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Uruguay: Plan Ceibal & Improved Education?

“Personal computers will make our future adult population simultaneously more mathematically able and more visually literate. Ten years from now, teenagers are likely to enjoy a much richer panorama of options because the pursuit of intellectual achievement will not be tilted so much in favor of the bookworm, but instead cater to a wider range of cognitive styles, learning patterns, and expressive behaviors.”

                                        -Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, 1995

 

Nicholas Negroponte was the Co-Founder and Director of MIT Laboratory. In 1992, he was one of the first investors in Wired Magazine. A visionary in the technology industry, Negroponte developed the One Laptop Per Child initiative. This program aims to bridge the digital divide, by providing low-cost laptops to elementary school children in developing countries. Uruguay was the first country to take advantage of the project.

The laptops, called ceibalitas, use an open-source Linux operating system, with an interface called Sugar. A moisture-resistant, rubbery membrane covers the keyboard and touchpad. Thanks to a US $100 million investment by The National Administration of Communication (ANTEL), many areas have fiber optic internet access. The country provides basic, no-cost internet service for low income families.

In Uruguay this project is called Plan Ceibal, which stands for Basic Computing Educative Connectivity for Online Learning (Conectividad Educativa de Informática Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea). In Mayan mythology, the ceiba tree – which grows throughout the country – symbolizes the universe. 

Rodger Bailey, an educational consultant in Montevideo, explained to IDG Connect: “If you only pay minimum for just a 'land-line' phone, you still get 1M WiFi included. The Plan Ceibal computers auto link with each other so that when these computers are on, they form a network between those in range and if any of those have the internet, they all have the internet. Many children in deeply rural areas, whose family does not have electricity, walk to their local school and get the WiFi feed from the school.”

Some of these schools also use solar or satellite for internet access. Yet beyond the logistics of connectivity, the overarching objectives are threefold: to enhance education via technology, promote equal learning across Uruguay and to create a collaborative learning experience. In regard to this, the student to family interaction is particularly interesting. In a Ted Talks video about Plan Ceibal, one student noted that she used her laptop to help her mother find a job. In some instances this has turned students into teachers of their own families.

Naturally enough, this has generated a lot of political interest and high profile positive feedback. Vince Alongi, former Web Communications Manager at the US Embassy in Montevideo summarised: “I was impressed by how the program allowed for children from the most vulnerable sectors to acquire practical skills and know how in today's connective technologies, including distant learning.”

Not surprisingly, politically speaking, the English language learning is a key feature of the Plan Ceibal program. The Ceibal English (Ceibal en Inglés) project is managed by the British Council which provide distance instructors who teach English from remote locations.

Uruguay's President Mujica clarified the benefits in his May, 2014 talk with President Obama: “We live in the south. We have a soul of the south. We belong to a continent where our mother tongue is more or less Spanish. And we live in a time where we need to learn English.”

Beyond the Hype: Is it Successful?

To determine whether this is truly successful depends on a number of factors. And as Graham Stanley, project manager for the British Council's Plan Ceibal English explained, the key to effective programming is “getting the classroom teacher (CT) and what we call the remote teacher (RT) working together in partnership.”

“If there’s successful coordination between the two and a healthy rapport, then what happens in the classroom can be very fluid and it can create the right environment for learning to take place,” he continued.

Edy Kizaki's birthday visit to San Carlos exemplifies this type of relationship. “I have five remote classes there, approximately 150 students,” he explained “and their school was having a parade. The students were charming and it was wonderful to meet them, and have so many people sing me Happy Birthday!”

But it's not all parades and birthday parties. Donna Deluca (name changed) told us the training of the classroom teachers is often inadequate, and some of the teachers are less than enthusiastic about their participation.

“The problem lies with the tech guys,” said Deluca. They don't realize that some of the teachers have no training in technology. They're so used to talking to other geeks, that they don't know how to explain basic computer concepts to a technology novice.

Whatever the logistical plus and minus points of a system like this there are also wider benefits in terms of the creativity generated. For example Plan Ceibal created the My Favorite Australian Animal contest for Uruguayan public schools that are part of the Ceibal English project. For this students had to design a postcard featuring a digital drawing of their favorite Australian animal and needed to explain, in English, why they liked this particular animal.

There have also been similar creative methodologies instigated for maths programs. These have included a Math Olympics and a highly innovative initiative from a company called IMAGINARY, which uses the ceibalitas to create art objects based on algebraic equations.

Overall, Plan Ceibal has the potential to inspire a new, bilingual generation of software developers, video game designers and digital artists. They might come from the cities, the rural areas and even the gaucho territories. But will it happen? Only time will tell.

 

Lisa Marie Mercer is a freelance writer living in coastal Uruguay. She and her husband help small businesses get online via their Southern Cross Social Web business and help people learn about moving to Uruguay at Uruguay Expat Life.

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Lisa Marie Mercer

Lisa Marie Mercer is a freelance writer living in coastal Uruguay. She and her husband help small businesses get online via their Southern Cross Social Web business and help people learn about moving to Uruguay at Uruguay Expat Life.

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