Published Online: March 24, 2011
Includes correction(s): March 24, 2012

International Motivation, Methods Differ on Ed-Tech

High school students in Montevideo, Uruguay, use computers provided by the Plan Ceibal project, a national one-to-one netbook initiative.
—Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images-File

In Uruguay, the second phase of a national one-to-one laptop computing initiative is underway, boosting the number of laptops in student hands to 520,000 in grades 1-9.

In the Netherlands, the government-funded Kennisnet Foundation has evolved from a department within the nation’s Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science into an independent organization with nearly 150 employees embedded in the school system.

And in Ireland, public-private partnerships are in vogue as the nation follows dictates from the European Union that educators stress not only how to use technology, but how to use it responsibly.

All three nations brought representatives to the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference earlier this month in New Orleans. While the international officials agreed that their countries faced both an abundance of technology options and a shortage of funding availability, they differed on just how to go about “Mastering the Moment,” as the conference’s theme suggested.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Uruguay, where a unique combination of social, economic, and topographical factors has driven its education department and its government to support Plan Ceibal, a national one-to-one laptop initiative.

The nation has been dedicated to the program as a social initiative as much as an educational one, said Laura Motta, a member of Uruguay’s National Board of Teacher Education and of Plan Ceibal’s advisory committee, who described the program at a CoSN panel.

That’s partly because of a growing awareness that despite a population of 3.5 million that is only 6 percent rural, 23 percent of school-aged children grow up in more remote areas that would otherwise lack cyberinfrastructure, Ms. Motta said.

With a relatively stable economy that includes just 6.7 percent unemployment, according to the CIA World Factbook, and relatively flat geography, the nation has been able to support the cost of the laptops—which run about $200 each for students in grades 1-6, and about $250 in grades 7-9—as well as the accompanying investment in infrastructure. Ms. Motta could not specify the total expense of the program.

While Uruguay receives help in the form of loans from the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank, Carla Jiménez, one of the bank’s education consultants, says that despite the emergence of other one-to-one programs in Paraguay, Columbia, Brazil, and Honduras, Uruguay is uniquely positioned in Latin America to carry out an initiative of this magnitude. And it doesn’t hurt, says Ms. Motta, that the plan has had the support of the nation’s last two presidents.

“That’s what I mean when I say it’s a society working on this,” said Ms. Motta. “The investment in Plan Ceibal is a part of the educational budget. And the budget has to be approved by parliament.”

Partnership Progress

While Uruguay’s national government is investing heavily in education technology, it is far from the only one doing so. Yet in other, more industrialized nations, the investment is perhaps not so government centric.

For example, Jerome Morrissey, president of Ireland’s National Centre for Technology in Education in Dublin, said in a presentation that Ireland’s national ed-tech focus is providing students with a deeper understanding of the capabilities and dangers of technology use, not just operational skills.

Like Uruguay, the Republic of Ireland’s impetus is socioeconomic, though for a different reason. In an otherwise lean economy, Mr. Morrissey says Irish technology businesses are still struggling to fill all their positions with qualified employees. Information and communications technologies fields account for 150,000 of workers in the Republic of Ireland, he said, which is a nation of just 4.5 million people.

But unlike Uruguay’s laptop program, which utilizes XO laptops sold by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child organization based in Cambridge, Mass., most tech-based ventures in Irish education are the product of public-private cooperation, Mr. Morrissey says. Even Ireland’s “Investing Effectively in Information and Communications Technology in Schools: 2008-2013,”Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader a report roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan, is a policy blueprint issued from the nation’s Department of Education and Sciences, but written by a collaboration of public and private education-technology experts.

“Working and collaborating with industry, especially ICT industry, is the way forward,” said Mr. Morrissey, who added that, even in a down economy, the demand for technology workers in Ireland has exceeded supply. “Industry is telling us one thing, and yet education is not providing the kind of depth and sophisticated use of technology to be able to push industry forward.”

National Support

Education technology advocates in the Netherlands are facing a similar battle to restructure the educational system toward current demand, said Stephanie Ottenheijm, an innovation manager with the Kennisnet Foundation in Zoetermeer, an independently operating education technology agency funded by the Dutch government.

“The educational system was built in the last century, and obviously that doesn’t fit the needs of current society anymore.” Ms. Ottenheijm said in an interview after her presentation at CoSN’s conference. But she said it’s unclear whether policymakers in her country, with limited experience in education technology, grasp that concept. “I’m not sure if it’s a widely spread [sentiment] yet.”

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Education technology is popular enough that the Dutch are using the Web on a national scale to organize and streamline their educational system, according to a presentation by Guus Wijngaards, a professor at the country’s INHolland University for Professional Education, which has branches throughout the country.

For example, the LeerNetwerk Educatie platform, funded in part by the government, serves as a linking point for students, college professors, teachers, primary and secondary schools, and school boards as a sort of social network. Praktijplein, another Web platform, helps link education students with primary and secondary schools offering teaching internships.

Perhaps a more vital fact: the Kennisnet Foundation and its 150 employees continue to be supported by government Euros, which Ottenheijm says points to a basic national awareness of the importance of technology in education.

“Obviously, they fund us,” Ottenheijm said.

Hard Times

But other European education technology agencies have seen tough times and some even face extinction.

Becta, formerly the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, will shut its doors in Coventry on Thursday, March 31 as part of budget cuts imposed in May of 2010 by a new government in control of parliament.

Scrapping the organization, which was set up in 1988 to push for effective technology use in schools, is estimated to chop £80 million from the United Kingdom’s annual national budget. Becta’s advocates argued the organization saved more money than it spent through its collective procurement arrangements, to no avail.

Doug Brown, a former advisor to the United Kingdom’s Department of Education and Sciences and director of the Step-A international ed-tech consulting agency, based in Essex in the United Kingdom, says morale in the sector is low, in part because of Becta’s elimination and in part due to consolidation of other streams of national funding that previously supported technology purchases.

But Mr. Brown also said significant progress has been achieved in British schools, at least in terms of putting technology on campus, and getting teachers to buy into its use. He said teachers’ unions in the country—often thought of as adversaries of education technology in some places in the United States—came out in support of Becta after the cut was announced.

“The general picture would be that we’re utilizing technology in the classroom better than most systems across Europe,” Mr. Brown said in an interview after his presentation, which focused on how the United Kingdom boosted the presence of technology throughout its schools. “If that’s really successful, then it won’t matter that the funding has been withdrawn, because people will still do it and people will see the value of it, and people will put money from other parts of the system into it.

“If it isn’t as embedded as that … then what we’ll see is actually a decline in ed-tech in our schools.”

Vol. 30, Issue 26

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Correction: 
A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Doug Brown’s past affiliation. He was a former advisor to the United Kingdom’s Department of Education and Sciences.

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