From the blog the young and the digital comes a short statement from the principal of a Buenos Aires secondary school on the impact that the Argentinian 1:1 initiative, Conectar igualdad, will have on her students:
When I asked the Director how she hoped Conectar Igualdad would impact her school she did not hesitate. Speaking through a translator she explained that the availability of the netbooks and the chance to gain a least some basic computer literacy—the use of spreadsheets, word processing—would convince some students to continue their education. In fact, many of the students persuaded their parents to attend this school precisely because the netbooks would be available. Conectar Igualdad has promised to give each student who finishes school a netbook. The opportunity to connect learning to young people’s digital lives is often regarded as a source of motivation to further develop a learner identity. Like many other parts of the world some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in Argentina view technology as essential to getting a quality education.
Unless I'm missing the boat (always likely), the upshot is that technology in schools supports a motivational play: Kids will be more enthusiastic about learning if they use technology; enthusiastic and tech-enabled kids will, furthermore, stay in schools because there's a netbook in their future if they complete secondary education.
Terrif. (I'm not arguing with the truth of tech's motivational impact. Or about the need for motivation.)
As a long-term strategy, using technology to increase motivation is, well, not very long-term.
As the cost of tools comes down—as it has, sufficiently to enable the MOE of Argentina to dangle netbooks as bait—the scarcity-based value of those tools to the students will diminish in lock-step. (Try dangling a mobile phone in front of those kids. They can already see phones in their futures, so you won't get much of a bump.)
OK, maybe a short-term strategy is what's called for.* But at the end of the day—or the end of the program—you're still likely to have massive educational inequality, with students in poor areas attending schools with under-performing teachers, irrelevant curricula, lousy instruction and little learning. And the "enthusiasm gap" will have widened again while you've spent what you can spend on a short-term fix.
*I'm aware that Conectar Igualdad also offers free online courses to students, PD to teachers and a few other supports (learner management software, anyone?). But there's nothing (so far as I've seen) to suggest that CI plans anything other than to increase the appeal and efficiency of schooling that's currently failing kids. Real change is hard, but real change is essential.
1.7 million netbooks distributed to date. Just for grins, add two zeros to 1,700,000 and you've have a guess at the program's capital costs (170,000,000 for the math-disinclined, and that's not TCO). Hmm.
WHAT MIGHT CONECTAR IGUALDAD DO INSTEAD (OR AS WELL)?
The main problem—at least per the principal interviewed in the post—is that kids aren't completing secondary school. The netbooks increase motivation to stay in school, but they don't make a sustainable approach. Here are some other ideas:
1 - Launch a school-to-work type program that focuses on getting disadvantaged high-school graduates into the work force. (I know that Argentina's economy is challenged. But perhaps some of the $177 million spent on laptops can be redirected to subsidize graduates' wages and training.)
2 - Launch a special-scholars program for promising graduates, providing them with admission to a top-flight university and paid tuition.
3 - Set up an online community for teachers that connects them to 1) each other; 2) OERs to address otherwise unbridgeable content gaps and practice gaps. A terrific choice would be to replicate the ConnectedPD program offered by Monterey Institute of Technology in Education (MITE) under the National Repository of Online Courses (NROC).