Technology serving social justice and education in Uruguay
“If you put water or electricity in a school does it improve maths or English? No. Nor will technology unless you have good well trained teachers. What technology can do is facilitate pedagogy,” said Miquel Brechner, President of Centro Ceibal in Uruguay.
His country is living proof. Under Plan Ceibal more than 750,000 students and teachers in Uruguay have their own laptops, 99 per cent of the school system has connectivity and the network extends to shanty towns, public squares, housing complexes and hospitals. The scheme, which began with primary school, now extends to secondary.
Mr Brechner, who will be talking about technology and education at UNESCO’s flagship ICT event Mobile Learning Week on 7 to 11 March, first heard about the One Laptop per Child scheme in America in 2005.
“My first thought was ‘why not Uruguay?’” he said in an interview with UNESCO. The basic conditions in the country were good with free mandatory secular education well established since the 1870s and 85 per cent of children in public primary school. What Mr Brechner needed was support and he got it from the top.
“I took the idea to the president and he said yes. President Tabaré Vazquez is the real driving force behind the project,” said Mr Brechner. “He took a huge risk at a time in 2006 where there were no smartphones or tablets. He said that when he was young and someone drove through the streets of a poor neighbourhood in the country it was easy to imagine each child playing soccer as a potential mayor or physician. That had changed and he wanted to do something about it”.
The project was conceived as a human rights issue. “We wanted everyone to have equal access. Who can conceive of a world where rich people have access to technology and poor people do not?” said Mr Brechner.
Then name, CEIBAL, came from the ubiquitous Uruguayan tree with the initials standing for “Conectividad Educativa de Informática Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea" (Educational Connectivity/Basic Computing for Online Learning in English). The thousands of small green computers that found their way into the hands of schoolchildren became known as "ceibalitas".
Once the technology was in place it was followed by the creation of a training plan for teachers in primary education, the active inclusion of society and teachers in the project and the implementation of a monitoring and evaluation model to measure the impact nationally.
There has been some criticism of the scheme since its beginning, the main one being that there has been no measurable improvement in learning.
Mr Brechner says it is too soon to judge and that the wrong standards are being applied. “Our aim was to get rid of the digital divide in the country and that has happened. No matter who you are, you have access. Our continuing aim is to facilitate pedagogy through technology and education itself is changing. Collaboration and citizenship cannot be measured in standardized tests.”
Another success is the Ceibal en Inglés scheme, a long-term strategy to improve English in primary schools.
“We needed our primary school children to speak this universal language but we just didn’t have enough English teachers,” he said.
Centro Ceibal is now partnered with the British Council to provide high quality video conference lessons using English teachers around the world to teach students and teachers alike. The scheme has mushroomed from 1000 students in 2012 benefiting from weekly lessons to 76,000 in 2015.
Mr Brechner sees the next step as the increased personalization of education where technology will be used to build databases which can enable teachers to more effectively and easily track a students’ progress and instantly identify problems such as early dropouts.
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