Project Hiller: The Impact of Ubiquitous Portable Technology on an Urban School

May 1, 2002

Over the past decade, the Union City School District has been developing and updating a community-wide networking infrastructure to support its comprehensive program of educational reform. The district and its technology initiatives provide an exemplary context in which to examine the potential of new technologies to support teaching and learning.

For this project, the Union City Board of Education committed three years of funding (1998-2001) to provide network-enabled laptop computers (with printers and Internet access) to 40 incoming freshman students and 20 teachers and administrators in one of the district's two secondary schools, Union Hill High School. In Years 2 and 3, additional cohorts of students and teachers were added to the program, reaching an immediate total of 70 teachers and 110 students, as well as others beyond the program itself. More than simple technology access, Project Hiller students and teachers received extensive technology training and were required to actively adhere to the aca-demic and participatory expectations of the program.

To document the impact of ubiquitous technologies on a context in which many of the initial challenges associated with urban school reform and technology integration have been overcome, CCT was invited to conducted a longitudinal research study of Project Hiller. Specifically within the reform setting, CCT focused on how Project Hiller's goals and implementation affected students learning, teacher-students relationships, and the climate of the school.

Taking advantage of the portable and ubiquitous benefits of the laptop, Project Hiller targeted key areas across multiple levels of the school to:

  • Create a cadre of technologically sophisticated students to advance the use of technology among peers and teachers at Union Hill High School

  • Improve relationships between students and teachers and, by supporting students' facility with technology, enhance teachers' perceptions of students' capabilities

  • Make technology more central to core teacher practices

  • Increase student performance and outcomes on traditional measures as well as on more authen-tic measures such as students' multimedia project presentations

  • Encourage the best eighth-grade students to continue enrolling in the city's public school system

  • Provide urban students with technology comparable with that of suburban schools

Data gathered over the course of three years, complemented by eight-grade retention, honors enrollment and test performance materials collected by the school district, indicate that Project Hiller has been well implemented toward the above goals.

For the purpose of this study we adopted a dual strategy combining quantitative methods with qualitative strategies. The central research strategy was an instrumental case study intended to help us understand how the technology was integrated into the daily life of the school and how it influenced processes of change within the high school (Stake, 1995). The case study approach enabled us to examine how multiple factors are affected by the innovation, and how these factors in turn shape and inform the experience of Project Hiller participants (Means, Blando, Olson, Middleton, Remz, and Zorfass, 1993; Schofield, 1995).

To examine relationships between the quantitative changes taking place and the contextual factors that define, drive, and make those shifts possible we focused on four domains using different indicators to capture changes over time:

  • Student learning. What role does technology play in how and what students learn? Are students' perceptions of learning, attitudes toward teachers, and engagement in the school community changing as a result of their involvement with Project Hiller? Are there observable differences between Project Hiller students and comparable groups of non-Hiller students? What role does technology play in how and what students learn? What role are the district's educational reform initiatives playing?

  • Teacher beliefs and practices. How do teachers integrate technologies into their classroom practices and their professional lives? Do differences emerge between Project Hiller teachers and non-Hiller teachers (i.e.: change in perceptions of students' abilities)? What observed changes can be attributed to teachers' participation in Project Hiller and what observed changes can be attributed to the district's reform initiatives?

  • Administrators' beliefs. Do administrators' perceptions of students and teachers change over the duration of the project? Are these shifts attributable to participation in Project Hiller?

Data Analysis Strategies
Case Study: During three years of ethnographic data collection, we developed an extensive coding scheme in a deductive process starting from our research questions and the above dimensions extrapolated from current literature on technology integration (LeCompte and Schensul, 1999a). We eventually developed a codebook of over sixty factors (i.e. new responsibilities, future aspirations, peer support) spread over 15 domains (i.e. classroom practice, student-teacher relations). Since many of the factors are high-inference codes, all the coding was done by principle researchers.

The Quasi-experimental Study: The district provided us with each year's test data and we coded each individual student for academic track and project participation. The test administration policy of the Union City Board of Education uses a different test at each grade that does not permit us to analyze yearly gains. Instead we conducted tests of significance between group means.

From 1998 to 2001, the CCT research team documented how Project Hiller helped to advance change at Union Hill High School. Findings include:

  • Created a cadre of technologically sophisticated students. Project Hiller contributed to making technology use a central element of the school, and fostered students who became a technical-support resource for teachers and peers through out the building. These same students lead many of the school's technology-focused operations and assist with school-related activities such as public presentations, production of the school paper, coordination of the Multi-Arts Festival and the Adelante Scholars program.

  • Improved relationships between students and teachers. Project Hiller demonstrated a visible and positive impact on teacher-students relations. We define positive teacher-student relationships as those personalized interactions in which teachers raised their expectations for students, and in which students took ownership of their learning. Analysis of observational data and interviews with Project Hiller teachers, students, and coordinators revealed an increase in the occurrence and quality of informal, project-based and small group interactions between teachers and students participating in the program (i.e.: students recognized teachers' investment in their academic success and well being). As one teacher explained, "Project Hiller is more than technology. It is self-reliance, group work and teacher responsibility. What students need is mentoring and belonging. That is the answer to school reform."

  • Made technology more central to core teacher practices. A programmatic requirement of Project Hiller was that teachers and student work together in teams to complete project activities such as producing PowerPoint presentations and developing the school web site, which initiated a series of project-based work. Analysis of survey data suggest that technology was increasingly integrated into core practices, evidenced by a dramatic hike in teachers' assigning online research, from only 6% in Year 1 to 27% in Year 3, and by the percentage of students using PowerPoint, which rose from 12% in Year 1 to 51% by Year 2.

  • Increased student performance and outcomes on traditional measures. Standardized test scores rose significantly for Project Hiller students across all tracks. Analysis of ninth-grade scores for Cohort 1 indicated no difference between participants and their peers prior to Project Hiller, however, by Years 2 and 3 of the project, participating students scored significantly higher than their non-Project Hillers peers. For example: within the honors track in specific regard to math scores, Project Hiller students scored 414.05 on the New Jersey State High School Proficiency Test (HSPT) versus the 396.14 scored by their non-Hiller peers.

  • Increased enrollment of high achieving eighth-grade students in the high school. The possibility of participation in Project Hiller encouraged high performing eighth-grade students to stay in the public school system. In the year prior to Project Hiller (1997-1998), Union Hill enrolled just 38 ninth grade honors students, while in 1998-'99, the first year of the program, Union Hill drew 44 freshman students into its honors program. In the second and third year of Project Hiller, Union Hill admitted 59 and 55 students into the ninth grade honors program respectively, representing a 25% increase from 1998 in the number of high achieving eighth-graders choosing to enroll at the high school.

  • Demonstrated the benefits of portable, ubiquitous computing. The combination of portability and wireless connectivity has made the laptop a highly visible demonstration tool, and one easily shared among students for a variety of academic tasks like Internet research and PowerPoint. Portability created the potential for roving, impromptu training sessions by Project Hiller students as they shared technical knowledge; Project Hiller students were frequently found teaching their teachers and peers in the media center, in the cafeteria, or in class. One administrator reported an increase in students sharing not only their laptops but also their "technology knowledge -they seem to be more connected to the media center and engaged with the curriculum." Additional research findings regard changes in teacher beliefs and student products, the role of mentoring, access and the impact of technology on the family.

Aligned with the objectives of the larger district, this program's purpose was to push for a climate of high expectations. Project Hiller met its initial goals because the design and implementation of the project gave students substantial responsibility and autonomy in relationship to technology and their learning. Our findings suggest that when technology is deliberately utilized as thoughtful support for educational reform in a school, a complex set of interactions can occur that help make improvement possible.

For detailed descriptions of the research and findings, read the full report, available here in PDF form.


Meghan McDermott
Daniel Light
Margaret Honey