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Nelson Pretto | Why No Brazilian Laptop Per Child?

Why has the One Laptop Per Child | OLPC program apparently failed to take root in Brazil? I have always assumed a link between Brazilian intransigence and vicious lobbying by the chief Big Tech philanthropic foundation.

In any case, Nelson Pretto of Terra Magazine offers the following analysis. Pretto is professor of education at the Federal University of Bahia and a member of the Bahian Academy of Sciences.

Pretto took part in the panel on promotion of domestically produced content and technology at the recent Brazilian Internet Forum II.

First, translate passages of interest, then subtitle the above presentation.

The state of Brazilian education — not to mention education elsewhere in the world — is complicated and demands we adopt a broader perspective on the system as a whole. In this essay, I would like to focus on the uses of technology in elementary education, without, of course, glossing over the preparation and working conditions of teachers and their relationship to digital technologies.

The Ministry of Education has, in my view, made the mistake of interrupting the One Laptop Per Child program without first performing an in-depth evaluation of the program’s first five years in Brazil.

Data from the first five schools to participate in the trials in 2007, along with many others we are familiar with due to our own close collaboration with the program, is available on the official Web site of UCA-OLPC — last updated, believe it or not, in late 2010!

This is apparently the result of a policy deliberately pursued by the Rousseff government: to leave programs and projects hanging without announcing their cancellation, and at the same time denying them sufficient resources to bootstrap themselves. Another example of this is the TelecentrosBr program, the subject of heavy criticism during the II Fórum da Internet no Brasil held in Recife in July, as I commented in an earlier essay.

Q: What was the substance of these criticisms?

According to a summary of the event, and I paraphrase,

  1. The program implementing telecenters has failed to achieve its quota of centers in operation
  2. Telecenters implemented lack proper infrastructure
  3. The National Program for Community-Based Digital Inclusion must be shored up
  4. The Digital Inclusion Technical Committee must be reconvened.
  5. The Office on Digital Inclusion should be returned to the Education ministry after having been poached by Communications.

At the outset of the UCA-OLPC program, a working group — the GTUCA — was formed, comprising distinguished colleagues, experts in the area. The group was to work on three separate fronts: training, evaluation and research.

Much has happened along the way: More schools have subscribed to the program; we have been promoted from pre-pilot to pilot program status; a pricing study was carried out to enable states and municipalities to decide on their own investments. Over the years, however — unlike other Latin American countries — the program only took off in Brazil  when teachers and municipal education secretaries began to treat the program as their own.

Latin American countries highlighted on the Web site of the OLPC program include Paraguay, Nicaragua and Peru.  The project map shows Argentina with 60,000 and Peru with 980,000 OLPC machines in play. Uruguay has half a million.

A competition was launched for educational research that is still underway but that has not yielded analysis and solid recommendations. GTUCA has produced nothing of substance beyond the training of teachers in the use of computers, a program that leaves much to be desired because of its perspective on computer usage. Meanwhile, a fearsome bureaucracy subjects teacher education providers to the drudgery of online forms and paper documents that must be processed by Brasília.

The program scarcely impacted society at all, lacked peer review, and was, along with the Pensamento Digital project, the subject of very little coverage.  With that, students, professors and researcher grew frustrated. This was not the romantic frustration of those with an inexplicable passion for technology, but rather a frustration with the faulty implementation of a public policy that might just make the difference, radically transforming Brazilian public education.

The position of the mainstream media on the program is curious as well.  The moment to the Education Ministry unexpectedly announced the purchase of tablets for high school teachers, the iniciative was widely criticized.

The media quite properly pointed to the lack of continuity of the UCA-OLPC program and the failure to evaluate it. More interesting, however, was the fierce criticism by journalists, who said that approving the purchase of tablets should not be made until the professors were adequately trained to use them. This argument is a bit odd, considering that journalists, as far as I know, never received training on the smartphones, tablets, notebooks and other modern technologies they use.

What we observe, among journalists and the population as a whole, is that these digitral tools are being incorporated into the personal and working life of Brazilian almost automatically

These journalists wind up thinking that we, the educators, are not capable of using this equipment withou taking a course on searching or writing text.

Teacher salaries being what they are , I would not bet on their bringing personal experience to the educational technology table.

Part of the failure of the Enciclomedia program in Mexico in the middle of the last decade was precisely on the teacher-training front — along with other major malfunctions and mismanagements, such as the mass repurposing of stolen units as digital one-armed bandits.

And as for students, I have always wondered what exactly the OLPC machine provides by way of QWERTY training for toddling, ABC-singing users. Or DVORAK, if you like.