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ARGENTINA: Digital Revolution Hits Secondary Schools

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 9 2011 (IPS) - Every student and teacher has a laptop with Internet connection in half of the public secondary schools in Argentina, even in remote rural villages or on islands.

XO laptop Credit: Geoff Parsons - CC BY-SA 2.0

XO laptop Credit: Geoff Parsons - CC BY-SA 2.0

The Programa Conectar Igualdad (Connect Equality Programme), launched by the Education Ministry and other government agencies in 2009, has so far covered nearly 1.8 million students and teaching staff, and is on its way to reaching its goal of 3.7 million laptops next year.

“We thought we would run up against resistance, but the cooperation has been strong, the training courses have filled up, and we are constantly starting up new ones,” Cynthia Zapata, the coordinator of the programme in the Education Ministry, told IPS.

The first to receive training are the principals and other school authorities. The teachers are trained in other courses, which are either mandatory or optional, and some of which are distance learning courses. There are also specific courses for each subject, Zapata explained.

The teachers, principals and other staff covered by the programme total 220,000. But 470,000 courses have already been offered, said the official, who added that the Organisation of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture also offers on-line training at different levels.

Under the programme, each student is given a laptop – a departure from the private school computer labs, where students receive training one or two hours a week in a room equipped with computers.

The students also take their laptops home. But the laptop’s security software means that if the student drops out of school and is thus away from the premises for a lengthy period of time, or if the laptop is stolen, it won’t boot up until it is reactivated by the school server.

The Programa Conectar Igualdad is similar to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project of the Miami-based non-profit One Laptop per Child Association. Both programmes aim to digitally empower youth in the global south.

In 2010, Uruguay became the first country in the world to provide one bright green XO laptop to every primary school student – a total of 370,000 – under the government’s Plan Ceibal.

That same year, the programme began to distribute blue XO-1.5 high school edition laptops to public secondary school students.

Argentina started implementing the OLPC project in the teacher training institutes, so the teaching staff can incorporate the technology from the very beginning of their training. In addition, the focus has been on secondary, rather than primary schools, and on schools for children with special needs.

The Federal Planning Ministry is in charge of the technological aspects in the schools and teacher training institutes, including the server and the connectivity, while a technical support worker is on staff at every school to deal with problems.

The XO netbooks are on loan to the students, who keep them if they graduate. Some university students can already be seen using them. Many school principals say this is an extra incentive to complete secondary school, although the actual impact has not been studied.

What is clear is that the programme is causing a revolution in the country’s secondary schools and families. In many cases, the XO is the first computer in the household, and sometimes, in low-income areas, in the entire neighbourhood.

“In the ideal scenario, digital literacy is brought to the family as well, but the kids often find it hard to share their laptops; that is something we have to work on,” Graciela Sommerfeld, principal of the Centro de Educación Polimodal Número 3, or school number 3 in the town of Garupá in the northeastern province of Misiones, told IPS.

The netbooks were distributed a year ago in her school, where around 75 percent of the 350 students are poor. “At first it was like a new toy for them, but now it’s a working tool,” she said.

Sommerfeld said there was tremendous excitement when the laptops were delivered. “You should have seen their faces when we got them. That day the parents also came, because this is a community that has very close ties to the school,” she said.

Garupá is located 1,000 km north of Buenos Aires and 17 km from the provincial capital. There are other public schools in the district, but now many parents want to enrol their children in school number 3, where the programme is already up and running.

In this specific case, the Internet connection hasn’t arrived yet. But the laptop itself contains so much information, material and programmes that teachers say they prefer this for now, in order to avoid distractions caused by surfing the web.

“The teachers tell us that the kids have changed, that now they actually want to have math class. This is an extraordinary tool, because it captures the students’ interest,” Sommerfeld said.

The school has set up a multimedia workshop for the students to be able to film, edit and produce short videos, using their laptops, which have a built-in webcam. They are also starting to use them to study music, “but we’re taking things slowly,” the principal added.

Implementation of the programme is complex, given the size and social diversity of Argentina, a country of 40 million people and 2.8 million square kilometres.

On the island of Apipé, 800 km from Buenos Aires in the eastern province of Corrientes, there was no electricity as recently as 2005, even though it is situated right in front of the huge Argentine-Paraguayan Yacyretá hydropower dam on the Paraná River.

But today the island, a nature reserve that is home to 2,500 people, not only has electricity but also Internet connection and computers for the 400 students attending secondary school there.

The Conectar Igualdad programme has also required major production of contents, in technical as well as educational terms, involving both general academic information and specific course materials, besides the manuals for the principals, teachers and supervisors.

“We are all learning as we go,” Zapata admitted. “Sometimes the laptops arrive before the Internet connection, and sometimes it’s the other way around, and that generates a lot of anxiety. The principals complain to us because they think we are discriminating against them, but the thing is that we have to reach 13,000 schools and 3.7 million people,” the official added.

But despite the setbacks and challenges in carrying out the programme, the personal accounts of people directly impacted by it are inspirational.

IPS spoke with the principal of the Escuela Especial Número 505, a school for children with special needs in General San Martín, a town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The school is attended by 42 students with hearing impairments and assists 42 others who go to conventional schools.

“By mistake, we received laptops for all levels: kindergarten, primary and secondary school,” said Marcela Silvetti. “But it turned out to be excellent for our school. The netbooks have special education desktop interfaces with specific activities for the children, but we also use all of the other programmes and information in the computers.

“The teachers are highly committed, and also very open to technological innovations, so they received technical training, as well as training in how to teach with computers, in order to make the most of this opportunity,” the principal said.

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