Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya ("6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project") and California ("Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads") are just two announcements among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone -- and the costs can be very large! -- such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.
Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:
What do we know about what works,
and what doesn't (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?
Few projects to introduce ICTs at scale across an entire education system have received as much global attention as that of Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, which has (among other things) provided free laptop computers to all public school students.
Anticipating that some of the lessons learned in Uruguay may be relevant to scores of other countries (developing and developed alike) in the years to come, we at the World Bank have been keenly following related developments in this small South American nation over the past half-decade. In additional to maintaining the typical sorts of on-going dialogues we have with countries around the world on education issues, last year the World Bank sponsored a study tour for policymakers from Armenia and Russia to visit Uruguay and see with their own eyes what has been going on, and to talk directly with some of the people who have helped make it all happen. We also helped coordinate an online 'ideas festival' to help connect educators across Latin America to share lessons about 1-to-1 computing initiatives, with a special focus on Uruguay. A presentation on Plan Ceibal by the president of the initiative, Miguel Brechner, at one of the previous global symposia on ICT use in education that the World Bank co-sponsors each year with the Korean Ministry of Education and KERIS each year in Seoul, remains one of the highest rated sessions in the six year history of that event.
That said, there has not been a terrific amount of information available in English about the project for global audiences. Those handy with online translation tools can perhaps make their way around the information-rich Plan Ceibal site (and may stumble across the occasional report in English, like this one [pdf] summarizing official results from the first national monitoring and evaluation exercise). Dedicated readers of the EduTech blog, as well as sites like the independent OLPCnews.com web site, will probably have read some of periodic posts looking at various aspects of the Ceibal program. YouTube fans may have come across some of the related subtitled videos available on that popular site (like this one), many of them on the dedicated Canal Ceibal channel, or of presentations by Miguel Brechner at events like WISE 2012 or ALT-C.
Such information sources, while certainly useful, are by their very nature backward looking. A fascinating new report commissioned and recently released by Plan Ceibal aims to help chart the way forward for the project. Ceibal: Next Steps [pdf], written by Michael Fullan, Nancy Watson and Stephen Anderson, provides very useful short summaries of the first two phases of pioneering Uruguayan initiative before offering four concrete recommendations to help guide the project as it enters its 'third phase' of activity, which Fullan and company have labeled "focused implementation".
This report is highly recommended for people with an interest in learning more about the Ceibal project, as well as for those wondering about potential examples of what might most usefully come 'after' the initial period rolling out and supporting hardware and software infrastructure that defines most large scale 'big bang' attempts to introduce ICTs across an education system.
Considering potential 'next steps' for Uruguay may help shed some light on emerging issues and options potentially relevant to other countries. This may be especially true for middle and low income countries which, while perhaps currently not as far along in the process in rolling out ICTs and connectivity as Uruguay is, would do well to consider what they may want to do after they have declared their initial large scale roll-outs of hardware, software, digital content and initial teacher training to be a 'success' -- and are then faced with the more difficult ongoing challenges of utilizing these investments to help bring about more fundamental and long-lasting changes to teaching and learning practices inside and outside of schools.
At a recent workshop in Montevideo convened by UNESCO and the IDB and hosted by Plan Ceibal on "The Role of ICT/Education Policy in Education Transformation", a new publication was unveiled that included short case studies of a number of countries -- including Uruguay. (This publication is expected to appear on the UNESCO web site shortly -- we'll add a link in the comments section below once it is available. Presentations from the complementary 'open seminar' are available here.) Later this year, the World Bank expects to publish a short case study looking at how Plan Ceibal has developed as an institution, and what some of the key issues might be for an organization like this going forward.
Why all the attention on what's happening in Uruguay, you may ask? Regular readers of this blog will know the answer, as the Uruguayan experience has been the subject of a number of EduTech posts over the past two years, and featured at a number of high profile international knowledge sharing events supported by the World Bank, the Inter-american Development Bank, the OECD and other international institutions. Judging by our server logs, we have picked up a lot of new readers in recent months, and so we thought we'd have another quick look at what is happening in the only country in the world where all students in publicly-supported primary schools have been provided with their own free laptop computer.
Now that (almost) all Uruguayan schools are connected to the Internet and work is well underway to put free laptops in the hands of all public secondary school students, Plan Ceibal is in many ways entering phase two of its ambitious initiative. The technical infrastructure is (largely) there -- the challenge now is to maintain it, to improve and enhance it, and, more importantly, to ensure that it is used effectively to support a variety of new and improved teaching and learning practices that will help Uruguayan students developed the knowledge, skills and attitudes to succeed in increasingly globalized, knowledge economies.
What happens when *all* children and teachers have their own laptops -- this is usually phrased as a question, but a few places are allowing us to begin to reformulate this into a declarative sentence. One such place is the state of Maine in the northeastern United States; another is the South American country of Uruguay, where under Plan Ceibal all primary school teachers and students in government schools now have their own free laptops (previous blog posts about the Uruguayan experience can be found here and here).
Alicia Casas de Barrán, the director of the National Archives of Uruguay, spoke yesterday at the World Bank about what is actually happening under Plan Ceibal. Through various examples, she highlighted the fact that many of the 'externalities' resulting from this ambitious initiative may in fact be central to its eventual value to Uruguayan society.
If you have had your fill of theories and promises about what the widespread diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) might mean for teaching and learning practices across an entire education system and want to see what actual practice looks like, a trip to Montevideo (or better yet, one of the regions outside the Uruguayan capital) should be high on your list.
Under Plan Ceibal (earlier blog post here), Uruguay is the first country in the world to ensure that all primary school students (or at least those in public schools) have their own personal laptop. For free. (The program is being extended to high schools, and, under a different financial scheme, to private schools as well). Ceibal is about more than just 'free laptops for kids', however. There is a complementary educational television channel. Schools serve as centers for free community wi-fi, and free connectivity has been introduced in hundreds of municipal centers around the country as well. There are free local training programs for parents and community members on how to use the equipment. Visiting Uruguay last week, I was struck by how many references there were to 'one laptop per teacher' (and not just 'one laptop per child', which has been the rallying cry for a larger international initiative and movement). Much digital content has been created, and digital learning content is something that is expected to have a much greater prominence within Ceibal now that the technology infrastructure is largely in place.