The end of the Conozco Uruguay tour and eduJAM! summit 2011 opening

I really have to apologize for the lack of updates here but the past few days have simply been crazy and in many ways overwhelming. So, let’s do a very quick recap of the end of the Conozco Uruguay tour, I’ll try and compile my thoughts on eduJAM! summit itself in a separate post.

On Wednesday morning everybody was a little tired as Tuesday evening was spent on dinner and dancing with most people only hitting the matrace after 2AM. So on the ~3 hour ride back to Montevideo the bus was relatively quiet as a lot of people were catching up on sleep. In the afternoon we visited a school in Montevideo’s Euskal Erria neighbourhood which happened to be one of the schools I had also visited in July 2010. After a quick tour of the school we got together with the teachers and pupils of the 5th and 6th grade classes. We went through a quick round of introductions before we (the gringo visitors) basically just started talking to them. The pupils were amazingly energetic (and cheeky) and basically overwhelmed all of us with their questions, comments, and jokes. Sam turned out to be particularly popular with the pupils wanting to speak English, Anish got to teach a few words of Hindi, and Bastien talked some basic French. We didn’t see much learning going on but had some good conversations with the pupils, figured out why we saw two or three different software versions running on the XOs, and generally had a good time. After the school visit we hung out with the volunteers of the local RAP Ceibal chapter (again the same people I had met last year). Since this happened during their weekly public meeting a handful of pupils and parents dropped by with XOs which had a variety of issues. Paolo also spent some time talking about the various difficulties with the software and security setup, maintenance issues, etc. While most of these aspects weren’t necessarily new to me it was interesting to see the differences compared to last year, how some issues have gotten resolved, and how new issues have come up.

Thursday was our official day off with lots of people catching up on some badly needed sleep, others going on a tour of Montevideo organized by ceibalJAM! volunteers, and everyone just generally being relaxed. As Pablo had set up for him and me to go onto a live TV show at 9AM we unfortunately had to get out of bed quite early. The interview itself went quite well, surprisingly neither Pablo nor I were all that nervous and contrary to our expectations we also got quite a bit of time to explain what eduJAM! was all about. The rest of my morning was spent catching up on e-mails and finishing a project in Madrid. In the afternoon I had some smaller meetings with various people to discuss a broad variety of topics and ideas and plan some of the eduJAM! summit panels.

In the evening eduJAM! summit 2011 officially started. The entrance hall of the institution where the summit is hosted was a perfect venue for what I can only describe to be a perfect opening (well, except for the quality of the translator that is;-). It was great to catch up with many of the people I had met last year as well as finally be able to meet some of the people who I had only known by their e-mail addresses and IRC nicknames. Additionally various Uruguayan people and groups had tables where they presented the work they’re doing around Plan Ceibal. Apart from learning about the latest advances of the project butía robots I was particularly impressed by two students who built an electronic pen accessory for the XO.

We ended the day by invading a bar that Pablo had recommended. The waiters were kept busy with calls for food and drinks while two dozen or so people chatted about all things OLPC and Sugar, and a billion other things…


Leave a comment »

Web-publishing EduJAM Slides! (Presentations)

Thanks to all summit speakers who continue posting their May 6-7 presentation slides here:

Special thanks also to the schools/teachers/volunteers planting their stakes across Uruguay’s map — connecting directly with other community innovators here:

Leave a comment »

Photo album on Flickr

Just a quick note to let people know that I’m making photos from the events here in Uruguay available in this Flickr album.

eduJAM! 2011 reception

Leave a comment »

Quality Education for the Rural Student

Imagine a child living in a remote rural town, located a 5 hour drive from a city of any size.  Imagine that this child attends a rural school so crowded that they are on a double session, with each child attending only four hours daily. Can a child in this situation hope to receive a quality education?

With the help of Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal, OLPC’s XO laptops and Sugar Software, and a strong volunteer support system from several sectors of the community, the appears to be a resounding “yes!”

As a retired teacher, I was very impressed by what I saw at Escuela #33 in the rural Uruguayan town of La Paloma, Durazno.  They are fortunate to have a  director (principal), Rosamel Ramirez Mendez, who is a dedicated, forward-looking, creative educator who really enjoys her job!  This was very evident in the work we saw the students doing when we observed a fifth-grade class completing the day’s assignment on their laptops.

Earlier, they had used the Poll Activity (available in the Sugar software on the students’ XO laptops) to take a survey of where the students had gone for their latest school holidays.  When we arrived, they were completing circle graphs using Turtle Art  (also available on their XOs) to illustrate the data they had collected..  Each child did it a little differently, but it was evident they understood the math concepts they were using in their work.

The value of the XO laptops for these children is made even more obvious when you learn that the school day for them is only 4 hours long.  They are on a double session with approximately half of the 200 students attending in the morning, and the others in the afternoon.  Many of the students are able to continue their learning at home with the help of their XO laptops..

Looking out over the landscape you can see many antennas set up to receive the wifi signal  bounced from the school to anyone having line-of-sight access.  Many students do have access to the internet via this system and most, but not all, have power in their homes so they can do some work on the laptops, when it doesn’t interfere with their “chores.”

So, thanks to modern technology and the help of some very competent teachers and volunteers, these rural schoolchildren are able to receive a quality eduction far beyond what one would expect.

Leave a comment »

Two school visits and a Flor de Ceibo meeting

On Monday morning we visited a school about half an hour’s drive outside of Montevideo. We were warmly welcomed by the principal and teachers, one of whom we had briefly met during the meeting on Saturday morning. One wall of the cafeteria where we met was decorated with printouts showing various projects the pupils had undertaken on their XOs since they received them in 2009.

We then went, or rather invaded, a 6th grade class and observed approximately two hours of lessons. In the first half the teacher tasked the pupils with drawing a rectangle with given dimensions in Turtle Art, then adding a second rectangle right next to it, and subsequently calculating the perimeter of the joint form. I assume it was the presence of almost 30 strangers literally clogging up the room, taking photos, and asking questions but in my opinion relatively little work was done by the pupils. Also given that these pupils were in 6th grade and had used the XOs for approximately two years already it took them surprisingly long to draw the rectangles. In the second half of the session the pupils were supposed to be working on a social sciences or history project but amidst the confusion created by our visit I neither caught what exactly the task was nor did it seem like anybody was really working on it.

For me the most interesting part of the visit came after lunch. First someone briefly introduced us to the tourism options available in the region before the teachers gave a presentation highlighting the history and development of Plan Ceibal in their school. Then we moved into somewhat of a Q&A session which lead to some interesting exchanges and some good and actionable items being added to people’s to-do lists.

Two of them – which aren’t new by any means but them being mentioned yet again certainly increased their priority – are support for printing in Sugar and the output of an XO’s screen on a projector. The former is currently simply impossible to do directly in Sugar which forces people to go through a lot of hassles to make it happen. The latter is already possible with the combination of an XO-1 / XO-1.5 with the 10.1.3 software release (or corresponding Dextrose release) and a USB-to-VGA adapter however none of the schools here in Uruguay seem to be using that software version at the moment even though some of them actually have a projector.

As on every other day plenty of interesting and enlightening conversations were had from the moment we woke up until we said our good-byes in the evening. For me it’s also fascinating to observe the different methods which people are using when it comes to taking notes, and compiling their impressions and thoughts for future use.

In the early evening we had a meeting with approximately two dozen professors of Universidad de la Republica’s Flor de Ceibo program. As an introduction we saw the same video which some of us had already seen during the meeting at ANTEL HQ on Saturday morning. We then fairly quickly moved into an extensive Q&A session where many aspects of Flor de Ceibo, its relation to Plan Ceibal, financial aspects, organizations questions, inquiries about the various student activities, etc. were explored. After a short coffee break the Flor de Ceibo participants started sharing some of the problems and issues they had encountered with the use of Sugar and activities in the field. Chris Ball and C. Scott from OLPC as well as David Farning from Activity Central were listening very closely and took lots of notes at this point. Both Pablo and Adam also invited / reminded people about the eduJAM! summit and following Sugar Code sprint because their input would be extremely helpful for the developers present at these events.

What thoroughly impressed me about the meeting was the high quality and extreme discipline that all participants demonstrated during the almost 2 ½ hours that it lasted. Especially when you consider that everything that was said had to be translated between English and Spanish which in itself was also a collaborative effort.

Of the overall very fascinating and inspiring ecosystem of communities and organizations which has developed in Uruguay as a result of Plan Ceibal I find Flor de Ceibo to be the one I can personally learn most from. As part of our activities at OLPC (Austria) we’ve always tried to reach out to universities, spread the word about OLPC, Sugar Labs, and related efforts in the ICT4E and ICT4D space, and of course try to get students to work on projects in this context. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve succeeded on a very small level given that

  • students at University of Teacher Education Steiermark have written and are writing theses around the Austrian OLPC pilot project
  • students at Graz University of Technology have worked on the Reckon Primer Mathematics exercise activity
  • a friend of mine wrote her Master thesis in International Development about OLPC and
  • we have regularly given presentations and talks about OLPC at various universities around Austria.

At the same time it’s clear that we’re light-years away from anything that resembles Flor de Ceibo but it’s certainly very useful and inspiring to hear about and learn from their experiences.

On Tuesday we were off to an even earlier start as we met at 6AM for what turned out to be 5 hour bus ride to the small city of La Paloma in the province of Durazno. I slept through the first three hours of the bus ride and the rest of the time was spent talking to Bert Freudenberg and some of the other fine folks who are on this trip.

We arrived at Escuela No. 33 shortly before noon. As it turned out they had expected us to arrive at 10AM and had specifically asked the pupils who are normally taught in the afternoon session to also come to class in the morning. So unfortunately we didn’t have much time to see what the children had worked on as they were picked up by their parents at noon.

Regardless we were very warmly welcomed by the principal, teachers, and pupils. As Adam pointed out they had literally done their homework as a map on the wall had short pieces of information about all the countries where tour participants are from. The project they had worked on that morning was drawing pie charts with the Turtle Art activity. Rosamel, the head-mistress and a very active person on various Spanish-speaking blogs and mailing-lists, then proceeded to give us a short hands-on session about some of the things she is doing with Turtle Art. Afterwards we again treated to a very tasty asado.

The afternoon session was started by two school inspectors. The first one talked about the history of the Plan Ceibal implementation in the region and about some of the efforts undertaken in the schools in the area. The second one talked about the broader context of technology development, Web 2.0, Jakob Nielsen, and a variety of other things… I’d be lying if I said that I found these talks to be very valuable however at the same time it was interesting to hear how they look at the broader context of Plan Ceibal, technology development, and education.

At the end of our visit everyone got together in a big circle in the school’s yard for some final discussions and exchanges. Unfortunately I had to give this session a miss as Alvar, Bastien, Bert, and myself were interviewed for a local radio show. As on several other occasions during this trip I served as the impromptu amateur translator for the interviews with Bastien and Bert and was thoroughly exhausted afterwards.

As I’m finishing these lines we’re sitting on our bus and headed for our hotel in another city here in Durazno where we’ll be spending the night before driving back to Montevideo tomorrow morning…

Oh, before I forget: I’ve uploaded some photos from today’s visit at Escuela No. 33 to this Flickr album. Lots of other people are also taking photos here but I haven’t yet figured out if/where they’re online somewhere.


Leave a comment »

Proyecto Aurora’s community network and distance education

Today we again had an early start into our day as we met up at Montevideo’s Plaza de Independencia at 9AM. The day’s first goal was to meet up with some of the people behind Proyecto Aurora which builds community wireless networks in some of Uruguay’s more rural areas. Already on the bus-ride to the city of Tala I had a very good discussion with David Farning of Activity Central which touched a lot of bases such as long-term sustainability of projects, the need for long-term planning when it comes to software releases, critical issues we need to start addressing, involvement of universities and students, etc.

Once we arrived in Tala we were warmly received by Edison of RAP Conecta. He and Paolo Benini introduced us to the work Sociedad de Formento Rural Tala (SFRT) has been doing in collaboration with RAP Ceibal. To say that their efforts are impressive would be quite an understatement, in fact I would describe what they’re doing as simply mind-boggling and very very inspiring. SFRT is an agricultural cooperative which was created in 1944 and has worked on a very broad set of projects in its history. With the introduction of Plan Ceibal in 2007/2008 it observed the need to also provide a network to the pupils living in its area and its cooperative members. So it set out to build a number of towers with wireless equipment to start connecting the 600 km2 area it is working in.

Now two aspects of Proyecto Aurora which I consider to be key components are:

(1) While it does provide Internet connectivity the project is very much focused on the value it can bring to the community via the “intranet” within the community which the network is enabling.

(2) Beyond just providing the physical network infrastructure SFRT is also requiring the cooperative members who are interested in having access to the network to participate in a number of training sessions. From the sound of it these are very practical. Examples which were mentioned are writing a resume, managing household finances, introductions into how to use search engines, and sessions about online privacy.

With this approach SFRT and RAP Ceibal are addressing what academia likes to call the two levels of the digital divide: lack of access and lack of knowledge about what to do with the access once it‘s available.

After learning all about Proyecto Aurora and lots of enthusiasm and questions by the tour participants we headed to another association club-house. Aside from an impressive antenna installation we were also welcomed with an outstanding asado and drinks. Needless to say a lot of meat was eaten and many great discussions were had.

After that we had initially planned to visit a school to be able to attend the May 1 festivities there as well as get to talk to some teachers. Unfortunately the heavy rain got in the way of these plans as the school festivities were canceled so rather we stopped by at a local May 1 celebration. We were well entertained by a nice band and some great dancing.

Afterwards we went back to the bus where two of the teachers we had planned to meet told us about a very interesting project they’re working on. The short version is that they want to provide secondary school education to adults who didn’t finish it when they were younger via a mixture of online and offline courses. In the rural parts of Uruguay – which account for approximately half the country’s 3.5 million population – relatively few pupils finish secondary school. This is due to a variety of factors with apparently the two biggest ones being (a) the cost of transportation to secondary schools which are often far away and (b) families expecting their children to help in the agricultural business once they finish primary school.

It is not quite clear yet whether the program these teachers are working on will actually enable their students to obtain an accredited secondary school certificate. The discussions with the responsible authorities seem to be – as always in these cases – challenging to say the least. Regardless the teachers are pressing on with their efforts, mostly based on the fact that there are a lot of people who are interested in receiving secondary school level education. It will be very interesting to see how things work out over the coming months so I’ll try and keep an eye on these efforts.

Anyway, seeing that it’s pastt 7:30PM and we’re close to arriving back in Montevideo I think it’s time to press the “publish” button…


P.S. David Farning is writing up his thoughts in daily e-mails he’s sending to Sugar Labs’ IAEP and sugar-devel mailing-lists. You can find today’s summary here.

Comments (4) »

Enjoying Dinner Al Fresco at Santa Catalina Restaurant 30/04/11

View From the Other End Of The Table at Santa Catalina

Comments (1) »