Toy, an education consultant in Bath.

When he works with schools in other states that are adopting one-computer-per-student programs, Toy said, they invariably choose iPads because of their portability, the students’ familiarity with them, and their lower cost.

“If you feel you can accomplish many of the same types of learning skills, wouldn’t you look very seriously at something that costs half as much?” Toy said.

Another advantage — which South Portland discovered when it gave iPads to some sixth-graders — is that the tablets are harder to damage than laptops because they have fewer moving parts.

“They are more reliable, they’re far more personal, and they make interactions between the students and teachers smoother — there’s no barrier,” Wallace said.

Typing is harder on iPads because data is entered on a touch screen, but the schools provide keyboards for students who don’t adjust well to the screen, he said.

Teachers may face the toughest challenge in switching from laptops to iPads, said David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

“There’s going to be a steep learning curve for some teachers,” Silvernail said, “and, while I don’t want to sound flippant, this is more of an adult problem than a kid problem, because students already have experience with multiple platforms.”

GOVERNOR FAVORED HP LAPTOP

When the Department of Education solicited bids last year for the new statewide contract, the HP laptop was ranked fourth by evaluators. But after weeks of deliberation, Gov. Paul LePage announced in April that he had chosen it over higher-ranked Apple options, including the lower-priced iPad.

He noted that the HP was the cheapest Windows option, and that Windows is “commonly used in the workplace in Maine.”

The administration decided that schools could choose one of the three top-ranked options, although the state would not reimburse districts the entire cost of the two more expensive options for seventh- and eighth-graders.

The iPad was the cheapest of the four packages — which include support and networking equipment — at $266 per person. The HP laptop cost $286. The state paid the full cost of both devices for use by seventh- and eighth-graders and their teachers.

The MacBook Air came in at $343, with school districts paying about $58 per seventh- and eighth-grade student out of their own budgets. (Districts were responsible for the full cost of all three devices for high school and other students.)

Ninety percent of Maine schools stayed with Apple-made devices. Three-quarters of the schools that stuck with laptops went for MacBooks rather than HP ProBooks, despite the higher cost.

NO LONGER A ONE-DEVICE SYSTEM

The end of Maine’s single-device system could cause headaches, Toy said, including extra work for the Department of Education officials who are responsible for the program. But in the end, he said, it will be a positive development.

“The bad side is that you do lose some consistency, and your professional development for teachers is going to be more diversified and complicated and probably more expensive,” he said. “But choice is good, in that once you get out of school and into the world, you’re facing choices.”

Bette Manchester, who oversaw the laptop program for the Department of Education until 2007, disagreed.

“People say Maine is the gold standard for how to do a (one-computer-per-student) system, but we just lost a key piece to what we had,” she said. “What was unique was that we had a statewide community with everyone using similar devices, which made staff development easier and made it easier to sense what each other was working on.”

Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, would not discuss the merits of single- and multiple-technology systems, saying there was no debate on the issue.

“Schools were clearly supportive of choice, and that’s why you see a three-way division of devices chosen,” she said in an email.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, also declined to discuss the issue.

The Portland Press Herald reported in May that LePage considered discontinuing the laptop program but was talked out of it by his education commissioner.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com