A laptop and Internet access for every child: That is what Uruguay’s government-run Plan Ceibal has offered its school children since its launch in May 2007. Now it is expanding its reach with an academic learning management system provided by U.S.-based Schoology that will bring truly disruptive education to the classroom. In addition to allowing students to access learning resources and connect with instructors and educators around the globe, the system will also address language issues as the platform easily switches between Spanish, English and several other languages.
Disruptive innovation in education is the use of technologies outside of the traditional boundaries, changing the methods and means of existing models. In this case, it means transforming the classroom experience to a more holistic, student-centered approach that integrates across school and home environments.
“When the teacher knows that all of his students have access to a laptop and Internet connection, then it opens up an almost limitless world of possibilities and previously inaccessible resources.”
According to Gonzalo Pérez Piaggio, general manager of Plan Ceibal, through the project, Uruguay gave a laptop to every student and teacher of the Public Educational System of primary and middle high school from first to ninth grade, accounting for 83 per cent of the country’s children. It also connected all public schools across the country to the Internet.
“Over the years, Plan Ceibal has added educational platforms, content and tools to facilitate teaching and improve education,” he said. The partnership with Schoology is part of this. “It is this democratized technology access [that is] a key tool for education in the knowledge society, drastically reducing the digital gap in Uruguay [and] transforming a privilege of [the] few into a right for all.” He added that Uruguay was the first, and so far only, country in the world to implement such a social inclusion program through a nationwide introduction of technology in education.
Uruguay’s government funds Plan Ceibal. With around 600,000 beneficiaries and an annual budget of US$56 million, Plan Ceibal costs less than US$100 per beneficiary per year. This is equivalent to less than five per cent of what the Uruguayan government spends in education for each pupil in primary and middle school and is equivalent to 0.11% of GDP (2012), according to the project team.
Co-founder and CEO of Schoology, Jeremy Friedman, said: “With Schoology, Plan Ceibal schools are connected to a platform that extends teaching and learning beyond the classroom. On any device, anywhere in the world, any time of the day or night, students are connected to their teachers and classwork.”
Friedman added that this allows Uruguay to reach beyond the country’s borders for qualified teachers and resources to boost student achievement. “Schoology also facilitates creating, delivering, managing, and integrating academic content from different sources for teachers and administrators in the program,” he said.
The project is yielding a number of benefits, not only for the recipients of these technological interventions but also for the broader Uruguayan economy and citizenry.
Pérez explains that Plan Ceibal is a technological and social inclusion project, the aim of which is to “eliminate the digital gap between lower income and higher income groups, equalizing opportunities for learning by making technology available to everybody.”
Uruguay was the first, and so far only, country in the world to implement such a social inclusion program through a nationwide introduction of technology in education.
Significantly, the project reaches beyond the classroom, because the computers belong to the students and they take them home. “Plan Ceibal works at school and at home with impacts on the classroom and on the family,” Pérez said. “Laptop delivery is accompanied by an efficient connectivity plan in schools to have free access to the Internet; 99% of public schools have free and protected Internet access. We strive to improve off-school connectivity: no child in urban areas should have to walk more than 300 meters to reach Ceibal’s network.”
In addition, Plan Ceibal has designed a comprehensive online and face-to-face teacher training strategy, establishing fluid communication with all users of the Plan and their families through the Educational Portal Ceibal, customer care centers and call centers.
Pérez said: “Plan Ceibal has contributed significantly to improving student self-esteem and motivation, enthusiasm for learning, [and] promoting collaborative and methodology work for intergenerational learning projects.”
Santiago Montero, director and founder of Spanish Tutor DC, who has worked to integrate education and mass media in Europe and Latin America for the last 15 years, said: “Boosting computer literacy is one of the most important steps a government can take to better the job prospects of young people, not only in the tech sector and the corporate world, but across many different fields.”
He said that, through this project, Uruguayan students will now have the best possible chance to improve their ICT and digital skills, but added that the value that this will add to other areas of education, especially learning English, should not be underestimated. “When the teacher knows that all of his students have access to a laptop and Internet connection, then it opens up an almost limitless world of possibilities and previously inaccessible resources,” he said.
Montero explained that, while Plan Ceibal follows in the footsteps of similar projects that aim to increase the opportunities and resources of children in education, such as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, what sets it apart is that it is being run by the government in conjunction with Schoology. “It’s a national rather than international effort, and if this plan is a success then Uruguay might well provide the model that other small developing nations attempt to follow,” he said.
In fact, Uruguay hopes that the project will also benefits beyond its own borders. “Plan Ceibal supports the inclusion of technology projects in education in other countries and has assisted in the design of strategies to facilitate their development and enhancing their effectiveness,” Perez said. Thus far, the project team has collaborated with similar projects in Paraguay, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Armenia, Rwanda and Ecuador.
“Uruguay knows that a strong tech sector can give even a smaller country an economic leg up.”
Montero added that laptops and Internet access are extremely useful educational tools because they can facilitate self-motivated learning. “Nobody knows how technology will shape the future for our children, but enabling them to learn through the Internet is an excellent way to prepare them for whatever comes next,” he said.
According to Pérez, Plan Ceibal offers the potential for changing the methodological aspects of teaching and learning – one of the core definitions of disruptive innovation in education. He said: “Educational practices are likely to be modified as a result of the integration of technological means provided by Plan Ceibal. That is why we are active in the professional development of teaching staff, creating and making available digital educational resources for students, teachers and families.”
The project has also enabled the establishment of a nationwide online formative evaluation system that enables real-time access to the evaluation of student’s performance enabling rapid reaction. The scheme has introduced a range of technologies to foster education, including laptops, Internet connectivity, programming training, robotics, scientific sensors, videoconference equipment, learning management systems, digital educational objects, digital books, online educational games, amongst others.
“Both the teachers and students of Uruguay will be able to reach out to the very best online educational communities from around the world. High quality resources will allow children to follow their passions and hone their expertise,” Montero said.
While leapfrogging is a term used to describe how developing countries can accelerate development by skipping inferior technologies, according to Montero, Uruguay is showing that leapfrogging is possible in education too.
“They are skipping many less effective teaching practices and moving straight to what we now know works well: Internet-enabled teachers and students with access to excellent online materials,” he said. “Uruguay, the first country to export software in South America back in 2005, already knows that a strong tech sector can give even a smaller country an economic leg up. They are now planting the seeds for their next ‘ahead of the game’ moment.”