Chile's wired classrooms

Photo credit: Inauguration of the first Mobile Computer Laboratory at the Grenoble elementary school in the Quinta Normal district in Santiago, May 8, 2009. (Courtesy Enlaces, Education Ministry of Chile)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chile’s government spent years and more than $200 million putting computers and internet connections in almost every classroom of the country’s public schools. The kids were more than ready — but are the teachers?

Now 95 percent of public schools and state-subsidized private schools have received computers, with an average of 13 students per computer. Sixty percent of schools have access to the internet, slightly above the 55 percent national average, as estimated by the World Internet Project Report 2010.

Known as Enlaces, the program began as a trial project with 12 schools in 1992 as a way to improve the quality of education. Now it wants to have a notebook computer, datashow, screen and speakers in every classroom, and it's almost there. In the working-class district of San Miguel, practically all of its 12 public schools have the new equipment.

“This was unthinkable just a few years ago. No one ever imagined we would have a computer in each classroom, and much less a multimedia room with an interactive board. Back then, we were happy with having just one datashow for the entire school,” said Rodrigo Briones, director of the Llano Subercaseaux elementary and middle school in San Miguel, with 432 students.

But are they being used?

“That’s the big problem,” said Briones. “We now have the equipment and the technology, and the kids know how to use it. But teachers need to learn how to convert it into a resource tool, and we have a ways to go.”

There are several hurdles. One is that the education ministry’s courses, according to Briones, are too short and basic. Another one is the age of many teachers — “not a minor issue,” he said. In his school, of the 18 classroom teachers, most are around 50, and there are half a dozen on the verge of retirement. “They are just not motivated to learn,” he said.

In the Llano Subercaseaux school, the computers in the classroom are often idle all day, because teachers didn’t prepare lessons that use them. And that is another major problem: To use computers in classrooms, teachers must overhaul their programs, investigate, discover new tools and materials, learn to use them and adapt their methodology.

Since 1996, Enlances has trained more than 75 percent of public school teachers to use the new technology. However, learning to use a mouse or get on the internet is not the same as using computers as a tool for teaching or conveying contents.

In addition to free courses for teachers, Enlaces has periodically purchased educational software and set up an education portal, Educar Chile. Last year, Enlaces launched the first Catalogue of Digital Educational Resources in Latin America, with more than 300 resources, 116 of which can be downloaded without cost. The ministry also provided about $3.4 million for the poorest 1,512 elementary and high schools in the country to access new software.

But there is resistance to using it. Many teachers "don’t see it as a source of knowledge or a way of making classes more fun. It’s easier to keep doing whatever they’ve always done,” said Veronica Romero, who teaches children with learning difficulties in a public school in Cerro Navia, one of the poorest districts in the capital.

Although the computer lab in her school is fully operational for computer science classes and workshops, only half of the teachers there use the new technology on a regular basis in their classrooms, she said.

“Integrating innovation and assimilating the changes in education is a slower process than just learning how to use a computer. There is resistance to change,” said Ivan Mesina, of the Technology for Management and Learning Area of Enlaces.

Of course, many teachers do seize the opportunity to innovate and improve the learning process. Jenny Diaz teaches a weekly workshop on communications skills in the computer lab at Llano Subercaseaux school and eagerly looks for new ways to get her students motivated.

“It’s not the same for me to stand in front of my class and read them the morning newspaper than to learn about what is happening in the world by checking many papers on the internet, on a big screen for all the kids to see. It’s much more fun, and we connect to the world,” said Diaz.

Diaz had just finished her workshop, where she used the Enlaces software Chile para Ninos (Chile for Children) to teach her sixth-grade students about Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. The webpage included a multiple choice test, a puzzle, poems, funny phrases and a biography. The students were then asked to write a poem about themselves on their computers.

One of them, Yunitza Rocco, learned to use computers and the internet not at school, but at her mother’s job — a house where her mom takes care of a baby and does the housework. While her mother sweeps and cleans, Yunitza plays games on the internet and downloads music to play to the baby.

“Working with a computer is faster and our work comes out neater. Learning things with a computer is much more fun, and we can use the spell check as well,” she said.

In 2007, the government announced an ambitious new plan that allocated an additional $200 million for 2009-2010 to reduce the number of students per computer to 10, implement a broadband network to connect every school in the country and make a quality leap in teacher training. The plan also includes expanding the recently created Mobile Computer Labs for third-graders, a set of netbooks that rotate from classroom to classroom, one per student.

It's still unclear how much of the plan will be cut short by the February earthquake. The initial plan was to meet these goals by Chile’s bicentennial anniversary this September, but with about one thousand of the country’s schools damaged or destroyed, celebrations might have to wait.