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NGO Paraguay Educa, has given out over 9,000 laptops to students in ten elementary and middle schools, in cooperation with the One Laptop per Child Foundation. (Photo: Paraguay Educa)
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Perspectives

Education: Paraguay Bets on ICT


Paraguay is using information technology to boost education.

 

BY GABRIEL SANCHEZ ZINNY

 

Much of the world had written off Federico Franco when he ascended to Paraguay’s presidency, given the widespread doubts about his legitimacy. It seemed he would have to spend most of his time dealing with the repercussions of his controversial ascension to power, and the outlook for any type of serious reform or legislative progress was dim.

 

Surprisingly, however, the interim president has so far made his mark by implementing social reforms that President Lugo, who faced a hostile Congress, failed to enact. Since taking office, Franco has racked up accomplishments, ranging from advancing land reform to pushing the country’s first personal income tax. Most recently, Franco’s government was able to secure the passage of a bill creating the National Public Investment Fund (FONACIDE). This legislation states that 30 percent of the $360 million in revenues from the Itaipú hydroelectric dam, which Paraguay shares with Brazil, will be spent on education. This will mean close to $40 million a year spent on outfitting schools with better information and communications technology – known at ICT among education specialists.

 

Paraguay, with a population of some 6.5 million people, enjoys a fast-growing economy and a GDP of $35 billion. But the country still faces daunting challenges in delivering quality education, a key factor in sustainable growth and social development. Despite the significant progress Paraguay has achieved in expanding access to education, a lack of quality is a persistent problem, and the urban-rural divide is as large as ever. Drop-out rates are nearly 50 percent higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Barely five percent of upper secondary students reach the performance level expected for their grade, as measured by the state evaluation body, SNEPE (el Sistema Nacional de Evaluación del Proceso Educativo).

 

Greater access to ICT is essential in educating the new generations of children who will be responsible for propelling Paraguay’s development in the coming decades. Some institutions from civil society have been pioneering the inclusion of technologies in the education system. In particular, the NGO Paraguay Educa, has given out over 9,000 laptops to students in ten elementary and middle schools, in cooperation with the One Laptop per Child Foundation (OLPC). The program provides each student with a laptop, developing their computer skills and permitting their teachers to integrate technology into their lesson plans. This way, students learn to work with greater independence and autonomy, and teachers can better cater to the individual needs of each student.

 

The initial positive results have made reformers eager to broaden the program. Paraguay Educa has seen significant improvement in students’ performance and classroom participation. According to the results of a 2010 Stanford study, students in the “Phase 1” OLPC deployment averaged higher scores than students in other nearby schools – in the 3rd grade the performances were 5.7 percent higher in reading and 7.2 percent higher in math; in the 6th grade they were 4.3 percent higher in reading. Outside the classroom, the results are also positive: both students and parents are increasingly interactive in improving the quality of education and the quality of life within their community.

 

However, expanding these one-to-one technology programs and online learning faces difficulties regarding connectivity. In Paraguay, Internet access is costly and unevenly distributed, since the infrastructure is concentrated in Asuncion, the capital. At present, only 22.7 percent of Paraguayan homes have a computer and only 19.3 percent have an Internet connection. Likewise, it is estimated that no more than 33 percent of educational institutions have computer equipment and less than 26 percent have access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates in the region. This digital divide is a major contributing factor in the inadequate development of the country.

 

Modernizing education through better access to the Internet, based on functioning computers and sufficient technical support, will help to improve pedagogical processes, facilitate the inclusion of marginalized social groups, and reduce educational inequality. ICT creates new opportunities for workers by improving their technical competencies and skills, and drives common prosperity by increasing economic performance and development in the nation as a whole. Paraguay’s FONACIDE Fund is an important first step in transforming the nation into the kind of knowledge society that will prosper in the 21st century.


Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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