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Public school students will be getting more than backpacks and blazers this year – almost two million free laptops will be distributed to primary and secondary school children during the autumn.
Programa Conectar Igualdad (Connect Equality Programme) and Plan S@armiento BA are the national and Buenos Aires City programmes providing the laptops. It is the second stage of a three-year government initiative dedicated to closing the technological gaps between private and public education.
Last year they distributed over 400 thousand free netbooks to students. According to the national Ministry of Education website, the ultimate goal is to provide one laptop per child in the public school system – meaning three million computers – by 2012.
Iliana González teaches at a school that helped pilot the project. She said some of the computers have been handed out to her students but the internet system has yet to be installed.
“The kids, since they already had the computers, were impatient to use them and took them to school. But the school directors told them they can’t use them yet. This generated a some of anxiety in the children,” Gonzélez said.
González truly believes the programme will be successful, and is patiently waiting for the computers to get to everyone and for the school to be wired. In the meantime, the students with laptops have been sharing the machine with their families – many of which cannot afford a computer at home.
“This creates a connection between school, learning and family. It seems to me it starts generating a circle that enriches everyone,” said González.
The Programa Conectar Igualdad website echos this sentiment, “It is essential to work towards a society literate in the new Information Technology and Communication (TIC), with the possibility of a democratic access to technology and information resources regardless of the social, economic or population densities or the most diverse rural and urban geographies.”
Last year’s 45-day student protest over deteriorating university classrooms has programme critics arguing that education funds are being spent on laptops when the buildings are crumbling around the students.
González admits there are other things that need attention in the education system but hasn’t heard much criticism in relation to the computer distribution programme. She said, “It doesn’t take away from anything else. Using computers as a learning resource is also a priority.”
One of the original concerns of providing laptops to children was breakage and theft. The Programa Conectar Igualdad website describes the computer protection policy: the Argentine government provides two or three years of warranty, depending on the model of the computer, free of charge. As for robbery or selling the computers off – the machines are deactivated remotely if they do not have a certain amount of contact with the school property.
Morgan Ames is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University in the Communication department. For her dissertation, she investigated One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programs in Paraguay, Uruguay, and Peru.
Ames concluded in her research that providing free laptops can have incredible benefits but only with the appropriate support.
“There have been a few research studies, that have shown that laptop programmes in low income communities, in particular, where parents don’t have the time to invest in learning the machine on their own, or putting limits – maybe they have to work late and don’t have as much supervision over their children – test scores actually go down and understanding goes down. And that is a real danger.”
Ames said she saw many of the computers being used primarily as media devices, “In the right environment [free laptops] can be a huge win, but it really needs to be a right environment. And if parents and teachers can really understand that, that could be wonderful.”
The Argentine government is providing computer training for teachers to learn the machines and their programming. González said she’s only heard positive reviews of the classes. She added the training as an opportunity for the teachers to broaden their field of knowledge and interact more with the students – but it depends on the educator.
“Teachers aren’t going to use the computers just because a child has a computer, or the school gives them a computer,” said González, “there are many who resist because they are more traditional and others who are impatient to begin using them in the classroom.”
Ames saw in Paraguay that the initial hype of passing out computers yielded little result in the school system after the first year. To combat that, the country developed specific staff to assist the teachers in creating curriculum with the machines and required a 150 hours of computer training for new teachers. She said, “That kind of investment in training really made a difference in the Paraguayan programme.”
In Argentina, González is prepping for the coming school year, and its promise of new computers. She has already begun developing her own classroom material for when the laptops are implemented at her school. “I believe it is a good resource, it connects with students, gives the another side to the class, it greatly enriches the work. Honestly I’m eager to be able to use it,” she said.
Click here to find out what the public think of the programme.