Interview to Silvina Gvirtz. ICTs inclusion in the Conectar Igualdad Program. Balance, impact and projects. Educational news bulletin N°56
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Fundación Lúminis interviewed Silvina Gvirtz, PhD in Education and General Executive Director of the Conectar Igualdad Program in the ANSES (Administración Nacional de la Seguridad Social, Argentine Social Security Administration.) We discussed the different organizational management aspects of the program, the pedagogical impact since it was implemented and the incorporation of programming as a transversal and strategic field of knowledge.
Silivina Gvirtz is an Argentine pedagogue who is currently working as General Executive Director of the Conectar Igualdad Program, which promotes the inclusion of new technologies in secondary schools. PhD in Education (Universidad de Buenos Aires), she is a researcher at CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Ténicas, National Scientific and Technical Research Council) and tenured professor at Universidad Nacional de San Martín and the State University of New York. She was Director of Master Studies in Education at Universidad de San Andrés and general director of the “Proyecto Escuelas del Bicentenario.”
– Gabriel Latorre :-Which are the goals and what is the sense of the Conectar Igualdad Program?
-Sivina Gvirtz:- Conectar Igualdad is a program that has two main goals. First, it wants to narrow the digital gap. Prior to this program, only those with market access could access technology and technological literacy.
Nobody can learn technological languages without technology, they cannot be learnt theoretically. So they could communicate in a different way and they could know a type of technological literacy. You cannot learn what chat is without chatting, or what Facebook, Twitter and Google are without using them. Those without access to them could not learn the related vocabulary and could not understand mass media, as they constantly use technological terms.
Some authors claim narrowing the digital gap is essential because it represents to the XXI century what literacy represented to the XIX century.
The second goal of the program, which I believe to be crucial, is to improve educational quality. In 2006, a National Education Act was passed. For the first time, it made secondary school compulsory in Argentina. Guaranteeing real access to secondary education had to be accompanied by certain tools that took advantage of those school years. In that sense, Conectar Igualdad is aimed at offering a central pedagogical tool to teach and learn better with socially significant content.
It is necessary to clarify that the computer itself is not important, but how teachers and students use them. This particular netbook has a series of programs to work with physics, chemistry, math and language contents and learn in a different way. For example, they can use programs like Geogebra in math or Avogadro. Instead of learning the periodic table of chemical elements by heart, you can see how atoms bind and become molecules, what electrons are and if they can change their orbit.
-GL:- The way contents are represented changes, but how do you support teachers so they can use this kind of resources?
-SG:- The protagonist of Conectar Igualdad is not the machine, it is the teacher. The teacher can make that potential change become true by using the netbook as a didactic tool.
As regards the teacher’s role, we should bear in mind three things:
- There are different kinds of teachers. Some teachers receive the netbook, take it to school and they start working immediately.
- Other teachers use technology correctly, but they have difficulty in using it pedagogically. It is different to use the computer individually than using it to teach simultaneously 30 students with their notebooks. When teachers think 1 to 1, they think about the simultaneous use of the computers. Some teachers need training to employ computers in a pedagogical way.
- There is another but smaller group made up by old teachers about to retire who do not know how to use computers individually.
-GL:- As regards technology, the intranet device had several flaws at the beginning. As a result, many institutions could not enjoy the possibility of using intranet.
-SG:- That is right. There were difficulties with the first technological installations. We learnt from that and solved it. For example, there was a program called e-learning class aimed at connecting all computers together and with the teacher’s at the same time, but it did not work because it was not compatible with the technological installations. It has currently been replaced by other applications. Those difficulties took place at the beginning of the program in 2010. Nowadays, in fact, many of those technological installations were rebuilt and they work well.
It is logical that there are difficulties because all new programs imply learning curves. If we said everything worked just fine from the beginning, we should be wary of it.
-GL:- What have you learned from this first phase?
-SG:- We changed the technological installations and installed better servers.
ANSES-Conectar Igualdad is in charge of delivering the computers and doing the technological installations. After that, those devices become property of the provinces. We are making progress with provincial authorities to guarantee the maintenance of those technological installations. ANSES fixes the netbooks for two years and then provinces should take over.
-GL:- How do you assist provinces?
-SG:- The Ministry of Education assists them through the Federal Council. Provinces select specialized staff to work with the teams in each jurisdiction, which have been working in the program since the beginning.
We do a follow up of the schools in each province. The Ministry of Education is conducting a census to obtain a diagnosis and solve gathered and other problems, especially at a technical level in the technological installations. ANSES cooperates. For example, after the flooding in La Plata or now in Misiones, we replaced all damaged devices.
-GL:- As regards the Internet connection at schools, what does it mean to take advantage of netbooks to access other sources of information? How do you do that?
-SG:- The Internet is not part of the Conectar Igualdad program, but the Secretary of Communication is working hard to install Internet at schools. Nowadays, 50% of schools already have Internet connection. That is great progress compared to the country’s situation in 2001, when less than 1% of schools were connected.
The kind of connectivity schools have does not necessarily allow 500, 1,000 or 1,500 netbooks to be connected simultaneously. It is important to know and highlight that. Connectivity sometimes allows you to connect thirty computers at the same time, but not a thousand or two hundred. Sometimes they say there is no connectivity at school, but there is one to connect the principal and the management team for administrative tasks, as well as one or two classes. We are also working to improve connectivity at schools.
As regards the Internet, I think it is important to label it as a challenge. The President of the US, Obama, announced 90% of schools were going to be connected by 2016. Saying 100% of schools are going to be connected would not be based on the real conditions in Argentina or in any other country with the technological development of the US. But it is important to keep that challenge in mind, plan it and progress at a fast pace. We are doing those things. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of optic fiber are being installed to guarantee the connection along the country.
-GL:- Do you mean the work being done by ARSAT?
-SG:- Yes. They work with optic fiber installation in the country. It is not the job of Conectar Igualdad, but different state bodies are working together to get more connectivity.
However, I want to make an observation. I think it is important to value intranet. For example, two years ago a teacher from the University of London came to visit schools and she concluded that intranet would be better for those schools than the Internet. I asked her why, as I thought it was strange. I do not agree with that idea, I think we should have Internet at schools. She said that in England, Internet connections require so many filters for children not to access forbidden pages (such as porn and social networks) that the connection ends up being very poor and slow.
A teacher who does not have Internet at school and wants to work with a video for her students, can download it at home, take it to school, upload it to the server and then be downloaded to every computer at school. They will be able to share and work with the deferred content. By means of that resource enabled by the technological installations, students can use the main program, be connected with each other, chat and communicate.
There is another issue. It is a mistake to think that pedagogical tools are online. The teacher has the technological tools and the netbooks have many resources to be used as support and as a means of teaching.
-GL:- What do you think about teachers using netbooks as a tool to create their own resources through the available software?
-SG:- We want teachers to be able to create their own teaching material to share it in the server folders at school.
The other day, a specialist in language didactics told me that a good language teacher can work with the grammar and spelling checkers included in word processors. She explained how to work with checkers and take advantage of a simple technological tool to work in the language area. We learn how to use a mobile phone and technology changes all the time. All the teachers use a mobile phone, so they can learn how to work with a computer and use it pedagogically. The teacher must be sure about what he wants to do. Using technology implies making mistakes. All the teachers make mistakes when we work with technology for the first time.
-GL:- What experiences have you registered in the classrooms?
-SG:- We have registered (this is data provided by the Ministry of Education) that computers are being used more often inside the classroom in a simple way. The ways in which it is used do not vary much, but all surveys show that a great part of the population (students, teachers, parents and authorities) supports the Conectar Igualdad Program because the computers are also used at home. The fact that the computers are on gratuitous loan (students can take them home and back to school) is very important. It promotes family learning and use. We went to San Pedro, in the province of Buenos Aires, to deliver netbooks to one school. A boy with five little brothers came to school and received the netbook. His brothers congratulated him and said “Well, you are going to teach us now!” The boy replied “Yes, but only when I am at home, one hour each.” Many students are scared the netbook might break because it becomes the main computer at home. Those younger children will receive one when they begin secondary school. Meanwhile, they acquire technological knowledge through their brother’s computer, which is also the only computer at home.
-GL:- That means the first kind of inclusion is social. Could we then criticize that the impact of Conectar Igualdad is social and not educational or pedagogical?
-SG:- Yes, first there is social inclusion, so the first impact is social. There are phases. It is not logical to think that when the teacher gets the computer, he or she is going to sit down and start using it. All plans include phases, and that does not mean they are bad. It happened with the Ceibal in Uruguay and in Portugal as well. We are going through a phase in which it is already being used at school. Some teachers use it more than others. You can see they are using them when you visit the schools. The social impact is immediate. Families receive them through the student.
-GL:- I mean, isn’t that linked to a lack of planning, for example, regarding the pedagogical impact?
-SG:- No, absolutely not. We cannot pretend for the pedagogical impact to be immediate. Unfortunately, everybody believes to be an expert in education and gives an opinion about it. You can give your opinion as a citizen, and everybody should be encouraged to do so. But there are technical issues and experience tells us that these new technological plans involve several phases. As we said before, the first impact is social and then the impact is at school. The first phase is about taking the netbooks from home to school to be used. It does not matter whether they use complex or simple programs. It is important that they take the charged netbooks to school and begin to experiment. That is already a pedagogical goal, the first goal.
The second goal is that they learn how to use more complex programs, what free software means, why there are free apps and what an open source is. These are the first phases of Conectar Igualdad’s socio-educational inclusion.
-GL:- How are you working on that free software production line?
-SG:- We believe it has a great future ahead. Our team developed the Huayra operating system, which has thousands of specific pedagogical apps that make us proud. We learned from that too. When we began with the computers, we wanted to do a dual booting: to use Windows operating system or an alternative operating system based on open source free software (Huayra.) We began with Picsar, then Ubuntu, after that we tried Mint, until we developed our own operating system called Huayra.
Later on, we developed a program called ProgramAR with the Ministry of Science and Technology, EducAR and the Sadosky Foundation. They work and train with us. It is project developed by all of us, but the Sadosky Foundation is in charge of the programming Hackathons, which include training workshops. In fact, the next one is for students and teachers in the province of Córdoba. Learning to program is key and we are already in the fourth phase.
-GL:- If we see programming as a set of languages with a logic that allows us to interact with and create digital technology, what do you think about the development of programming in education? Do you consider it a political decision looking for some kind of autonomy?
-SG:- Yes, it is a political decision and it is very important.
Last year there were a couple of articles saying that the netbooks were not being manufactured anymore, that they were obsolete and being replaced by tablets. There were several debates about that, and we considered that no technological program like Conectar Igualdad should be running after the market in general. Furthermore, it would be a terrible mistake to replace the netbooks with tablets in a country like ours, where the netbook is the only technological device a family has. The states that deliver tablets, like New York, do so because families already have a desktop computer, a laptop or netbook at home. It would be a mistake to buy tablets instead of netbooks in Argentina, because at a pedagogical level, a tablet does not let you produce, write, do a monograph, write a story or watch a video with subtitles. Tablets have many limitations. It is device for consumers, not producers.
At the same time, we kept the netbooks, but we are thinking about incorporating two in one, tablet and netbook, when prices get lower.
We had the same problem about incorporating programming. We want children to program so that they know how the software they use is programmed. In order for them to be free, sovereigns, independent and autonomous in the digital technology field, they have to learn programming. As a result, we have to guarantee a tool like the netbooks, which can give them that chance. That is why incorporating programming is essential for us. It is a political decision which involves several bodies working together.
-GL:- How are you planning that? Which is the established time frame? What references do you take from similar projects? How do you plan it according to the contexts?
-SG:- Several experiences are being carried out to deal with programming massively by the Sadosky Foundation. I cannot give you any details about that.
-GL:- As regards technology, when large scale training projects are designed, a kind of bottleneck appears, in the case of teachers, trainers, because of a lack of the necessary quantity. Taking into account that most teachers do not know about programming, what would solve this and give them the first elements about programming?
-SG:- I would say it is achieved one step at a time. Nowadays, we are carrying out massive training and post graduate courses to guarantee that the teachers in each subject learn about the programs concerning their subject so they can apply them. Most of them are free software pedagogical programs. Now it is important to guarantee the use of netbooks at school and the knowledge about the ProgramAR program. We do not need all teachers to know how to program, but that they are interested in learning and using curricular hours to program. But that implies changes in the curricular design. We are working on that through the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology and Conectar Igualdad. The priority now is the use of the computers and programs and that the children get to know the basic tools. Also, it is important that the leading groups take advantage of the programming workshops and hackathons for teachers. The hackathons are like experience and learning labs.
-GL:- Do those courses reach them? Is there a good response?
-SG:- The response is amazing. Let me tell you about it. The first contest called “Dale Aceptar” (Click Enter) was carried out in 2012 for the entire country and there were 16,000 registrations. It was organized by the Sadosky Foundation for secondary students. The winner was a boy from a little town in Chaco, who wanted to study law. Thanks to the contest, he discovered his talent. “Dale Aceptar” has a great number of registered students and it is still active.
-GL:- You mentioned you get questions from other countries about Conectar Igualdad…
-SG:- Yes. Last week we had a visit from Paraguay, and before that from Bolivia, because they want to implement something similar and they want to know how to do it, which the difficulties are, what lessons we learned and what computers to buy.
We describe it for them. We take them to logistics warehouses and we explain them what computer model we are using right now. We emphasize the importance of developing national production. We are proud of that. We bought the first one in China and now we have ten industries working and producing netbooks for Conectar Igualdad. There are a lot of workers involved. When we make a call for tenders, we demand companies to add another component of national production.
-GL:- Can you explain the future outreach two years from now when each province is in charge of maintaining the technological installations and the netbooks?
-SG:- I want to make something clear. The funds for Conectar Igualdad come from the National Treasury, not from ANSES. The ANSES, together with the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Planning and the Cabinet of Ministers, manages the distribution of the netbooks. They have an important territorial impact with the Unidades de Atención Integral (UDAI, comprehensive attention units.) I think it is important to make that clear because it is unfair that such an interesting program loses legitimacy. People say the money belongs to the retirees, and that is not true.
The two-year period has to do with transferring the technical service to the provinces. When we hand in the netbooks, the technological installation, as well as the netbooks, becomes the property of each province. We realized that the provinces needed time to organize their own technical support. That is why ANSES decided that the national government should be in charge of repairing them for two years. If a netbook breaks, there is a repair service available. The principal hands in a ticket and the different companies repair it. Companies bid to provide the service of picking up, fixing and returning the damaged netbooks.
-GL:- Is the process supervised?
-SG:- Yes. At the beginning (2010), there were some difficulties with the technical service. But it is already working well at a national level.
Transaltion: María Paula Vasile