Special Report

South America

By John Gehring — May 06, 2004 9 min read
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When Chile’s national education leaders began a major overhaul of the country’s school system back in 1992, they made sure that the use of technology would be front and center in an ambitious effort to improve the quality of education across the country.

With the goal of bringing Internet access to all 10,000 Chilean public schools, the Ministry of Education teamed up with telecommunication companies, which provided the wiring for schools, and relied heavily on universities to provide technology training and support for teachers.

Today, the Enlaces program that grew out of that national commitment is regarded as one of South America’s most successful and enduring educational technology projects. More than 90 percent of Chilean students now have an Internet-equipped computer lab in their schools. And staff members at more than 20 universities throughout Chile have helped train about 70,000 public school teachers in how to use technology to improve instruction.

“Chile is still a developing country, but the government has a commitment to use education as a way of advancing the economic and social goals of the country,” says U.S.-based expert Robert B. Kozma. He has studied the use of educational technology in South American schools as a researcher for the Center for Technology and Learning, at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.

“[Chileans] see technology as a way of reforming and improving the education system,” Kozma says. “They are really the leader in South America.”

Lessons From Chile

Enlaces, which means Links, provides schools with computers and educational software for subjects such as science, mathematics, and history, as well as two years of training and follow-up technical assistance for teachers. A national Web portal allows teachers and students to access a wide range of educational information as it relates to Chile’s national curriculum.

Experts such as Kozma who have studied education in South America say Chile’s ability to maintain a national effort that relies on the government’s partnerships with universities and business can be a powerful model for a part of the world where governments recognize the crucial link between education and economic development.

A 2002 report from the World Bank, “Closing the Gap in Education and Technology,” found that developing countries have seen sluggish economic growth over the past decades, in large part, because of their inability to enhance workers’ technological skills in a knowledge-driven market.

Part of Chile’s success can be attributed to the important benefit of having political and economic stability since the country of 15 million people underwent a transition from a dictatorship to democracy in 1990. Compared with countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—where guerrilla conflicts, social unrest, and political upheaval have destabilized economies and pulled attention away from improving education and other social programs—Chile has managed to push forward with an aggressive education reform model that incorporates the use of technology into a national curriculum.

But despite its success, the 14-year-old Enlaces program also points to the challenges developing countries in South America face as they use technology to improve instruction and learning. To begin with, computers in classrooms are still rare. Most computer use takes place in labs, where groups of students share machines. Moreover, rural schools often lack the infrastructure to be wired for the Internet—and even when they have connections, they are painfully slow.

Robert Hawkins, a senior education specialist at the World Bank, notes that countries such as Peru and Paraguay have not made as much headway with educational technology because of government turnover. He says programs that once started with a flurry of excitement and promise have lost steam as administrations have changed. Without a stable commitment to educational technology, Hawkins says, projects get reinvented again and again.

“One of the lessons learned from Chile is that they have set up an institutional framework that has survived several education ministers and changes in governments,” he says.

‘Some Champion Teachers’

Most South American countries, on the other hand, still have not been able to harness technology in a way that improves classroom instruction, Hawkins points out. “You have pockets of excellence and some champion teachers,” he says. “But at the system level, it hasn’t had as great an impact as it could.”

Pedro Hepp—a professor at the Instituto de Informática Educativa de la Universida de la Frontera in Temuco, Chile, who helped design the Enlaces program—has studied educational technology programs in South America. He also says countries in the region have been far more successful in providing computer hardware and software to schools than ensuring those tools are used as part of a structured plan to improve learning.

“Experience has shown that, in general, teachers do not transform their practices because of technology, they merely adapt it,” Hepp wrote in a paper last year that examined educational technology in developing countries. “Changes in teaching practices take time, several months in the case of innovators—but more, probably years, for other teachers.”

Still, some teachers in Chile insist that after two decades of Enlaces, a greater focus on using technology in schools is improving students’ attitudes toward education and opening up opportunities they never had before.

Nelson González Pérez, who teaches in a rural school outside Santiago, the country’s capital, was one of 21 Chilean teachers who received six-week scholarships from the Ministry of Education to attend classes two years ago at Pennsylvania State University. Those classes helped teachers from the country design strategies for using technology more effectively in schools.

González works with students from 2nd to 8th grade as the director of his school’s computer lab. He says that while the school has only 10 computers for 310 students, he sees an increased desire to learn because students now have been taught how to give PowerPoint presentations, use e-mail to share ideas with other schools in Chile, and access the Internet for research.

“They feel themselves to be part of the present and on the cutting edge, which raises their hopes and desires to achieve,” Gonzalez says. “They have access to more information now that they can’t find in the local libraries, and they have developed more confidence when faced with all of the everyday situations when they need to use computer technology.”

Argentina’s Burden

Despite the economic upheavals Argentina has suffered the past few years as it has struggled to dig out from a staggering debt owed to the International Monetary Fund, the country has made some progress with educational technology—thanks, in large part, to philanthropist Martin Varsavsky. The Argentinean-born telecommunications entrepreneur, who fled the country in the 1970s because of the political crackdowns of the military regime in power, three years ago created educar, an educational Internet portal. Educar has spread quickly to other South American countries, such as Bolivia, Chile, and Colombia.

Varsavsky provided $11 million for the program in Argentina. Backed also with a $237 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank and donations of software and computers from companies such as Microsoft, educar got off to a high-profile start.

But while the portal has helped build an online education community in Argentina, some observers say much more needs to be done before teachers begin integrating computers into classrooms to improve daily instruction.

Silvia Bacher has studied the impact of technology on youths in Argentina and hosts a popular television and radio show in the country’s capital, Buenos Aires. The program, among other issues, looks at how technology can improve the education system.

“The government received a lot of money to buy technology and sent it to schools without any kind of framework,” Bacher says. “So the schools received the computers and the teachers didn’t know how to use them. They just sat in boxes. [Teachers] were afraid to touch them.”

While a pilot program, Aulas en Red, has been successful in bringing Internet connectivity to schools in Buenos Aires, Bacher says the use of technology in schools will remain limited until teachers are better prepared. “The most important thing is to give training to teachers,” she says.

Brazil’s Technological Quest

Brazil, the region’s largest country with 182 million people, has made a national effort to increase access to technology in schools. It also made some progress bringing technology and training to impoverished youths in the country’s favelas, or slums, even as the government struggles to reach more schools in a vast country that spans remote Amazonian villages as well as such urban centers as Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s Ministry of Education started a program called ProInfo in 1997 that provides both computer hardware and teacher technology training to schools. Some 300 ProInfo teacher training and resource centers around the country serve 4,629 schools with technical support and ongoing skills training for teachers.

Still, use of technology is limited in Brazilian schools.

Schools that receive ProInfo hardware and training must have the infrastructure to support technology and pedagogical plans for incorporating technology into lessons. Of the 180,000 primary and secondary public schools in Brazil, only 4,629 have computers provided by ProInfo. Individual states and municipalities within Brazil, however, have considerable autonomy and some state governors and municipal mayors have also helped increase access to technology in schools.

ProInfo has also collaborated with the U.S. government through a U.S./Brazil Partnership for Education program coordinated by the U.S. Department of Education and Brazil’s Ministry of Education.

Under this partnership, the U.S. Agency for International Development provided funding to the Washingtonbased Academy for Educational Development to design a project called the U.S./Brazil Learning Technologies Network, or LTNet.

The network started out by offering a Web-based clearinghouse for Brazilian and U.S. educators. After funding for the project ended in 2001, the LTNet evolved into an independent Brazilian nonprofit organization called LTNet-Brasil that continues to promote the use of technology in schools.

Vera Lucia Suguri, the executive director of LTNetBrasil, said one of the goals of the program is to help teachers integrate technology into the curriculum through interdisciplinary project-based activities. During the Brazilian presidential election in 2002, for example, four primary and secondary schools in the Brazilian state of Ceará created collaborative learning projects to research different topics related to the election and the responsibilities of citizenship. Using listservs, chat rooms, and Web portfolios provided by LTNet-Brasil, the students exchanged ideas about women’s roles in the election and the factors in choosing the best candidate.

“Each school could see what the other was doing and collaborate with each other,” Suguri says. “The technology is catalyzing educational innovation by teachers and students.

“Before the technology came, the schools were isolated. With technology, schools can learn from each other, and the community gets more excited about collaborating.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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