University of Illinois, USA
As the huge divide between countries that have access to technology grows, Uruguay has made certain that its citizens will not only be active participants in this new information age, but also leaders. In fact, Uruguay’s effort has been called the world’s most radical countrywide introduction of educational technologies. This initiative, called Plan Ceibal, started in 2007 and by October 2009 had succeeded in distributing Internet-connected laptops to every public school child in its primary education system making Uruguay the first country in the world to boast full technology saturation.
Keywords: Plan Ceibal; Uruguay; One Laptop Per Child; OLPC; technology; laptop; internet; reform; education
As the huge divide between countries that have access to technology grows, Uruguay has made certain that its citizens will not only be active participants in this new information age, but also leaders. In fact, Uruguay’s effort has been called the world’s most radical countrywide introduction of educational technologies (“One Laptop per Child,” n.d.). This initiative, called Plan Ceibal, which, in Spanish, stands for Basic Educational Connectivity for Online Learning. Ceibal started in 2007 and by October 2009 had succeeded in distributing Internet-connected laptops to every public school child in its primary education system making it the first country in the world to boast full technology saturation at this level. This equates to approximately 400,000 students, 18,000 teachers and over 2,000 schools grades one through six and Uruguay is now planning to extend the program to secondary schools (Derndorfer, 2010).
Basis of Initiative
Due to its small population and high literacy rates, Uruguay was the perfect country to instigate such an ambitious program. Uruguay has a stable democratic government, a relatively low level of corruption, infrastructure and a decent compulsory education system, which possesses an impressive 82% approval rating (Warschauer, 2010; “Legatum Prosperity Index,” 2010). It has a strong middle-class and leaders like former President Tabaré Vázquez (2009) who initiated the program to “promote equal access to information and communication to all our people”. This strategy, based on economic growth and social justice, is summed up by his quote, “Development is a right, not a privilege.” (Vázquez, 2009) Both Vázquez and the new president, José Mujica, envision Plan Ceibal to be the tool that will involve their citizens in the country’s public policy, create a competitive future for the nation’s children and help Uruguay take its place as a global information technology leader (Vázquez, 2009).
The government program has received broad support from the public, NGOs and businesses as well. It is a joint effort of the National Agency for Research and Innovation (ANII), the Agency for the Development of Government Electronic Management and Information Society and Knowledge (AGESIC), the National Telecommunications Administration (ANTEL), the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Primary Education Council (CEP), the National Public Education Administration (ANEP) and is led by the Technologic Laboratory of Uruguay (LATU). The LATU is charged with assigning and identifying the computers by matching serial numbers to a child’s national identity number, logistics, follow-up, technical support and connection (“One Laptop per Child,” n.d.). Most laptop repair is free through LATU and computers can be mailed at no cost through the post office to service centers if local tech volunteers are unable to solve the issue (Linn, 2009). The program started in the western and central areas of Uruguay, then moved to the east and lastly to the southern capital of Montevideo (Monroy, 2008). The launch of the program in the poorer regions of Uruguay helped to strengthen community acceptance (“One Laptop per Child,” n.d.). Miguel Brechner, coordinator of Ceibal, recently stated that Uruguay has invested close to 100 million dollars in the project which is less than 5% of the country’s education budget and that each laptop costs $188 with $60 additionally going to parts, servers, tech support, and networks. Plan CEIBAL estimates the machine’s life to be four years with $75 annual upkeep (Camfield, 2010). Over one thousand citizen volunteers that essentially create "a top-down initiative, turned bottom-up movement", provide much of the upkeep (Monroy, 2008).
One Laptop per Child Background
The laptops, called XO, are manufactured by a Taiwanese company called Quanta Computer for One Laptop per Child (OLPC) which is a non-profit organization created by MIT Media Lab Director, Dr. Nicholas Negroponte. Seymour Papert, another MIT Media Lab professor, describes school computer use as “an opportunity for the children to experience the thrill of chasing after the knowledge they really want…they begin to control their own intellectual activity” (Setzer, 2000). The five core principles behind OLPC and Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal are: Kids get to keep the laptops, start young, whole schools outfitted at one time, connection to Internet and free open source software that adapts to the needs of the child (“One Laptop per Child,” n.d.). Uniquely designed for developing countries, Uruguay’s little green XO laptop is like nothing that has come before it. It is shockproof, waterproof, dustproof and low cost. It can handle a drop from five feet to a hard surface below. The screen can be seen in direct sunlight, it can be solar powered, battery life is extended, it requires little power and the user has access to the programming code. There is no CD/DVD player yet kids can take photos and movies, video chat and link their computers together through mesh networking. Internet filters are also available to block content (“One Laptop per Child,” n.d.). The XO is fully recyclable and is the first laptop to receive a gold level rating from the Green Electronics Council. It is fairly easy to fix and is equipped with a device that locks down the laptop if it is reported lost, stolen or if the child stops coming to school. The XO laptop does not have a hard drive but instead is equipped with a flash drive, wireless and an open source Linux operating system with a user interface designed to be more intuitive for children. It allows Uruguay’s children to work at their own speed and includes symbols to represent the programs like journal, Internet browser, draw, write, record and create music, read, memorize, chat, and measure. Plan Ceibal is supported by grass-roots efforts of volunteer translators, software developers, fundraisers, and support technicians through the volunteer program in Uruguay is called Rap CEIBAL (Hirji, Barry, Fadel & Ganin, n.d., p. 4).
Advantages of Initiative
When properly integrated into schools, computers can improve learning, strengthen teacher effectiveness, build partnerships, improve management, and address student disabilities and multiple intelligences. It can encourage teachers to act as facilitators to improve learner-centered education, increase critical thinking skills, enable creative expression, teach research skills, increase inquiry and collaboration, provide real world relevance, individualize instruction and foster a love of learning for life. A 10-year Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow research program demonstrated that integrating computers into learning improved student behavior and attendance, students wrote more effectively, group work increased, students mastered information more quickly and attitudes improved about themselves and learning in general. The study found that students became more socially aware, represented information in different forms, improved communication, became more self-motivated and developed a positive orientation towards the future (Rusten, n.d., p.4).
Uruguay currently serves as the only model of full technological saturation at the primary level; therefore the evaluation phase is still in its infancy stages. However, so far findings from Uruguay are primarily positive. Teachers, parents, children and administrators have overwhelmingly been optimistic. Part of Ceibal’s success is in its adaptation to the Uruguayan educational system and society. OLPC provides some support but leaves most of the teacher training and software development to the purchasing country thereby letting Uruguay integrate the laptop as needed (Stables, n.d., para. 47). Teachers report that children expand their social networks, engage more intensely in reading, math, and science activities and spend more time overall on education than before Ceibal (Warschauer, 2010). Teachers report that the educational games help the struggling learners and students with hearing, visual, and mental issues and have their needs met with special Ceibal programs (Vázquez, 2009). Schools can localize the technology and use the computers to create programs that address specific needs. Seventy-five percent of Uruguay’s administrators say boredom decreased while participation in class and motivation to do homework increased. Students that were once hesitant to ask a question aloud in class can now find the answer online. Evaluations have noted that attendance increased (decreasing dropouts in the long-run) and that the laptop was a cost-effective way to ensure that all children have access to updated online textbooks and information. Eighty percent of these administrators report that children’s self-esteem increases as they take pride in their laptops and customize them. Many teachers say the laptops help parents to see the importance of their children’s education and that communication and involvement by parents has increased. Teachers report that student collaboration has increased through the use of mesh-networks linking laptops and children have developed a drive to assist others. Students often learn computer programming and create their own content thereby taking more ownership of their learning. Teachers report a higher level of satisfactions with their job, a decrease in discipline problems, and that they are better able to record and monitor their students’ success. New evaluations have found that when every child is given a laptop not only was the bar raised overall, but advantaged and disadvantaged students were able to learn and adapt at almost the same rate (Hirji et al., n.d., p. 21).
Additional advantages were initially unforeseen in Uruguay. First, the discovery of thousands of unregistered children now eligible for government services and support that they had never received increased (Derndorfer, 2010). Documentation for children is on the rise because as children wait for their national identification number, they are loaned a laptop (Monroy, 2008). Next, there was an underestimated amount of grassroots support and involvement of people working together to strengthen the community (Derndorfer, 2010). Schools have become the center of the community since they have Wi-Fi access (“One Laptop per Child: Wikipedia,” n.d.). Furthermore, children are becoming agents of change as they teach their parents how to read and write and how to use technology. Sixty-three percent of students in Uruguay report having taught someone in their family to use the laptop. Parents are now using the Internet to further their own education, to search health-related information for their family, and to do business online. It is also reported that many parents feel a sense of joy and gratitude for this education and opportunity. In addition, the government has created online portals to help people learn about government services and participate in government as active citizens. Now that the infrastructure is in place, organizations such as the Uruguay National Archives have digitized primary documents that are then added into the primary curriculum. Lastly, Internet connectivity will allow people in countries with few higher education options more choices for flexible degrees from schools around the world. Despite minor setbacks that will be addressed in the next section, Uruguay considers Plan Ceibal a major success for the country. Recently, Plan Ceibal’s Director said, “A lot of the data we gathered points to one thing: it was worth it.” (Camfield, 2010).
Criticism of Initiative
Not everyone is quite as sold on the success of Ceibal or OLPC in general. There have been several stumbling blocks and critiques. The first problem arose when English language software was loaded instead of Spanish on the first 50,000 machines (“Education in Uruguay,” 2009, para. 4). Some argue that Ceibal implementation in two and a half years was overly rushed and that the timeline did not allow for adjustments where needed. They contend that President Vázquez wanted Ceibal to be his lasting legacy and that he hurried the implementation before leaving office (Warschauer, 2009). One of the biggest challenges facing the program is the extent of XO breakage. As of April 2010, it was estimated that 27% of the laptops in Uruguay were not usable due to problems such as cracked screens and broken antenna. Originally, only about one-third of laptops were sent by post to the free repair centers. This was due to the reluctance of parting with something of so much value to the family and also fear that costs would be associated with repairs. Due to concerns, Ceibal implemented mobile repair teams that visit schools and started holding parent information events before handing out laptops so the family would understand the importance of the laptop as a learning tool and not a toy (Derndorfer, 2010). Connectivity is also an issue in certain rural areas where only half of the students can be online at one time (“Education in Uruguay,” 2009, para. 5). Some critics argue that the money would have been better spent on teacher salaries, professional development for teachers, better educational infrastructure and computer labs. Others argue that programs like Plan Ceibal will lead to Internet addiction, less social interaction, increased childhood obesity, wasted time on games, potential exposure to predators, conspiracy theories, and inappropriate content like pornography and extreme violence (Oppenheimer, 2010). Some parents report that the laptop leads to fighting amongst siblings and several teachers say that the laptops can be a disruption in the classroom and can lead to a chaotic classroom (Sasaki, 2008). Other experts argue that computer use in primary school goes against the very nature of childhood and that it limits imagination, forces kids to sit for long periods, provides too much freedom of choice by allowing kids to decide what they think is best to spend time studying, and takes away the human feeling component of learning thus leading to “machine-think” (Setzer, 2000). A major stumbling block is the quality of teacher training which is questioned in almost all articles about Plan Ceibal. In 2007, when the program was implemented in Uruguay, no teacher training was provided. In 2008, the training was too focused on computer literacy and not on how to use the machine in the learning process. In 2009, the focus moved to teacher trainers that were also not often effective. Now in 2010, the training is still being manipulated but currently consists of support teachers, group collaboration, the start of a television show called Canal Ceibal to help teachers integrate new ideas in the classroom, distance learning built around Moodle, and a redesign of Ceibal’s Education Portal used to distribute new software. Teacher training appears to still be in the experiment stage and lacks a comprehensive plan (Derndorfer, 2010). Therefore initial teacher reservations should have been expected. Plus, many teachers were overwhelmed by the broad variety of choices instead of relying on one textbook. Some felt they were too old to adapt their methods and learn something new or feared looking unprepared in front of the class. It is noted that many of these teachers were won over by the students’ enthusiasm for the program but the numbers using the laptops on a regular basis are still fairly low (Hirji et al., n.d., p. 13). In Uruguay, only about 1 in 5 teachers use the laptops for individual student work on a daily basis; only 1 in 8 use it daily for group work and only 1 in 30 report assigning homework through the laptop (Warschauer, 2010). Lack of software could be part of the issue. As Rizvi and Lingard (2010) note, much of the content on the Internet is in English and there is a huge gap in online content for marginalized people of the world that could serve to increase social disparities. There have been competitions for teachers and businesses to create new material and the country’s largest university has outreach programs for this purpose. An independent NGO called CeibalJAM has even been created to develop high-quality software for Uruguay (Derndorfer, 2010). Additionally, certain skeptics believe that it should be called “One Consumer per Child” and that it is just a neoliberal act that is to benefit the industrialized countries (“From Uruguay,” 2007, para. 6). Often these same people worry about culture shock. They say that the Internet will change the values and culture of the country and that there will be no point of return once this new world knowledge enters their borders. They are concerned with what they believe is an overly U.S. mindset not appropriate for other regions (“One Laptop per Child: Wikipedia,” n.d.). As the Ceibal administrators consult for other countries wishing to follow a similar path, some worry that the Uruguay program is not suitable in countries with a huge population like India or those that cannot provide needs like food, electricity or safety to their citizens (Oppenheimer, 2010). It is suggested that any country hoping to implement such an ambitious plan first have the right infrastructure, ability to maintain the equipment, have created content/materials, secured community buy-in, provided teacher training, and have a mode of evaluation (Derndorfer, 2010). Lastly, the question arises of how to even begin to evaluate the success of programs like Ceibal when some studies show that computer use does not necessarily improve test scores. A fair mode of evaluation displacing the regular standardized tests must be used to get an acute assessment of these atypical programs (Camfield, 2010).
Future of Initiative
The Internet has radically changed the way developed countries participate in work, family and leisure. It has now reached the developing and underdeveloped world with unforeseen consequences. Some say it will greatly benefit these developing countries while others are more critical. The undeniable is that it is changing the world. The former Uruguayan President Vázquez made it clear in his remarks that he wanted Ceibal to make his country globally competitive, create jobs for its citizens, improve the economy, and generally look towards the future. His education plan includes what he calls social justice to bring the poor to the table with modern society and create responsible citizens. As Rizvi and Lingard (2010) note, in a knowledge economy, opportunity is often linked to technology access. The idea of a digital divide is now an argument about social justice. Rizvi and Lingard (2010) go on to state that bridging this divide is now seen by many as essential to education reform and industrialization in developing countries. USAID, The World Bank, and UNESCO either already support computers in schools projects or are exploring how to best use them to address education and development issues (Rusten, n.d., p.4). A recent World Bank/ IFC report says for every ten-percentage point increase in Internet connections, economic growth increases 1.3 percentage points. The report illustrates that “access to affordable high-speed Internet…is central to economic growth and job creation in developing countries.” (infoDev 2010). The same report also shows that this job creation greatly benefits youth and that technology-enabled governments are more accountable, transparent, and well organized.
Latin America leads this new technology initiative ahead of Asia, Africa and other regions with 85% of OLPC computers going to this region. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that 30 million children in Latin America will have laptops by 2015 (Oppenheimer, 2010). “Some argue that digital technologies provide countries of the South opportunities to ‘leapfrog’ various stages of economic and social development.” (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p.154). All eyes are on Uruguay as this education reform experiment in total technology saturation promises to have a huge impact on how other countries proceed with their educational plans in the future.
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