September 16, 2011

Conectar Igualdad: Argentina’s Bold Move to Build an Equitable Digital Future

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Equity
hundreds of girls sitting in auditorium assembly holding computers

I recently had a chance to participate in a wonderful conference in Buenos Aires.  El Congreso Internacional de Inclusión Digital Educativa (The International Conference on Digital Inclusion Education) was an event that celebrated and illuminated a new national initiative in Argentina to equip students in secondary schools (grades 10, 11, and 12) with netbooks.  The program is sponsored by Conectar Igualdad, an organization supported by Argentina’s President and Ministry of Education.  The opening panel for the conference included Argentina’s Minister of Education, Director of Culture and Education, as well as officials from Conectar Igualdad.  The panelists were convinced that the future of schooling in Argentina must include a one-to-one computing model.  Connecting all young Argentines to the Internet has become a national priority.  Over the last year one million netbooks have been distributed.  The goal by 2012 is to distribute two million more.

During my visit I had the opportunity to tour a school in Ituzaingo, a Buenos Aires municipality.  As we entered the school, I was struck by how education, or at least the model of what a school looks and feels like in Argentina, was strikingly similar to the United States.  For example, students:  are organized by age, attend class for a fixed period of time during the week, and sit in classrooms arranged in orderly rows facing an instructor located at the head of the classroom.

The school is populated by students from low-income households.  In Argentina many students from poor communities drop out before completing secondary school.  The Director of the school explained that about thirty percent of the students entering the 10th grade in her school will drop out.  If a student makes it past 10th grade the odds of continuing through the 12th grade improve.  Many of the students in this school will not complete all of the requirements to earn their secondary degree.  In some cases, they will abandon school because of a loss of interest.  Others will cut their education short in order to enter the workforce to help support their families.  Only about five percent of the students will finish college.

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.

What is the future of one-to-one computing in Argentina’s schools?  What the architects of Conectar Igualdad are beginning to realize is that, as difficult as it has been to get computers into the hands of students, the most daunting challenge lies ahead: developing a culture and a curriculum that promotes digital literacy that is authentic and empowering. 

Here are three challenges Argentina and many other nations, including the United States, face in the drive to build a more equitable digital future.

1. Teacher Support and Development.  In the school I visited there is still resistance among some teachers to embrace the newly distributed netbooks.  Many teachers are simply not convinced that the integration of networked media into the classroom is necessary.  Similar to other countries, Argentina has to deal with the generational divide—the gap between adult engagement with digital media and student participation in digital media culture.  In some respects, this represents a genuine cultural and behavioral disconnect between teachers and students.  In other cases, it illustrates a skills gap that limits the ability of teachers to fully exploit the learning opportunities that digital media affords.  Successful implementation of a one-to-one computing model certainly requires teacher investment and involvement but it also requires teacher training and development.  Building 21st century schools also demands that we develop 21st century teachers, that is, teachers who integrate technology into the classroom in ways that are purposeful and capable of scaffolding powerful learning experiences.

2. Education, Cultural Capital, and Social Inequality.  School is only one node in a young person’s learning network.  Research consistently shows that students who live in homes and communities that provide educational resources such as books, libraries, museums, and opportunities for civic engagement accrue important learning advantages.  The literacy environment for many of the students I met in Argentina does not easily support the opportunities to engage networked media as makers rather than consumers of information.  According to the Director, eighty percent of the students in the school had never owned a computer.  The students did not take their netbooks home, in part, because they do not have Internet access at home.  Conditions like these further diminish their opportunity to cultivate digital literacies informally and in the peer-to-peer learning ecologies that encourage exploration and experimentation.  Transforming schools and the learning that happens there is not simply about what happens in between the four walls of the school building.  It is also about what happens in the larger social ecology that kids navigate and the extent to which other nodes in their network support learning across multiple sites, both formally and informally.

3. Transforming schooling and literacy in edge communities.  The ultimate challenge is building a curriculum that develops and realizes a broader vision and mission for literacy in edge communities.  The school I toured focuses on lower-order computing skills, that is, teaching students to use some of the most basic applications available on their notebooks.  But beyond this basic literacy is the need to support a vision that defines digital literacy as a life skill that is connected to the everyday lives and situations of students and their families and communities.  Call it ‘design literacy,’ that is, the capacity to engage in higher-order thinking, critical thinking, and real-world problem solving.  Whereas ‘tools literacy’ is foundational, ‘design literacy’ is transformational.

Argentina is one country among many in South America mobilizing a renewed commitment to educating young people.  While their notion of digital literacy must certainly evolve, it is refreshing to see countries investing in the future by funding new educational initiatives today.