20 November, 2005

Chile and the "One Laptop per Child" program

Some Slashdotters (and probably more open-source crusaders and third-world activists alike) are complaining about the free-market minded Chilean government's decision to wait and see before adopting the "One Laptop per Child program" (OLC). The Slashdot posters in question are basing their arguments on an article on Business News Americas. In it, the Chilean government's rejection is counterposed to the not-so-neo-liberal Argentinian government's embracing of the program, thereby pitting two big players in Latin America over the question of open-source and private software. However, contrary to the implications posed by the article and the response of Slashdot posters, the matter is not as closely tied to globalization politics as it seems.

The article posted on the /. ("slashdot" in tech-geek) thread briefly quotes Hugo Martínez, director of the Enlaces program, who states that "it would be utopian to commit [to buy] a number of computers that do not yet exist," particularly seeing as "[We also have] questions about their educational use and about the contents and types of interaction that they would produce." Out of context, these statements at worst boil down to a disdainful dismissal of the program's far-reaching goals. However, unbeknownst to the /. posters in question, Martínez's statements continued to state that

"On the other hand, we feel that it is fundamental to go forward with testing of the conditions for the implementation of this project. The development of hardware in all aspects will give way to a reduction of the costs of the laptops, though the questions [that remain] have to do with their pedagogical use, with their contents and the type of interactions that will result" (translated from the original Spanish by your trusty blogger).

These concerns, then, are partly founded on the fact that the laptops will not be available until the end of 2006, but more likely 2007.

But there's another crucial aspect of Martínez's statements that's left without mention, which is the fact that the Enlaces program has been around since 1992. The Enlaces program's site states that

"Enlaces represents the beginning of a national strategy to introduce information and communication technologies in Chile. Its focus has been to open the way for equitative access to new technologies, through the integration of networks and computers in the country's educational centers. Alongside this effort, Enlaces counts on the fostering of the human factor as a key step in this process of incorporating technology, which therefore empowers educators to a great degree" (blogger's own translation).

Understandably, then, the program's mission statement places a solid emphasis on the need for a foundation consisting of human and infrastructure resources at its very center. Reasonable, right? Let's take a look at some statistical figures and facts pertaining to the program.

As of March 2005, the program operates in about 8,880 schools and highschools, with around 140,000 machines total, of which around 75,000 have been provided through the program itself (1). This represents over 3,000,000 children, which would surpass Argentina's initial commitment to the OLC program. Of the total number of educational centers, 5,729 (or 75%) have access to the internet thanks to an initiative launched in 1998. Forty-percent of the total number of schools have broadband ("high speed," in common parlance) internet access. The "region" (Chile is divided into 13) with the lowest computer-readiness comes in with 84.5% being served by the program. The machines appear to be mostly run on Windows, though I have yet to confirm this fact (Microsoft has several programs in place run in conjunction with the Chilean Ministry of Education that, among other things, offer copies of MS Office at a fraction of the price - under $4, or 2,000 Chilean pesos, per year, per PC). At least 600 will soon (if not already) run on Linux (2). The "Linux" initiative aims at optimizing the use of older computers in what appears to be most rural areas. (Linux, and the software that runs on this open-source operating system, generally demands less memory and processing capacity than its private alternatives, Windows and Mac OS.)

At this point I hope that the reader will agree that it's at least conceivable for Martínez to raise the questions he raised in response to the nascent OLC program. I also hope to help in discouraging quick assumptions by technology enthusiasts and others as to the nature of Chile's objections to the OLC program. Again, it should be said that Martínez, the director of Enlaces, is adopting a "wait and see" approach to the OLC program and that Chile plans to run a trial program that will give each child in the participating school a laptop (According to reports, the laptops will be purchased from private companies).

It's to be seen whether a program based on open-source software will accomplish it's weighty goals more efficiently that one that runs on private software. I would wager that the former will eventually have the upper-hand. I have heard of similar programs in Mexico, though these appear to be the result of more recent efforts by the government of that country. I hope to post on this topic soon.

*(1) Program's own figures, as of March 2005. A report choc-full of statistics can be found here.
*(2) Unfortunately for non-Spanish speakers, some of the links in this post (and likely many of my future posts) are in Spanish.

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