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All Schools On-Line by 2003 in Argentina
By Marcela Valente Inter Press Service
 
  BUENOS AIRES, Apr 25 (IPS) - Argentina plans to hook all schools in the country to the Internet by 2003. At present only 30 percent of the 52,000-odd formal and informal schools are connected.
 
  Through a programme to be launched in August, the government aims to equip 12 million students and teachers with computers and access to Internet through the world's first official educational portal -- 'educ.ar'..
 
 The educ.ar programme will be bankrolled with a donation of around 12 million dollars -- calculated at one dollar per student - from Argentine-Spanish businessman Martin Varsavsky..
 

 Varsavsky who went into exile in Spain with his parents in 1976 (fleeing the 1976-83 dictatorship) has returned to the country he was born in to help implement the new project. His business interests involve telecommunications, computers and the Internet. He believes the potential for the expansion of access to the World Wide Web in Argentina is enormous.

 
  ''Through this project, access to the Web will grow from less than two percent to 30 percent,'' he predicts, stressing that the project will provide equal opportunities to all.
 
  A survey in March this year by the Centre of Studies for the New Majority found that just 2 percent of primary, secondary and tertiary-level students in Argentina are ''cybernauts'', and they were mostly in private schools.
 
  While the report put the number of people on-line at 900,000 (population 37 million), other studies estimate a higher 1.5 million. The average across Latin America is 2.7 percent of the population, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)..
 
  The idea is to provide one-third of the population with the possibility of surfing the Web, and to set up an educational ''intranet'', offering long-distance education and training for remote users and generating a market for electronic or e-commerce.
 
  A major reduction in illiteracy among the population over age 15, from 20.1 percent in 1991 to 13.8 percent in 1998, is another positive result, even if it does not quite meet the goal of reducing the 1991 level by half.
 
  Although Argentina has a relatively large number of registered websites, there are fewer cybernauts than in Brazil or Mexico, the other two large economies in the region. Neither has e- commerce developed here to a great extent.
 
  With computers installed in classrooms, the number of students clamouring to use one computer will drop from 50 to five. Teachers will each have personal e-mail addresses, as well as access to cyberspace-libraries, educational programmes and information-exchanges and contacts with other schools.
 
  ''Computering classrooms'' is the pet project of Argentine President Fernando de la Rua, who took office in December.
 
 "Today more than ever the world will be divided between those who have access to a good education and the latest technologies, and those who do not,'' said De la Rua last month. ''For that reason we have to take advantage of the Internet, which will allow us to carry out a big revolution in education ...''
 
  An earlier programme, launched by the Carlos Menem government (1989-99) to install computers in schools nationwide, fizzled out. Sophisticated equipment installed in several provinces remains under lock and key because no one knows how to use it.
 
  By 1999, 30 percent of Argentina's educational institutions -- in many cases one computer per school -- were equipped with computers. In some schools the new equipment became obsolete immediately, and funds for upgrading were not available.
 
 Graciela Fucks, a teacher at a school in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina's southernmost province, says access to the latest technologies was important for schools, but initiatives when they are imposed from outside are not necessarily successful.
 
  ''Many schools received equipment, but they have no idea of what to do with the machines or how to offer them to the students,'' she points out. ''Equipping a school with Internet is not a guarantee of development of communication in the school or between schools -- efforts must be made in other areas''.
 
  Juan Jose Cataldo, a computer science expert involved in long- distance teaching, said in order for the initiative to take off, coordinators trained in educational methodology and technical areas were needed and should be retrained.
 
  Cataldo, who participated in the training for Menem's project, told IPS the idea was good and the investment substantial, but the programme petered out due to lack of follow-up. ''Many computers we installed have been locked away, and in others the schools are charging fees for the courses,'' he complained.
 
Education Minister Juan Jos Llach said this month that the portal will be user-friendly, and the programme, thanks to participation by the private sector, will be an ongoing one in schools across the country.
 
' "We are aware that in Argentina there are schools without power, telephones or even water, schools that are periodically flooded, or that have leaky roofs,'' he said. ''But we have to address both areas of needs at the same time, in order to provide all students with the opportunity of access to these new tools.''
 
The government plans to use funds collected from publicity posted over the Internet to provide electricity in schools not connected to the power grid. It also plans to reinvest this money, and keep 80 percent of the project under state-control.
 
Llach spoke of a big divide in education: between those who do and do not have access to a good education; and the digital divide, with those who do not know how to use a computer or surf the Web at a marked disadvantage.
 
The minister stated that the government did not see the Internet as a panacea for all problems in the educational system, but as an important ''tool'' and ''indispensable means'' of reaching the country's educational goals.
 
Through the new programme, Argentina -- which was a pioneer in the region in terms of near-universal literacy -- is seeking to stay in the vanguard, without overburdening the state budget.
 
' "We want Argentina to be a pioneer in Latin America in this too,'' said President De la Rua, who has taken on the challenge of having all schools on-line by the end of his term, in 2003.
 
This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
 
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