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.
There has been much hype around large scale deployments of OLPC XO laptops of the sort used in Uruguay in various countries around the world, and assertions of large numbers of units deployed have been bandied about for a few years, but many people have questions about how just how many of these little green machines are actually in the hands of children worldwide. There is no doubt about the numbers (over 380,000) in Uruguay -- the laptops are not sitting in boxes under an awning at the Ministry of Education collecting dust. You see them everywhere you see school children.
Notably, and tellingly, Plan Ceibal rolled out first in rural and poor communities, with schools in the capital city of Montevideo reached only in the final stage of deployment. This stands in stark contrast to the way educational technologies make their way into schools and communities pretty much everywhere else in the world, where urban population centers and wealthy communities are typically first in line (and in many places, the line may end with them!). Perhaps this is one reason why there appears to be such a strong political consensus across Uruguay in support of the program.
I have visited schools using educational technologies of various sorts in over 50 countries around the world, but never have I been in schools as saturated with portable computing devices to the extent of what I saw in Uruguay. Individual classrooms: Yes, in Korea, in the United States, in Singapore, in Iceland and in numerous other places. But whole schools, in a country where such schools are the norm, and not special outliers? No (although admittedly I have not been to Maine for awhile). Standing amidst the computer-enabled hubbub of activity that now characterizes the standard learning environments in Uruguayan schools, there can be no denying that something new and different is happening in a big way. Every student in every classroom in every school (and, just as importantly, in every home) is different by multiple orders of magnitude.
Just what this difference will mean -- for young Uruguayans and their families, for teachers and schools and communities, for the country itself -- is anyone's guess at this point. Preliminary results from one study underway shared with a group of international experts who met in Uruguay last week apparently show that, as a result of increased access to technology in the two years since the rollout of Ceibal commenced, eight-year old children now have the same level of computer literacy that 18 year olds demonstrated just a few years ago. (One hopes that this finding will be released, and explained, in the planned upcoming official release of initial evaluation results from Ceibal.) What might the consequences be if young people in Uruguay have what is essentially an 'extra' ten years of technology literacy -- what might happen during those ten years (and beyond) as a result? No one knows, but it will be quite interesting to watch.
All of this comes with a cost, of course: a steep cost. Is it worth it? And how will we know?
Initial informal results of a first stage of evaluation work around Plan Ceibal were released at an event in Uruguay earlier this week, and a formal publication is expected within the next month or so. (This blog will cover the findings once they have been officially released.) Also this week, the Inter-american Development Bank announced a Support Program for the Consolidation and Expansion of Plan CEIBAL, which notes, among other objectives, that "It is therefore an objective of this second stage, the establishment of the institutional framework and Ceibal generation capabilities, tools and methodologies for managing, monitoring and evaluation Ceibal Plan". (You can read the project document here. [pdf])
These evaluations, and other research projects in preparation, will investigate a whole series of potential impacts of this ambitious program and its successor initiatives. What is the most useful frame of reference for assessing the impact of Plan Ceibal in and on Uruguay? Standardized test scores? Something broader? How about its larger societal and community impact? All good and valid questions. In many ways, Ceibal can, and perhaps should, be seen not so much as an education project, but as a larger societal transformation project (of the sort often associated with e-government initiatives), with the education system as the primary and initial dissemination vector.
"Daring" is the word the Minister of Education used last week in a speech at a UNESCO event to characterize her country's investment in Plan Ceibal. (The translation in my headset was initially "risky", which the interpreter quickly corrected.) Fortes fortuna adiuvat, I learned back in my school days, and it will be exciting to monitor what is happening in Uruguay to see if indeed fortune favors the bold.
For more information:
- The official Plan Ceibal web site is available at www.ceibal.edu.uy.
- Here's an official TV spot about Plan Ceibal that is airing in Uruguay.
This is the first in what will be an occasional series of posts about the emerging Uruguayan experience.
Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post comes from A.K. Mahan of LIRNE.NET via Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons License (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic).
Many thanks for your comments.
When I used the word 'steep' above, I did not mean it in a pejorative sense. I used it in its sense of being 'high or lofty', and not 'unduly high or lofty'. (The word can convey either; my apologies if this has led to any misunderstandings.)
Whatever the definition, just because a cost is steep (or expensive or dear) certainly doesn't mean that such a cost should not be borne -- and that the end results won't be profitable (however one defines the term). Nor, of course, that it should be borne just because it seems like a good idea.
I agree with you 100% that "When you say that something is expensive, you have to say also, compared with what?" (And I would agree with your next sentence as well, if you used the words 'costs' instead of 'prices'.) The point of my blog post here is to highlight some of the many choices available when comparing and evaluating investments like what we are seeing under Plan Ceibal (and, truth be told, to help contribute in a small way to getting the word out more broadly about what is happening there). You are, I think, right to argue that the costs associated with Ceibal are most correctly evaluated when looking not only at the impact on the formal education sector, but against broader economic and societal development measures as well (I suspect many people in Uruguay are thinking the same way).
Even within the education sector in many countries, choices of investments in things like computers (and digital content) are not only set against investments in things like printed textbooks (which some people see digital learning resources largely replacing) but against things like school feeding programs or vaccine programs for children -- two areas where the economics of such investments are often quite compelling, and based on a strong existing evidence base.
Our global evidence base relevant to the investment in things like Plan Ceibal is not as strong as for investments in things like school lunches and vaccines. But this does not mean that investments such as those being made in Uruguay should not be made. I know that many people are looking to the emerging Uruguayan experience to help provide an important contribution some of this evidence base -- and it is encouraging that there appear to be so many people in Uruguay interested in rigorously investigating the costs and benefits (variously defined) of what is happening there.
There is more than a little of the 'chicken and egg' dilemma for policymakers contemplating large scale investments in ICTs in education. I am regularly told by policymakers in the education sector that, while they believe intuitively that such investments are important, and could well become transformative, they don't feel that existing data allow them to make as strong a case as they would like when in conversations with (for example) the Ministry of Finance for expanded financial support.
Evidence from programs like Plan Ceibal and its successors (and initiatives like those happening in Portugal and Maine, to cite prominent 1-to1 computing initiatives), both in terms of its impact on educational outcomes, and on broader societal developmental objectives, can only enrich such conversations.
When you say that something is expensive, you have to say also, compared with what? This comparison cannot only be on price. You have to compare value received. What is the value of an education, then? In crass financial terms, you can set a price on education based on the Net Present Value of expected earnings over a lifetime. You can design a government education budget around the NPV of the person's tax contributions over a lifetime, with due consideration for other expected public services.
But this is the lesser component of the value of education. The true value has to include the unpaid contributions that the educated person makes to society through volunteer work, perhaps in charities, perhaps in civil society organizations, perhaps in emergency services, perhaps simply by being adequately informed and active as a citizen. Creating and sustaining a society is far more important to that society than merely making money.
Even if we leave that aside, however, investing in your children's future has a huge payback, and the Return on Investment for one-to-one computing is increasing rapidly as costs decrease and capabilities increase. Let us suppose, for purposes of illustration, that the MIT technologists are correct in saying that a second-generation XO can be made to sell for $75. Let us further suppose that students use them for three years, perhaps receiving them in grades 1, 4, 7, and 10. The cost for the computers then comes to $25 per child per year. Further investment is needed in electricity and Internet, at comparable levels. But the entire community gets to use electricity and communications, which are both essential for economic development. There will be expenses for other equipment, for teacher training, for reworking textbooks into digital learning materials, and so on, but many of these are one-time costs, and all will also contribute to development.
Now let's look a little closer at textbooks. Even the poorest countries spend $20 annually per student on textbooks. Not necessarily $20 per child, given the numbers of children not in school. But close enough for government work, since it is a duty of governments to support every child, and someday each of them will. California has taken the lead in the US in moving to electronic textbooks, but other countries are moving ahead (http://www.checkpoint-elearning.com/article/7131.html), and substantial grant funding is becoming available.
So, what then? So this. Is it a steep cost to save money on textbooks by buying computers, and to invest in revamping the textbook industry, teacher training, and the schools? Is that a steep cost for ending poverty in the next generation? How about for ending wars and global terrorism caused by poverty, ignorance, and oppression? Do you know how much we spend on those? Now that's a steep cost.
Absolutely true. In this time and age of tough economic conditions, we are tempted to look at the costs without thinking of the benfits. Our company specializes in rural ICT with the challenges that I think we are all familiar.
We tell them everything is expensive, including bread. But we buy bread. Why? Because of the benefits.
I think it is a matter of prioritization, good policies by the leaders will always result to good implentation of ideas. Kenya has just began digitizing its syllabi and this would reach out to a large number of children via the web unlike the traditional book.
Indeed, this is not a technology project, but a
It is my opinion that the OLPC Foundation should definitely learn from this experience to improve the deployment of their own initiatives.
I agree that Ceibal should be seen as more than an education project. It is a National inclusion program to the Information Age. The program is usually referred to as the "One laptop per child and per teacher" program in Uruguay, and the emphasis put on enabling teachers is commendable (and necessary!). Additionally, applications relevant to other members of the household (including eGov and general cultural and social content) are being developed. With the "mesh" capabilities of the XO laptops, many households will in fact be connected to the WWW through these devices.
Some additional information: according to Miguel Brechner, Director of LATU (main entity in charge of deploying the program), the total cost of ownership of the laptop, including four years of operations and all shared costs of the program, is of $276 per laptop (his presentation is available in Spanish at: http://events.iadb.org/calendar/eventDetail.aspx?lang=es&id=1444). That is, the program is expected to cost approximately US$105 million for the 380,000 laptops.
Taking this per-laptop amount, assuming of course all the information provided is well assessed, we could ask ourselves if those "extra" ten years of IT literacy mentioned in your post will generate more than US$276 additional value in the lifetime of these children (of course strictly speaking we should compare them with the IT literacy they would show in 2020 if no Ceibal Plan was rolled out :) )...
It is a pity that plans like Ceibal* - with all the profound impact they arguably make on the lives of these children and on society at large - are still subject to a "bold" group "daring" to implement it.
* Please note I'm not advocating for the specific XO/OLPC program, but for ICT in Education programs that go beyond one computer lab per school with 2 hours a week of computing classes.
For those of you who don't read Spanish, here is the link to this page on Google translate:
If you do read Spanish -- or are comfortable with online traanslation tools -- you may wish to search for "Plan Ceibal" using one of the numerous blog search tools, as blogs are an excellent source of grassroots information about the program.
In addition to the sites listed by Professor Gomez, here is a list of some of the best blogs of 2009 from students participating in Plan Ceibal:
Edward, you seem very convinced that providing one laptop to every child in Uruguay will produce the transformations you mention or even end poverty in the next generation. But there are not concrete evidences yet to even remotely support that, and studies available on implementation of OLPC don't have enough rigor to be scientifically valid.
Uruguay has placed a bet on this strategy and we sincerely hope that the lessons learned from their experience will be of help to consolidate the one-to-one approach in other developing countries. I personally think that a country-wide adoption of a single approach to using computers in education (e.g. one-to-one) goes against the principle of methodlogical diversity that should guide curricular definitions according to contemporary educational paradigms. No single model can possibly give solutions to the multiple problems that will arise in the process of introducing computers into schools.
There are many different ways to effectively deal with computer literacy (some of them extensively proved and studied) besides a one-to-one alternative that could be much more appropriate for particular conditions of the context where they are expected to be implemented. Even within the same country realities are very different from place to place, so a one-to-one approach could be very successful for some cases but a complete failure to accomplish educational objectives in others. Therefore, in my view educational authorities should be able to examine a variety of options and select the one that is more likely to adequately meet the rich diversity inherent to any contemporary educational system.
It is depressing that Uraguay has moved so far fast and the United States has not.Our educational system is pathetic.
FYI Here is a summary of results from the first monitoring and evaluation of Plan Ceibal (in Spanish):
Related news coverage (in Spanish):
It is not just about the laptops. There are two issues that I think are even more important: 1)internet connectivity; and 2) software applications. Both have costs too and these need to be integrated into any rigourous evaluations. Uruguay has done great in number 1, along with the distribution of the XOs. It seems that less so in 2. And, yes, certainly, the impact of the Plan goes well beyond education, precisely because the XOs come with connectivity. And, as far as their impact on education outcomes, that would depend a lot on software applications and curriculum adoption of this as one more tool (not the only one). As Miguel Mariatti asked us recently: "How is it possible that teachers are teaching geography to kids that are holding their XOs and don't ask them to get into Google Earth?"
So, overall, I don't think any of us can say with hard evidence what the impact has been or will be. I think that would depend on what content they develop, whether and how many public agencies find innovative ways of delivering services using the XOs -- not just kids in the class room and at home, but parents too-- whether the hardware and connectivity get appropriate maintenance, etc. That said, based on faith, huntch, feminine intuition, whatever you want to call it, I believe the potential to transform the lives of the poor is tremendous. Finally, the proof of the cake is in the eating, listen to Prof. Gomez's comment. He calls it "a revolution."
Soy profesor del plan ceibal. llevando a la zona rural el manejode la xo para padres y/o referentes he trabajado con 47 padres en tres escuelas e mi ciudad y puedo decir que es una experiencia formidable y engrandecedora para nosotros que trabajamos con la parte social. reconocer que el esfuerzo de los padres y hermanos mayores en poder saber mas sobre el manejo, para q despues conpartir con sus hijos en familia el buen manejo de la informacion y poder entender la revolucion que nos trae la nueva sociedad del siglo XXI; es un enorme placer colaborar y ser parte deste proceso en el cual ya no hay mas pasos a traz un saludo grande desde uruguay
a las ordenes por cualquier pregunta.
les dejos algunas paginas echas por alumnos totalmente con las xo
Profesor Robert Gomez
As the Director General of the Eastern Townships School Board, located approx. 80 miles east of Montreal and having directed a free 1:1 laptop computer initiative for all of our students, since 2003, we have lived through many challenges and hurdles.
We invited Dr. Alvaro Moerzinger, Ambassador of Uruguay to Canada, to our school district in 2007 to witness our deployment and offer whatever assistance to our colleagues in Uruguay for the Plan Ceibal. We hosted teachers from Uruguay and have sent two teams to Uruguay, in the last 18 months, to provide further insights into how technology can and should play a major transformational role in the classroom and in the community.
I could not agree more with the commentary that whenever we seek to change a classroom context, we are, in effect, seeking to transform a society. It is no accident that education has been referred to as Society's R&D, and as such, it creates an obligation for us to ensure that the children are being very well served.
The Plan Ceibal, as our Enhanced Learning Strategy, will generate results but we must be patient. In our district, even with increased student achievement results and decreased dropout rates, there is always room for further change.
The walls of our classrooms are now increasingly permeable, knowledge moves in, out and through them. Technology, in the form of a laptop is a portal for children to knowledge, plain and simple. Yes, educators will need to continue to play a significant role in the process but then again, we are teaching children in Japan, synchronously, from one of our schools.
I believe that it might be a good idea to discuss how classrooms are emerging into global contexts. The children in Uruguay will now also begin to receive instruction and knowledge from around the world, whethter we like it or not.
As I said to my colleagues in Uruguay last year, the biggest challenge for our colleagues implementing the Plan Ceibal is that there is no going backwards.
Technology in the hands of children has now shifted our entire platform of "what is best for children." Bravo Uruguay and to other nations stepping forward.
I'm Uruguayan. Look in Wikipedia: "...el índice de alfabetismo se encuentra en el 98%, el más alto de América Latina.." Every child in Uruguay have his XO and every child have education. Perhaps, there is people that live in the poverty. But these are changing by the faith of the Uruguayan. Thanks
I agree with Ron...we have to consider how we are transforming society as a whole not only the small classroom. In our poor countries, our children do not have any other choice but to be part of the project if they want to move forward. I congratulate the Eastern School Board for their initiative. Invite all of you to see how far we have gone in rural areas in one district in PY. Going for more pretty soon...!!