Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

EDUCATION-CUBA: Rural Students Benefit from Computers, Solar Panels

Patricia Grogg

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba, Dec 3 2003 (IPS) - "My kids didn’t know what traffic lights were. Now they even understand how they work," says the director of a childcare centre in rural Pinar del Río province, in western Cuba. The change is the result of the arrival of technology to remote towns.

Computers, televisions and video players, so common in the cities, are a novelty in some areas, and are having a noticeable impact on education, say teachers.

Children aged two to four incorporate what they see on the classroom’s television into their play and games. Florecitas de Café (Coffee Blossoms) childcare centre, in the farming community of San Andrés, in La Palma municipality, was able to add TV and video to its educational materials just two years ago.

"It has opened a new world for them, and they have learned a great deal from it," says Marisela Ortega, who oversees the care of 63 children and a team of four teachers and 10 assistants.

When they are five years old, the children will be able enter preschool and immediately begin computer classes.

Although the childcare centre has conventional electricity available, a solar water heater ensures that hot water is available all day for the children’s hygiene, and has helped improve the centre’s general condition, says Ortega.

Around 24 percent of the energy consumed in Pinar del Río province, 120 km west of Havana, comes from renewable sources, such as solar and wind energy, or small hydroelectric dams.

During the school year that ended in July, 117,868 Cuban preschool children had access to computers for at least 30 minutes each week.

According to official figures, more than 46,000 computers have been installed, covering all educational levels and all schools in the country. In addition, 12,800 computers were distributed to Cuba’s universities.

The World Bank report Global Development Indicators 2002, states that Cuba had 10.7 computers for every 1,000 inhabitants in 2001, compared to 51.3 per 1,000 in Argentina, 44.1 in Brazil, 344.5 in Belgium and 4.9 in Kenya.

Bridging the technological divide between rich and poor countries and between urban and rural zones is one of the purposes of the World Summit on the Information Society, taking place next week in Geneva, Dec. 10-12.

The Summit’s Plan of Action states a goal of connecting all universities and hospitals in the world to the Internet by 2005.

In another phase, up to 2010, all villages and secondary schools should be connected to the worldwide web, and by 2015, all primary schools are to have Internet access.

With a population of 11.2 million, Cuba has 2.8 million students in primary and secondary schools, technical-professional institutions and universities. Education is controlled by the state, is obligatory until the ninth grade and is free.

However, the quality of the socialist-run island’s educational system has been suffering a slow decline.

The authorities hope to give education a boost through the intensive use of audiovisual media and information technologies, and by reducing the number of students per teacher, among other reforms.

"We aspire to utilise these media, as soon as possible, as instruments of science and of the art of instructing and educating," President Fidel Castro said recently.

These plans made electricity in rural schools essential. Many are not covered by the national electricity distribution grid, although 95 percent of the population has access to electrical services.

According to government figures, 2,368 schools were provided with solar panels, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Of those schools, 93 have just one student.

At the Pedro Marrero School, in the municipality of Consolación del Sur, Yudalia Portal and Doramís Delgado, ages 10 and 9, respectively, are Carlos Páez’s two students in a classroom that has a computer, television and video player.

"Obviously, it does not replace the teacher, but this equipment provides excellent didactic support," says Páez, who twice a week opens the school’s doors in the evening so that families from the surrounding community can watch state-controlled TV programmes.

This type of collective use and benefit, common in the hard-to-reach mountainous areas, also ensures that families are more committed to the education of their children.

"We are the godparents of the school and we help out wherever it is needed, but in turn, we have the support of the teacher," says peasant farmer Juan Alonso Hernández, Yudalia’s grandfather.

His house was included in a programme for providing electricity to some 100,000 homes across the island, not through powerlines connected to the main grid, but through solar panels.

"The sun in Cuba is incredible. Thanks to solar energy I have lights and television in my house and my granddaughter is learning computer skills in school," he said.

Páez and other teachers believe that these efforts are contributing to reducing the technology gap between the countryside and the city, and are creating conditions so that people are less likely to abandon rural areas.

This rural exodus has been striking. In 1999, Cuba’s urban population was 8.4 million and the rural population was 2.7 million, compared to 1981, when 6.7 million lived in cities and three million in the country, according to the National Office of Statistics.

Teachers are finding that the new technologies are "irreplaceable factors" in stimulating interest and motivation among students, as well as independent and critical thought and enthusiasm for research.

"It is an enormous challenge to prepare the younger generations for a world that is increasingly competitive and demanding of a well-trained labour force," teacher Daniel Barroso told IPS.

One out of five school-aged children worldwide do not attend school, and millions drop out of the educational system without knowing how to read, according to World Bank reports.

In Latin America, 20 percent of the children begin their schooling late and only 80 percent reach the fourth grade. The regional average for years of education is one of the lowest in the world, says UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund).

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