Countries Pursue Different Paths to Mastering Technology

By Ian Quillen — March 29, 2011 5 min read
High school students in Montevideo, Uruguay, work together on a laptop computer provided by the Plan Ceibal project, a national initiative that aims to put a mobile computing device in the hands of every student. The Latin American nation has been dedicated to the program as a social initiative as much as an educational one.

In Uruguay, the second phase of a national 1-to-1 laptop-computing initiative is under way, boosting the number of such computers 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 1-to-1 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-age 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 1-to-1 programs in Brazil, Columbia, Honduras, and Paraguay, 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.”

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.

Partnership Progress

Jerome Morrissey, the president of Ireland’s National Centre for Technology in Education, in Dublin, said in a presentation that Ireland’s national focus on educational technology 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-technology 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 technology-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,” 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 ed-tech 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

Educational 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 ed-tech 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 the COSN conference. Educational 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 Ms. Ottenheijm says points to a basic national awareness of the importance of technology in education.

But other European ed-tech 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 March 31 as part of budget cuts imposed last May 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 pounds from the United Kingdom’s annual national budget. Becta’s advocates argued, to no avail, that the organization saved more money than it spent through its collective-procurement arrangements.

Doug Brown, a former adviser to the United Kingdom’s Department of Education and Sciences and the director of the Step-A international ed-tech consulting agency, based in Essex, 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.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Countries Pursue Different Paths to Mastering Technology


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