What happens when *all* children and teachers have their own laptops

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results from the widespread use of educational technologies are just beginning to bloom all over UruguayWhat 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.

Here's one such example: Ms. Casas, whose institution is not officially associated with Plan Ceibal, quickly saw the potential to capitalize on her country's massive investments in connectivity and laptops for teachers and students to open up access to the national archives in ways not previously possible. Recognizing that laptops and wifi present an entirely new distribution channel for the services of the archives, and that the education system would need lots of new content in digital formats if it wanted to make full use of its large investments in technology infrastructure, the national archives approached the ministry of education to see how it might be able to help out.  The result was an effort that the archives funded itself, digitizing key documents and images from the nation's heritage; one of the signature consequences of this effort has been the inclusion of digitized versions of primary documents from the nation's history into 5th and 6th grade curricula for use on the laptops.

This is not the first time that the archives have collaborated with the ministry of education on education content.  (Indeed, this is part of its remit, as it is in many other countries.)  But, in contrast to past efforts, today's effort isn't only about one-way dissemination of content.  I asked Ms. Casas how much feedback she received from students five years ago about items in the national archives.  Her laughing answer: "None". Under Plan Ceibal, she and her staff are now receiving lots of feedback directly from students about the suitability of various resources, and especially about how they could be presented in ways more suitable for children, few of whom have ever set foot in the archives building itself.

The One Laptop Per Child initiative, whose green and white laptops are now ubiquitous in Uruguayan schools as a result of Plan Ceibal, likes to bill itself as an 'education project'.  (I'll leave it to others to debate the merits of that assertion, a popular pastime in some corners of the Internet.) Plan Ceibal, on the other hand, does not see itself as an 'education project' per se, but rather as a project to help transform larger society, with the education system as just the initial vector through which the project hopes to infect all of Uruguay with a new level of 'connectedness'.

Investments in computers for all Uruguayan students merely to allow them to access documents in the national archives would (obviously) be much too expensive.  However, as the ongoing work of the national archives demonstrates, once that infrastructure is place, small additional investments can yield some interesting (and in some cases, unexpected) results. Many examples in this regard are emerging in Uruguay -- add them up, and you see some very interesting, non-traditional 'results', many of which were not foreseen by Plan Ceibal proponents when the program was being initially planned.

Casas compared the effect of Plan Ceibal to that of 'a wind blowing into the classrooms of Uruguay'.  She noted that, in many ways, the 'hidden curriculum in many Uruguayan schools has been discipline', and the widespread availability of laptops for all students in schools is challenging this.  When I am asked to describe what I saw on my last visit to Uruguayan schools in December, I usually respond with one word: "chaos".  I did not mean this (necessarily) in a negative sense, but rather to note that, when all children have laptops and when teachers are given the freedom to explore with those students how best to use them, some of the traditional ways of organizing and managing a classroom are greatly challenged.

How can you measure such changes?  Looking to a traditional measure -- standardized test scores -- may not provide much insight.  But this does not mean that such changes do not have value.  If other places are any guide, the disruption that accompanies a large scale introduction of laptops has the potential to actually negatively impact test scores in Uruguay, at least in the short run.  This is not to downplay the risks that Uruguay is incurring here: If this 'chaos' and disruption last for an extended period of time, there will no doubt be a serious reconsideration of the path the education system is on. 

The challenge -- in Uruguay and elsewhere -- is in how to measure such changes.  This challenge is complicated by the fact that many positive changes that result from such investments are not foreseen by policymakers in the planning stages, and so data are not collected against which such changes can be measured and assessed until it is, from an evaluation standpoint, perhaps 'too late'.  This is not to say that attempts to evaluate such impacts are to be dissuaded, nor that (as some people would have you believe) this type of evaluation work is impossible.  Nor is it to imply that we should abandon the use of traditional measurement practices and tools -- far from it! (Even most critics who complain about such things note that, at least in the short- to medium-term, this would be impractical.)  That said, large-scale investments like Plan Ceibal in many ways challenge the way we have evaluated such investments in the education sector in the past; the audacious scale and vast use of public monies under Plan Ceibal in some ways compel us to be creative (and perhaps even audacious) in how we set up relevant and useful monitoring and evaluation schemes.  As one policymaker in Uruguay put it to me: "We have jumped off a cliff with Ceibal.  If we want to land safely, and end up in a new place that seemed impossible to reach before, we need to be serious about how we learn from our experience here and make any corrections that are necessary." Rigorous evaluation of Uruguay's flight into the unknown will therefore be central to the eventual outcomes and impacts of this bold program.

There is no telling to what extent the lessons from the emerging Uruguayan experience will be relevant to other parts of the world.  The country's rather unique social contract, which results in one of the least inequitable income distributions in Latin America, its small size and largely urban nature -- these and other attributes should give us pause if we try to simply extrapolate the lessons from Uruguay to create models that are then simply dropped into other places.

But the lessons that are emerging are fascinating -- and other countries considering large-scale investments in computers and other ICT devices for their education systems would do well to monitor Plan Ceibal closely.

related blog posts:

Please note: The image of the flower of the ceibo tree shown at the top of this blog post (from which Plan Ceibal gets its name) comes from Wikipedian Tano4595 via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The schedule of ICT/education talks and presentations at the World Bank open to the public this May continues:

More information about these events, included RSVP information, can be found on their related web pages.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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