What's next for Plan Ceibal in Uruguay?

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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.

An important part of this challenge will be to make sure that teachers are supported and incentivized -- through sufficient technical support, relevant content, and more importantly, through a rich set of training activities, professional development programs and pedagogical support networks -- to take advantage of all that the new technological infrastructure offers, while at the same time becoming savvier about where doing things 'the old fashioned way' is still the most appropriate course of action.

Phase two of Plan Ceibal will not just be about 'more of the same, only better', however.  An ambitious set of new programs and initiatives are now planned or underway as well, including:

  • the conversion of all secondary and technical school (and some primary school) science labs into 'digital labs', utilizing sensors and other 'probeware' devices
  • the piloting of new educational robotics curriculum
  • new online nationwide mathematics contest
  • the expansion of pilot efforts in online assessment and evaluation
  • a roll-out of Plan Ceibal into kindergarten classrooms on a voluntary basis (teachers submit plans to Ceibal for funding)
  • the regular refreshment/replacement of OLPC XO laptops already delivered
  • a new Plan Ceibal Digital Library, to include 100+ books and other educational materials (such as those from the Khan Academy), hosted on local school servers

(More detailed information on these and other activities is available on the Plan Ceibal web site -- those who don't read Spanish, or who are not comfortable using on-line translation tools, may wish to see a related post in English from the independent OLPCnews.com site.)

It will be interesting to see how Plan Ceibal evolves over time to accommodate these (and other) new directions.  Presumably many of the activities in which it has been intimately involved over the past three years will gradually become the responsibility of the national education authorities. In many countries, the institutional structures initially put in place to get things started are often stressed over time as they attempt to accommodate, respond to and support local and grassroots initiatives if they are to remain relevant to the ultimate beneficiaries (students, schools and local communities) -- and not just serve the entrenched needs of long-standing bureaucracies.

How can an institution -- and initiative -- like Plan Ceibal continue to be a force for exploring, introducing and learning from innovative new practices and technologies, while at the same time helping to sustain and extend its initial early successes?  

In Uruguay a number of supporting initiatives have sprung up to support Plan Ceibal in various ways.  Most notably, these include Flor de Ceibo, which coordinates the volunteer and research work of students and teachers from the Universidad de la República in support of Plan Ceibal; ceibalJAM!, an independent civil association formed by volunteers from Plan Ceibal to promote the development of free educational software and resources; RAP Ceibal, a loose network of over 1000 volunteers who help with technical support; and RUTELCO, the Uruguayan network of community infocentres.  In many places, it is the vibrancy of connections to these sorts of 'supporting' volunteer and civil society initiatives that in the end help ensure the success of (or alternatively, doom to failure) large scale initiatives like what Plan Ceibal represents in Uruguay.  By helping to 'fill in the (inevitable) gaps' in official initiatives, and through empowering large numbers of people and local communities who become important agents of both support and change, these sorts of activities can serve as important channels of information to inform future efforts and policies related to the use of ICTs to support a country'broader educational goals and objectives.

Many countries around the world are interested in the Uruguayan experience -- and in particular in the role of an organization like Plan Ceibal -- as a potential model to quickly 'jump start' their use of ICT use in education across the education system. In this regard there is much from the Plan Ceibal experience to date that other countries contemplating similarly ambitious initiatives would do well to learn from -- not only what has worked and what hasn't, but also why and how.

Perhaps even more interesting and valuable, however, will be the opportunity to learn from Ceibal's experience during its second phase of activities. How will it evolve over time? Will it be seen at some point to have outlived its usefulness within the system, labeled a 'success' and then shut down (some would argue that this is what happened to the UK's influential ICT/education agency, Becta)?  Alternatively, will it be enshrined in law as a formal part of the educational establishment going forward indefinitely, leading, administering and exploring the use of ICTs in the education sector in seeming perpetuity (like has occurred with KERIS in Korea)? Or will it blaze a third path, creating a new model that other countries may wish to follow?

Only time will tell, but other countries currently considering embarking on ambitious new educational technology initiatives, as well as those seeking to consolidate gains from existing programs and projects and sustain them effectively over time, would be well-served to monitor what is happening in Uruguay.

Some related EduTech blog posts:

Note: A growing set of educational videos are being produced as part of, and to support, Plan Ceibal.  These videos can be accessed through numerous channels, including a dedicated catalog on the Plan Ceibal site and the Canal Ceibal on YouTube. The video used at the top of this blog post ("Impacto Ceibal") is used with permission of Plan Ceibal. 


Michael Trucano

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

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