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La Educación
Número: (132-133) I,II
Año: 1999

Education and Communications Technology

When we talk about education and communications technology, we are referring specifically to emerging capabilities in telecommunications, computing and microelectronics. These technologies and their combinations can be deployed in a variety of ways, many of which only mimic the behavior of the traditional teacher, and therefore do not merit investment, and others which dramatically broaden and change the teaching/learning experience. Tutorial packages, for example, which present students with information at a level and pace tailored to the individual user, who is later subjected to objective evaluation, are of questionable value in this setting given the infrastructure necessary to support them. Exploratory software, however, which enables a student to build simulations and experiment with them, manipulate data bases and apply statistical analysis may be well worth the cost at the university level. The use of technology as an information resource can also be invaluable, particularly for geographically isolated students and researchers. It can allow them to access information on-line or through CD-ROMs and helps to develop questioning and research skills. Finally, link technology, which makes possible communication between users through electronic mail or video conferencing, has proven useful for secondary and tertiary students in remote settings. It allows exposure to new socio-cultural perspectives and serves as a channel for self-expression. All of these uses have the capacity to encourage cooperative learning and working, which is known to help develop higher order thinking.

Studies of the actual use of computers in schools, however, point out that often they are used to perform only traditional teaching or tutorial functions, without giving students new means of learning. The temptation may be to use them in rather unimaginative ways, simply because the machine is fashionable, changing only the form of delivery of information, instead of expanding the information universe itself and encouraging critical and collaborative thinking.

In particular, the new technologies can play a valuable role in expanding distance education capabilities. Most frequently, this application would be suitable at the university level, but it might also be useful at the secondary level in some rural areas. The most cost-effective application would be pre-service and in-service teacher education. An International Development Research Center (IDRC) paper points out, “In theory the ICTs (information and communication technologies) through the possibilities they allow for distance learning, could greatly facilitate the provision of teacher education in situations where there are large numbers of untrained teachers, limited in-service training and few training institutions or teacher educators. But it is in these very deprived situations that the basic infrastructure for installing the necessary technologies is likely to be absent.”6

Even so, the use of information technology in training programs for rural teachers constitutes a strategic intervention in the education cycle. After all, very often rural teachers are themselves the product of rural schools, and they too were taught by rural teachers…the cycle goes back for generations. In order that it not continue for generations, innovative teacher training programs made available through information technology should be developed and implemented.

The new ICTs also provide access to electronic networks, which provide vast new opportunities for both teaching and learning. Because of the geographic isolation that often defines rural life, this technology can be useful in research and in teacher training. It specifically facilitates the exchange of resources among both real and virtual student and teacher communities. It is through electronic networks that the information of the Internet can be made available to otherwise isolated communities. As with distance education, however, it is precisely in those places where the need is greatest and the learning gains could therefore be greatest, that the costs of installation and maintenance are likely to be highest, too. Making these resources available to the poor in rural areas is therefore the greatest challenge.

One of the best known projects in educational technology in this Hemisphere is Proyecto Enlaces, which began in Chile and now operates in three additional Latin American countries. Through the project, financed by The World Bank, a centralized network connects schools and instructs teachers in the use of new educational tools related to curricula. The project is designed to provide mechanisms of instruction in a context where teachers have little or no previous training in the use of computers in education. Enlaces began in 1993 as a pilot demonstration program to install communications hardware and software in 12 schools located in the sparsely populated southern region of Chile and to train teachers in its use. Subsequently, the government adopted the project as a countrywide program and a part of the national educational reform initiative. Centers for similar technology and linking projects have been established at seven universities, and Enlaces had linked 2,200 schools by early this year. The goal is to link all secondary schools and 50 percent of primary schools by the year  2000. A central team of trainers devises training materials and the plan for disseminating them. This team then trains teams from the other universities and post-secondary institutions to carry out on-site training and teacher support activities. Each full-time trainer works with 15 schools over a two-year training and support period, offering each school’s team about 100 hours of training. The project has a variety of components, beginning with the installation of high-level computers with multimedia capability and specially designed software in schools. Then Enlaces sends trainers into the schools to train teachers, in groups of at least 20, in its use. In very small schools, with few teachers, the trainers may also give instruction to parents, older students, or local citizens. Enlaces offers support for two years, including provision of Internet access, and the project combines networking capability with software and computer environments specially designed for K-12 classes and their teachers. The project director says that until the advent of Enlaces, many rural schools far from cities had been very slow to receive new information and materials from the national Ministry of Education. With the networking capability of Enlaces, distance is no longer a barrier to participation in educational reform and improvement. A sister project has been initiated in Medellin, Colombia. Spokesmen for The World Bank often mention the Enlaces project as an example of the successful use of educational technology in the developing world.

Critics of the project, however, point out its highly structured and unimaginative curriculum, its strong reliance on individual, quantitative evaluation procedures, and the weakness of the teacher training component. Obviously, training groups of twenty teachers at a time in the use of computer does not allow intensive tutoring.

Further, the project entails considerable expense; in Chile it is largely financed through loans to the Government, which has purchased $17 million in hardware from Olivetti and software from Microsoft, both foreign firms. In addition to the external debt burden incurred, many teachers and parents object to the centralized nature of curriculum development which necessarily accompanies the project and the standardized pedagogy. In an interview, the Project Director admitted this aspect of the network design, saying, “Our program is a Trojan Horse. It slips into schools and forces them to become more adaptable and flexible, to adopt modern school reforms.” 7

These are important concerns, and there are many others. But again, the cost of these projects should be rigorously analyzed and weighed against the benefits of more and better trained teachers, more and better books and materials, improved buildings and facilities. For ICTs involve the cost of the initial purchase of hardware and software, regular upgrading and maintenance, the cost of on-line telephone charges. If the equipment is purchased from a foreign supplier, foreign exchange must also be used.

Professional competence is also a basic consideration in the deployment of ICTs in education. The research done thus far shows that teacher education is perhaps the single most important variable in using ICTs effectively. Adequate training and education for teachers often presents serious difficulties for technology implementation projects. Frequently the cost of training is underestimated or overlooked. Providing training is generally not so profitable for a supplier as is the sale of equipment, and therefore not so readily offered. Nevertheless, in order to become comfortable with the technology, teachers need years of exposure. The ICRD puts it this way, “While all elements of an implementation policy are essential to the success of an innovation, teacher education seems to be particularly crucial to the successful introduction and sustaining use of ICTs in formal education. Teachers are likely to lack even basic computer literacy and other technical skills, with too few having the opportunity of regular access to the technologies, and need careful and ongoing training in new pedagogical methods and approaches.”8

The emerging picture is one in which a comprehensive and strategic level of planning must be in place in order to maximize the benefits of ICTs in education. If these technologies are to be used in rural areas of poor countries, their benefits must be carefully calculated, and this requires an existing and consistently applied educational policy at the national level.

Most countries in Latin America, however, have no comprehensive policies regarding the introduction of ICTs in the education sector. Where this is the case, the private sector in the form of non-profit organizations, corporations and academic and research institutions have a part to play.

Private enterprises are already, of course, powerful forces in this field because they control the telecommunications industry. Governments, therefore, have already attempted to cooperate with corporations in developing and implementing educational innovations. On its side, the telecommunications industry has recognized the potentially enormous profits involved in accessing untapped educational markets. A number of major telecommunications companies in the U.S. have been generous in their philanthropic associations with schools for this reason. In developed countries, the private sector has been eager to take the lead, and in developing countries, where the financing gaps between the services governments intend to provide and the services actually funded may be larger, many have suggested that the private sector should be primarily responsible for financing the initial use of information technology in education. As a caveat, however, governments should recognize that the “market-driven” interests of private companies are often incongruent with more general educational and cultural objectives.

Many teachers observe, in fact, that greater cooperation between educators and software developers is needed in the design of curricular materials than is currently the standard practice. Moreover, commercial interests should not be permitted to trump educational goals in overall policy-making or program design, and this tension is likely to remain intense.

In general, the financial and personnel constraints of educational systems in the poorer countries or poorer regions of Latin America suggest that it is highly unrealistic to believe that the large-scale introduction of the ICTs is feasible in the near future. Instead, it may be much more practical to use these technologies only in specific areas where they can be expected to have an important impact. For example, distance education programs for teacher training in rural areas would be good candidates for the use of this technology. Of course, targeted and effective procurement, deployment, use, and maintenance will require systematic long-term planning, as well as increased financial support for schools in rural areas from national education ministries.