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Chile's wired classrooms

Nearly every classroom in Chile has a computer. But is anyone using them?

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.