Every laptop assigned a child

By Miguel Peirano MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay,

At present, Uruguay is the only country in the world that has adopted, as government policy, Nicholas Negroponte’s proposal to endow every schoolchild with a low-cost laptop connected to the internet. A few other countries, such as Libya, Thailand and Rwanda have expressed similar intentions, and others, such as Brazil and Argentina, are implementing partial projects. But in Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez wagered heavily, and announced in December 2006 that by the year 2009, this benefit would be extended to every schoolchild without exception.

A short time ago the hardware acquisition process was speeded up. The model chosen is the one originally proposed by Negroponte [1], with a GNU/Linux operating system, AMD processor, 256 MB RAM and 512MB “flash” storage memory. Each unit will cost $199 dollars.

In Uruguay the left governs and does so alone, without alliances and on its own merits (or perhaps due to the demerits of the other political forces). In the mix of circumstances that produced the left’s electoral victory, we find the country’s president, Dr. Tabaré Vázquez, accepted by all sectors of the left, and more importantly, respected and tolerated by the entire political spectrum. Dr. Vázquez has an inclination towards Jacobin gestures and drastic and unilateral decisions. One of these decisions set the OLPC project rolling, which in Uruguay is called the Basic Computer Educational Connectivity for Online Learning Plan (CEIBALConectividad Educativa de Informática Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea), a play on words which attempts to evoke Uruguay’s national tree (ceibal is a ceiba forest, Erythrina cristagalli).

In the launch speech, and in his typical way of presenting a fait accompli, the president declared, “you don’t know how happy, how proud, how spiritually comforted I feel at this time as we propose—that is, as we inform the nation—of the launch of this programme.” No one doubts that this president is truly in command. That’s why Negroponte’s vision became government policy, or rather this administration’s policy -since no one knows for sure if the project will continue after Vázquez leaves the presidency (there are no second terms in Uruguay).

The CEIBAL Plan in Uruguay

The Ceibal Plan is a well-intentioned project which, if handled cautiously, could improve primary education in some areas, especially in rural sectors, small towns and cities, which is precisely the setting used in the experimental phase. In other words, under ideal conditions.

With uncommon speed, a pilot project was carried out in a small locality in the countryside, a town called Cardal, which quickly drew not only local but also international press attention. The fact is that today it is extremely difficult to interview those who took part, and Cardal has become “guarded territory” in order to, or as an excuse, safeguard the peace of the school and its educational task.

Several committees have been set up to implement the project. I was able to interview a member of one of them from the “Education Committee,” who preferred to remain anonymous. The government’s restriction on information about the Ceibal Plan is curious: the agency in charge of the technical application is the one granting interviews.

The source interviewed stated that there is no policy affecting educational matters and that teachers are free to use the technology in any way they wish or are able to.

According to the source, the first 100,000 laptops should be delivered and operating in three mostly rural departments (provinces)—Florida, Flores and Colonia—by the end of 2007. Apparently no one thinks this will take place since the contract for model XO was only just granted in late September and teachers are only now being trained. Serious questions also arise regarding the feasibility of full implementation of the project, since sophisticated techniques of wireless connection and encoding are required. Children can take the machines home, but their connectivity is limited to the immediate surroundings of their school—they cannot be moved from one school to another. In Cardal’s case, only 30 machines out of the 150 provided can be online at the same time, and antennas had to be installed in several places around town. Although laptops are supposed to be signal repeaters, this has yet to be seen.

Costs and benefits of a closed system

When the final tally is made, the total cost of the project will equal almost 10% annually, for two years, of the government’s total budget for education. The ratio is much greater when seen as a percentage of what is assigned to primary education, perhaps around 25% annually, for two years. It is no coincidence that some teachers’ groups have publicly expressed their objections.

The total absence of critical views on this initiative is very strange. Who would dare to criticise such an ostensibly “positive” proposal without paying a political cost? In a country where the political opposition deems every action by the government disastrous, not one voice from any sector has critically analysed this initiative. Teachers’ objections have been patently ignored, even of those directly involved in the project. Significantly, no one asks themselves or questions the government about the source of the funds that will finance the project, which are sizable for a country like Uruguay. In late 2006 the teachers’ unions and the University of the Republic (which is autonomous although it fully depends on public funds) led a bitter fight which saw the economy minister totter, over the appropriation of an additional 30 million dollars for the entire education sector.  A pittance compared to the more than one hundred million needed to fulfil the president’s vision for the CEIBAL project.

Many people think that a laptop for every child is a magic solution and that just giving the children a machine will make them happy. From that angle, it may even seem to be an inexpensive fix, but few people other than the teachers directly involved ask themselves about the origin of the funds necessary for its initial implementation, and even less about the recurring costs in years to come. Many teachers also ask themselves if those funds would not be more wisely used to fill some of the enormous deficiencies in Uruguay’s educational sector, starting with their own salaries.

1 Nicholas Negroponte is a computer scientist best known as the founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Media Lab. He is the initiator of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.

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