XO Marks the Spot: CEIBAL and the Educational Transformation of Uruguay

I attended Association of Learning Technologists Conference (ALT-C) last week  in Leeds, (Tuesday 6th September) with one of my colleagues from the Academic Development Unit (ADU) here at the University of Salford.

It was my first ever ALT-C conference despite working as a Learning Technologist for almost ten years.  Unfortunately ALT-C has always seemed to come at the wrong time of year for me. The time either seems to coincide with the transitional phase that invariably occurs between one semester and the next, of one online system or another, or it tends to conflict with preparation for the new semester. Sometimes, mentioning no names – it can be picking up the lose ends that should have been done before the conclusion of last years work.

Well,  this year I made it to Leeds and ALT-C for one day, thanks to being involved in writing the content for a workshop with Nerantzi Chrissi from the ADU, and Professor Huw Morris – our PVC Academic. I really have to thank Chrissi – for taking the time to ensure that we both got to the ALT conference, as one of the events in particular has made a positive impression on me.

The most important event for me was the key note speech given by Miguel Brechner, shown here at ALT-C . Miguel is director of the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay and the lead figure in charge of Plan CEIBAL, (Educational Connectivity/Basic Computing for Online Learning in English) a project which has allowed many (over 400,000) school children in Uruguay (a country with only a population of roughly 3.5 million) effective ownership of their own laptop. This scheme thereby equips every single pupil and 18,000 teachers of Uruguay’s public primary education system with a laptop, (and by extension their families) access to the world of computers and the internet for the first time,  Plan CEIBAL  is a project that resembles what we know now as the One Laptop One child initiative. Below is a presentation that thoroughly details the excellent work CEIBAL.

The reason I’ve written this entry, is that Miguel conveyed for me something powerful, indeed inspiring. It wasn’t so much the undoubtedly inspired use of the XO laptops themselves which are detailed here and pictured below, but the important piece in jigsaw puzzle the XO was now playing in terms of no less than the transformation of Uruguayan society.

XO laptop

XO Laptop

It was clear that the little XO was now the unlikely lead role on the stage, a diminutive, green plastic, bit-part player that has emerged from stage left to become, to my mind, what could be one of the most important and transformative catalysts for change in Uruguay, and, if successfully replicated in other countries, a model for the rest of the developing world. You see for me what was special about project CEIBAL and the little XO wasn’t that it wasn’t conceived as a technological project per se, but that it was conceived as an integral part of a comprehensive package of technical, infrastructural, and social initiatives that have transcended technology to become transformative at a societal level.

The young people using the laptops get to take them home to their families to use, families that are usually using computers for the very first time – some of which live quite remotely, and some of which only have intermittent electrical supply, or solar power. This still enables the charging of the laptop – an important consideration.

One of the challenges according to Miguel Brechner was the installation of ubiquitous connectivity in each of the regions being benefited, as he put it, “it was expensive – but it was necessary” if the project is to work as intended. As all areas have local connectivity, this allows the family, as well as the schoolchild to explore the internet together, and they can learn from the young person, and as they each learn – the family learns as a whole. As Brechner again put it to the ALT-C audience – “the Internet is a right”

In this regard CEIBAL seems to perfectly represent what seems to be, from my mind, a confluence of Educational, Sociopolitical  and Technological factors which seem to join to bring the perfect mix of not only a project that works in its physical implementation, but one that harnesses in that unique South American style, the forces of equality, social capital, political will and a clear vision for what is right, and just in any society.  CEIBAL seems to represent a modern coalescing of the political ideals and social welfare agenda espoused by revolutionary Venezuelan Simon Bolivar and the pedagogical influences of Brazilian Paulo Friere, demonstrated in his work in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

If we look wider it appears to me that CEIBAL seems to be a vital building block in a transformation of South American society. Although in South America’s Southern Cone, Uruguay is joined in it’s implementation of similar social welfare and educational schemes by is neighbours in the north in the form of Evo Morales’ Bolivia, and particularly Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela whose Bolivar Orchestra chimes a similar chord to the CEIBAL project, demonstrating that a country’s poorest can achieve exemplary levels of skill and accomplishment, given the right chances, as amply demonstrated below at the UK’s last night of the proms.

I see Miguel Brechner’s CEIBAL as something special, something which should serve, and indeed could serve as a template for the rest of the world, a pathway for us all to follow, and something driven by inclusivity, need, and social justice, and crucially one which puts the poor at the heart of the transformation.

Do I have any regrets from ALT-C, well yes, one. I didn’t have the courage to go over and talk to Miguel Brechner, but from my computer I wish him all the best, and if there is anything we can do for him – please just let us know.

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