Sunday, April 18, 2010

Debate: 1 to 1 Model in Latin America: Now or Not Yet?

This debate is open. Two experts encourage us with their reflection and in the comments at the bottom of the page, we hope you are excited to share with us their own views on this important topic.
Alejandro Piscitelli
Organizational Consultant on the Internet and digital communication
Professor University of Buenos Aires

Not Yet
Ignacio Jara
Center for Research on Education Policy and Practices
Catholic University of Chile
To anyone working in an office, it would seem natural for everyone to have access not just to one computer but to several, and to other digital devices in order to make wise use of collective intelligence and to increase productivity, creativity, and innovation through networked collaborative work.

Why should it be any different at school, which should definitely lay the foundation for competencies, the capacity to organize information, the development of a critical spirit and the powers of the spirit that will enable us to become altogether creative beings and to then specialize in areas or niches that will eventually feed the adult world?

Why should high technology be a privilege of the business world and education be relegated to analog times and capacities, in a world that is progressively more interwoven with complexity, interaction, simulation and other forms of thinking/doing at the irreducible level of the abacus, paper and pencil, and the blackboard?

While we do avoid the siren song of techno-reductionisms or panaceas for solving the multidimensional problems of education, we are nonetheless aware that the ubiquity of communication and constant contact with information useful for decision making is an evolutionary floodgate. History is divided into two periods: before and after the advent of the Internet.

We have lived through five centuries during the period of the printed word ushered in by Gutenberg and currently being brought to its definitive close by Web 2.0 and the “second orality.” Given this state of affairs, the most important question we can ask is not so much if we should widely popularize one-on-one experiences, or how we can justify not doing so, but rather how we should efficiently and effectively implement one-on-one models in classrooms.

We are well aware of the decades-old tradition in education of techno-utopias (of which one-on-one models are an extreme example), and their outcomes have always been a mixed bag, yielding some decent successes but also many devastating failures.

What is odd here is that it is just as Utopian to entrust educational transformation to machines as it is to entrust it to teacher training, curricular design, salary hikes or to any other silver bullet type of solution. And whenever any fad arrives on the scene, it can be found in the growing development of a parallel education consistently mobilizing more resources and expectations, but predominantly in intriguing productions and endeavors in self-learning that are increasingly more powerful and flamboyant, behind the education system’s back.

Hence, ministry authorities do well to resist contamination of the entire system from these disruptive proposals. At times they also recommend classifying them as digital inclusion initiatives, as part of family pedagogical extracurricular time at home. Meanwhile the school continues to do what it knows and does best, with paper and pencil. Those who are staunchly committed to the power of paper, pencil, and intensive reading as the exclusive means to achieve learning know that there is an implicit ideology behind the one-on-one models, i.e., disruptive innovation.

According to the IADB, going beyond expected learning outcomes from 1 to 30 million laptops in the classroom between now and 2015 will entail serious threats to the ecosystem. But, given the need, where do we go from here?

The sine qua non condition for successful implementation of one-on-one models is large-scale connectivity, as understood so well in Brazil where 90% of the schools have already been connected. More controversial still is whether we should continue placing the onus of teaching and conditions for cheerful learning on teachers, as suggested in a recent research study.

The formula would be something like this: one-on-one programs for using computers in the classroom are as good as the teachers running them .

If we adopt an authoritative definition of one-on-one projects, understanding them as "a personal digital device in a place of learning, defined by the student," , most current initiatives would barely comply with the first point and blatantly ignore the last two. This is especially true of the third point, which reveals the student-centered philosophy embodied in these initiatives, and is quite incompatible with administrative bureaucracies and materials and riddled with traditional slavish adherence to pedagogy and to conventional school managerialism.

Today, when there is a willingness to invest a fortune on teacher training plans ushering in more of the same, or on curricular designs that would take decades when unconventional interfaces such as Sugar (the only one in the world that is in synch with the needs for all boys and chiefly girls to begin programming in kindergarten) are systematically avoided, clearly the risk does not lie in failing to adopt one-on-one strategies, which are inevitable, and soon they will resort to using mobile phones and tablets.

The risk lies, rather, in doing a poor job of adopting these strategies, by yielding to partisan politics or demagoguery or predominantly to blackmail instigated by antireform pedagogical discourses, and the system of satellites (consulting firms, international bureaucracies, pedagogical industries), all experts in reforming reform before anything can reform school, by leeching off of and obstructing all potential innovations, which could include one-on-one experiences. Let’s not fall for this ploy.
So attractive is the image of each child with his/her own portable computer that we assume that this is nowadays the only path to take toward universal access to technology and use in the home and at school.

Indeed, in the future it will seem natural for everyone, even children, to have their own digital device, and when we look back for that future, it would seem incomprehensible for anyone to have question the notion. A 1:1 strategy furthers this future somehow, almost completely eliminating children’s difficulties for access to technology, affording them levels of fluency in these new languages, which are hard for them to access without their own personal computer.

It is also clear that if computers are given to children of all social strata, the digital gap could be done away with; and that with students and teachers toting a laptop, attempts to integrate technology into the teaching/learning practices in school classrooms would be facilitated enormously.

Besides, delivering portable computers directly into the hands of students has an immense alluring appeal for presidents and ministers, and often opens a unique window of opportunity to initiate broad dissemination of technology, chiefly in countries where political and financial support has been elusive. Sometimes 1:1 initiatives can take on significance beyond that of education, as in the case of Uruguay where the Plan Ceibal seems to have condensed national identity and aspirations shared by society as a whole and have been useful for mobilizing the country far beyond the confines of its school system.

Notwithstanding the above, I think we need to scrutinize the assumption that today 1:1 is the only approach for all. I believe that this type of strategy can be very good, but it can also turn out to be very expensive and unattainable in circumstances where its educational benefits are still a matter of debate. Consequently, we should consider other options that perhaps are both more plausible and ensure progress with respect to the status quo.

First, I believe we must be cautious regarding the promises of educational transformation made by the 1:1 approach, as if thanks to its implementation we could finally get the results that heretofore had been so elusive. These initiatives will most likely run into the same familiar obstacles that arise in any strategy for ICT integration into the schools. Worse still, it may be that if, as observed in some cases, portable computers do get into classrooms disregarding requirements of school teaching and making a greater commitment to technology than to proper teaching practices, the subsequent disruption may be even greater for teachers, yielding no educational advantage whatsoever.

We must also be cautious regarding the promises made by some people about ICT-assisted independent learning. It does not seem reasonably for us to support the idea that open virtual environments that technology provides are automatically enhancing for children’s learning, especially of poor sectors, who normally require explicit structuring and guidance for learning.

Second, for many countries it may turn out more reasonable to make a considerably lower public investment that, falling short of achieving the 1:1 ideal, will allow them to make significant progress. The fact is that it does not seem reasonable in many contexts to make the investment required to achieve the 1:1 ratio, whereby many homes may come to own several computers, under circumstances in which owning a computer with one Internet connection per home is already a substantial breakthrough. Nor does it seem necessary for children to have their own computer while at school, considering that they use them one or two hours per day twice a week, in circumstances where it is not all that complicated for several classrooms to share a set of laptops. We could argue against such limited use, but the truth is that, for several reasons, it will probably be quite some time before computer use increases to the point that we can justify students owning their own laptops.

Approaches to widening ICT access where some of these resources are still being shared in homes and in the schools can be addressed straightaway much more easily by many countries and may represent a significant breakthrough in access, ownership taking and increased possibilities for education among their population. This is, indeed, the path being taken by many countries, even developed countries who lead on these issues, such as England, where the homes of the poorest people are being subsidized so that they can own at least one computer per home with Internet access.

Finally, we must not forget that these decisions are always taken in contexts where many needs compete for limited resources. Adjusting investment in ICT to a strategy that is more reasonable with respect to a country’s actual situation may lend it financial feasibility and enable it to start down a path toward progressively broader dissemination of these resources by society. This path may also make way for investment in other instances of technological support for the classroom, such as digital projectors and interactive whiteboards, and strengthen actions promoting connectivity, teacher training and content development, which are always needed in any ICT component in education policy. So, we should never forget that, regardless of the model used to deliver technology, the main point continues to be teachers and their skills to use ICT to support the learning processes of their students.


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