Miguel Brechner | President, Plan Ceibal, Uruguay

Technology as a Driver of New Pedagogies for the 21st Century

First of all, thank you for inviting here, it's an honor. You all know Uruguay, it's well known for his soccer but it's also well known for being a small country – we are three and a half million people – and I just want to talk about a couple of things. Basically, first and most important is things can be done and you can be reasonably successful. When we started in Uruguay in 2007 what we call Plan Ceibal, it's a project inspired by Nicholas Negroponte’s first idea of One Laptop Per Child, so we started in 2007 and now we have finished 10 years and basically I want to share with you some ideas about equality or equity, technology, what has to be the action, what to do with technology, because this is one of the big issues, everyone wants internet or connectivity and then, when we start discussing what to do with it, we have a lot of different opinions, and then what's the future or where do we stand. Let me tell you, in Uruguay we have 715,000 students with tablets or laptops. We give tablets for first and third degree, we give laptops at fourth grade and at seventh grade, so every student that goes to public education has three rounds of devices with him, but basically we have a very big infrastructure of technology. All the schools that are in urban areas are connected through fiber optics, we have video conference equipment in most of those schools and we've put free internet for sports clubs, public squares, housing complexes, neighborhoods where sometimes there's no water but there is internet, so we basically deployed a very large infrastructure so that students will have internet and teachers will have internet.

The good thing about how we did this is we did all this between 2007 and 2010, so there was a big discussion and we finished the deployment before the end of the discussion, so now the discussion is another one, not about the infrastructure, because the infrastructure is there, right, so the issue is what to do with technology, why to give technology, is it free… For us it's free, it's for the students, it's for public education only. It's an important thing that the service provider of the internet in Uruguay is a public company, owned by the government but still under our budget we pay them a fair amount for what we have in connectivity.

Once you build infrastructure I think the whole discussion is, first of all you see the results immediately. This is the graph 2007-2015 about access to technology at home, right, so it's self-explanatory, but this is more interesting. This is ages 6 to 13, 14 to 24, 25 to 65 and over 65 in 2007. The colors correspond to the different quintiles of the economic situation of the children, so you can see that the blue are the well-off and in 2007 they basically had access to technology at home. When I mean technology I'm talking about a PC, it's not a phone or a tablet. With the poor people the gap was very, very wide. This is the situation today.

Whenever I have to make a presentation with these two slides we stop the discussion about equality. It's interesting there's no gap in children or students, and it reflected in the age 25 to 65 because when the kids went home with their laptops, parents made an effort and started buying devices and getting internet, so we see up there that there's very little difference even in the range that we have not covered.

The fact that children were the pushers of technology brought parents, teachers and everyone into that. Now, the big difference we had is when you see that the over 65 low-income people had very little access to technology, so we started a program now that we give to every retired person a tablet with internet for free. That increased last year to reach 44% that had the usage of internet at home and technology at home through this program for the old and retired people, so our idea was basically “Let's solve the infrastructure problem”. Now, once you've solved the infrastructure problem you haven't solved the education problem. We've finished with the technology gap but we haven't finished with the knowledge gap, the knowledge gap is still there.

I always like to put this slide, that sometimes we always think of what was said last year or two years ago, this was said by Einstein a couple of years ago:

“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity” – Albert Einsten.

I think the most important issue is that when we discuss technology and education there is one fact: technology has had very little impact in education in the last 200 years, in the last 100 years very, very little and the reason why that happened is because the vendors of technology have been pushing what should be done with technology, instead of listening to the teachers or to the parents what they want, so this discussion of what to do with technology bring us to a point that unless we use technology to stimulate the children and stimulate creativity, we won't have any effect in education. So, for us, we have a vision by which we say, “What do we need?” So everyone talks about the fact that we need 21st century competences for students, that means collaboration, character, communication, creativity, a lot of things that we all agree on, then, all of a sudden, when we go and test them we test them the old-fashioned way, we ask them what's the capital of Albania or Uruguay and we want them to be thinking collaboratively. So unless we start using different ways to get those competences we won't get them, it only will be a declaration by the human education societies of the world but in the real world it won't happen, so we decided that we want technology to push different aspects, but we have to be very clear what do we want from technology. In some cases technology only does things that the human being cannot do or it's not capable of doing, because it replaces certain actions – and I'll give you a couple of examples – but it has no pedagogical effect and that is something good, like for example giving books to children. One thing is you give books and electronics but you don't change education. On the other hand you can use technology to thrive and to accelerate pedagogy for better education. So, unless you have those two things in mind it's very easy to push for technology and have nothing out of it.

I'll give you a couple of examples of how do we analyze this. For example, in mathematics it's a fact that you have the technology today, and we have a platform with 400,000 exercises coverings from grade three to grade nine where it's adaptive, so every student goes into his own level and the teacher knows what he's doing. That's a very clear personal education. There technology gives you a fantastic value, because it's impossible to think of personalization of education without technology. If we push that we're going into a world where everyone is different, we can only do it if we have the technology to push it.

Now, at the same time, we need to teach English to all our students but we don't have enough teachers, so what did we do? We put videoconference equipment in all the schools and we teach them with teachers that are in the Philippines, Europe, Argentina, Colombia and it’s presential, it's not online, it's presential, they talk to the children over high quality videoconference – of course, you need to have fiber optics and you need to have good quality video conference – and we started with a thousand students in 2012 and now we are with 85,000. This is impossible to do unless you do it with technology. We hire the British Council for doing the English teaching but this is something that has nothing to do with pedagogy. We are replacing – like in Star Trek – we're putting the teacher in the class being outside the class.

We have books, we have all the reading books, and textbooks are free for students. That is an equality issue: technology serves the equality but doesn't solve – unless the country goes into a reading mode by which we teach and we read with kids – we won't get better reading, so unless we have everywhere what we are doing with the technology all the time, it's very important that we don't put false aspirations. The most important thing we are doing now is we want to get the connection between what's going on in the real world and what's going on inside the school, and that is today one of the big problems. Real world is one thing, school is another, so we went into a very big work on robotics, digital labs, 3d printer sensors by which we put problems to the students and the students use technology to solve them. That is a very strict case where all the things we discussed before about critical thinking, working in groups etc. can be applied. This is very different from the traditional curriculum that you have, with one subject or ten subjects or five subjects.

Last but not least, technology is associated with computational thinking. We cannot think about 21st century skills and use 20th century material 19th century teachers. We are in a process of very big changes. In the last ten years the changes, I mean most of the things were discussing today, were out of our minds in 2007, so unless we emphasize that we are going into a world of personal learning on critical thinking, learning not how to code but I don't know if you all know what computational thinking is, computational thinking is breaking a big problem into small problems, solving each of the problems, analyzing if any of those small problems has been solved before with an algorithm and then compound the solution. We have to understand that technology has to drive those things, because you cannot do personalized education unless you have technology. You cannot do computational thinking without technology and you cannot work in real time projects without technology.

Let me give you an example: the Uruguayan team won a big prize in the US on robotics, so everyone was going, “Fantastic, robotics, robotics!” but it had nothing to do with robotics, the problem was one of physics, how to kill a bacteria, so they had to study chemistry, they had to study physics, they had to study mechanics, they had to build a solution and then they decided to use the robot for building the solution, so in a world where everything is going to be about robots we have a saying that we prefer to be the ones programming the robots than the ones being substituted by the robotic work. It's a very tough challenge but unless we understand that the base is that we have to have equal access and equal rights we will not get it.

Last but not least, this program cost us $100 per year per student, and that's an affordable value when you are talking about certain values related to how much does a teacher cost, how much does a student cost in education. The only way to do it is to experiment. Once you experiment you make many mistakes, I can tell you, millions of mistakes we've had with all these issues, but unless we take this as a leapfrog on what the future is we will never get there and small countries and poor countries – we are today in a middle-sized country, we are not poor anymore – but unless we do something like this the gap in the next years is going to be much, much wider.

Thank you very much.