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Toward Digital Commons through Digital Bridges in the Chilean Educational System
This article describes the main strategies that Chile, a developing country with a strong open market orientation, has been implementing during the last fifteen years to enhance its educational system for global knowledge sharing. The first step, performed during the last decade, has been to bridge the external and internal digital divides by providing the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources to schools and empowering teachers to use ICT across its national educational system. The present step focuses on improving the quality of skills of its school children, as well as of the adult population at large, in order to allow them to become active participants in a global and changing world.
A Cultural Divide
The growing importance of ICT in all societies is setting developed nations in a race for high investments in technologies and skills. “Middle-of-the-road” countries, such as Chile, struggle to participate in this race, partly due to fewer resources, but also because of a lack of a critical mass of citizens who perceive the evolving societal trends as relevant to their lives. This is the real gap, a cultural divide, deeply rooted in traditions and in attitudes towards technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The expanding digital knowledge base, accessible through ICT, can only worsen this divide among rich and poor unless the development of a digital commons becomes a political and educational priority.1
Chile is probably one of the few Latin-American countries with a digital agenda (www.agendadigital.cl). This agenda has been agreed upon by a large and representative group of leaders from both the public and private sectors, has measurable results, and is backed by financial resources and political will. An important portion of this agenda is an ample and long-standing ICT element in education policy, which will be described next.
Educational Reform and ICT
Education has been a national priority in Chile, both politically and financially, since democracy was recuperated in 1990. New resources have been focused toward improving the equity and quality of the educational system under a comprehensive educational reform.2, 3 Today, teachers earn a better salary than in 1990 (a 180 percent increase in real terms), schools have a new and more appealing curriculum, and the schools’ infrastructures have been significantly improved. Among these reform initiatives is an ICT-in-education strategy, called “Enlaces,” whose aim is to introduce ICT into the schools’ culture by working primarily with the teachers and their professional needs, as well as with the community surrounding the schools.4
Since Enlaces’ inception 15 years ago, the program has made significant strides. Today, more than 95 percent of the Chilean students, from the Arican border on the north down to a remote school bordering Antarctica, have access to the digital world inside their school facilities. This is no small achievement, when one considers Chile is struggling on all fronts to be recognized amongst the “developed world club” by the time of its bicentennial in 2010.
Enlaces, started as a pilot project in 1990, was elevated to a national program in 1995. Just this year it has been integrated into a separate entity, the Department of Education and Technology, inside the Ministry of Education. Although most Chilean schools still have important needs in terms of physical and human resources, and many demonstrate very low learning achievement according to international standards (i.e., PISA and TIMSS evaluations) a clear improvement path has been established. Perhaps at a pace too slow for what is considered the norm for the digital age, the educational system is nonetheless moving ahead under the auspices of the Enlaces program.
The results from the implementation of the Enlaces programs are fairly impressive. For example, today 95 percent of Chilean schools can offer ICT to their students and teachers, including the majority of the rural schools.5 Only some of the smaller, more isolated rural schools are still without ICT. More than 100,000 teachers (85 percent) have participated for more than two years in ICT training for their personal, administrative, and pedagogical needs. The new curriculum states explicitly why and how schools ought to use ICT to help transform their facilities into modern learning environments.
However, these results should not overshadow the fact that Chile still has a long way to go before achieving world-class status in using ICT in its schools. For example, the student/computer ratio is still above 30, high bandwidth is scarce, and most teachers do not have enough skills or practice to properly use these resources for their pedagogical needs during a normal work day. Some of the country’s schools actually have extremely scarce ICT resources, or no Internet access, or a teaching/adminstrative staff that make it very challenging for their students to use the technology. In these schools, ICT is certainly “oversold and underused.”6
Enlaces is presently building a new skill level for effective global knowledge sharing. In this endeavor, the international experience with ICT in schools, reported in the last few years, has been particularly relevant in reformulating the goals and expectations of the programs. Most reformers report that changing schools’ and teachers’ practices have been more difficult than expected. ICT by itself has a marginal impact if not properly inserted in a school’s culture along with the proper incentives, support, and resources to sustain its existence.7,8,9
Schools as Bridges over the Digital Divide
What is more compelling is the data associated with the types of uses given to ICT in various low-income urban and rural schools.10 It is in the schools in poor or remote sectors that we see evidence that the digital divide seems to be decreasing in some ways. Students and teachers in these sectors are strong users of ICT resources for their personal and learning needs. It is interesting to note that the types of uses are NOT different from those of students in private schools. Low-income students in secondary schools who submit to ICT skills tests have similar performance scores when they are compared to students from schools serving students from higher income families. And participation in collaborative projects among schools from different countries is a popular activity for students, even amongst the most isolated schools in inner Chile.
A policy that stimulates schools to open their ICT labs evenings and weekends, and offering free ICT courses to parents and other community members, has helped to reduce the ICT access gap within the Chilean population. Today, more than half a million adults (mostly low-income) have been trained. More than a thousand schools offer regular, state-subsidized ICT courses to community members in well-equipped laboratories with high bandwidth Internet. This is in alignment with the state effort to provide as many services as possible through the Internet. For example, citizens can use online services to pay a variety of taxes, apply for state funds, obtain different state-provided certificates, and, in some places, even book a medical appointment at the local hospital. This effort aims to include the normally underserved portion of society, the ones that usually will not have access to ICT, or may not have the means to acquire the necessary skills to use them on their own.
Strategies for Success
In evaluating the overall success of the Chilean case study of ICT in education, several factors must be considered. The following is a summary of the most pertinent factors.
Developing nations often struggle to complete state initiatives that need to go beyond common political time-frames. It is often the case that a new regime or a new Minister of Education will modify priorities and redirect resources to programs that might be more politically rewarding. Program stability through various political time-frames is therefore a luxury and, fortunately, this has been the case withChilean education. Reform so far has endured three Presidents and seven Ministers of Education. Despite many problems and few resources, the country has achieved some impressive educational results thanks to this stability.11
ICT resources and skills have become an integral part of the educational reform policies. As a consequence, official documents and plans for reform of ICT prac tices contribute to the message that ICT is here to stay and ought to be considered a regular sight in the educational landscape. Teachers and head masters clearly perceive this message and help with the sustenance of the ICT resources. For example, in the last few years, more than 30 percent of all ICT resources in schools have been purchased by the schools themselves and not provided by the state. This percentage increases every year and so it is with the demand for more Internet bandwidth as well as for more specialized, subject oriented training where ICT ought to play a role inside the classroom.
Gradual scaling of ICT in the system
Once Chile began (in the mid-nineties) to expand its ICT policy from a regional to a national level, with the goal to reach more than 80 percent of the schools by the end of the decade, a national support network was established. This network, consisting today of 25 universities throughout the country, is in charge of teacher training and technical capacity support to the schools. The network is coordinated and financially supported by the Ministry of Education. It has allowed the universities to develop and sustain knowledge on ICT and education during the last 15 years. As a consequence, today a growing number of education-based research projects include classroom uses of ICT.
Enlaces is not only helping to gradually transform the school culture using ICT, but also that of some of the university cultures as well. Many school faculties began to realize that new teachers would need to be prepared to assume different roles in the schools and take advantage of the new teaching and learning resources available at work. This has been a slow movement, triggered mainly by education students that entered university after attending schools with ICT for many years, in which ICT was a normal learning resource. These students began to demand similar opportunities at the university, starting an underground movement, that with time has gained momentum.
Open to private initiatives
In addition to the network of 25 universities for teacher training and support, Enlaces is open to private initiatives from different institutions. Many projects that focus on ICT in education all over the country are presently supported, not only by the Ministry of Education (at least in part), but also by a variety of sources. These include independent foundations and companies, such as Intel and Microsoft. As a consequence, today Enlaces is a large sample of small and medium scale initiatives searching for new ways to take advantage of digital technologies. The next steps for Enlaces are to stimulate and support more of these initiatives, and to replicate the best practices in order to support expansion into other school contexts.
Despite many structural problems, scarce resources, and cultural challenges reflected by a less than well educated population, Chile has managed to start an educational transformation whose aim is to place the country among those that can take advantage of the digital resources. Many factors have helped in this transformation, but political stability and consistent policies have made the deepest contributions. Chile still has a long way to go before claiming a position among developed countries. In the meantime, a growing number of initiatives in the digital world are signaling that the country’s digital landscape is indeed changing and preparing itself for global knowledge sharing.
1. World Bank, Lifelong Learning in the Global Knowledge Economy: Challenges for Developing Countries (Washington D.C.: The World Bank, 2003).
2. Chilean Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Reviews of National Policies for Education (Chile: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2004).
3. C. Cox, Editor, Politicas Educaciones en el Cambio de Siglo. La reforma del sistema escolar de Chile (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 2003).
4. P. Hepp, “Chilean experiences in computer education systems,” Education in the Information Age, C. de Moura Castro, Editor (New York: Inter-American Development Bank, 1998).
5. P. Hepp and E. Laval, “ICT for rural education: A developing country perspective,” Learning in School, Home and Community: ICT for Early and Elementary Education, G.M.Y. Katz, Editor, (Boston: Kluwer, 2003).
6. L. Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. (London: Harvard University Press, 2001).
7. R. B. Kozma and R. McGhee, “ICT and innovative classroom practices,” Technology, Innovation and Educational Change, R.B. Kozma, Editor, (Eugene, Oregon: International Society for Technology in Education, 2003).
8. R. L. Venezky and C. Davis, Quo Vademus? The Transformation of Schooling in a Networked World (Chile: Chilean Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2002).
9. R. S. Earle, “The Integration of Instructional Technology into Public Education: Promises and Challenges,” Educational Technology (2002).
10. Kozma and McGhee, op. cit.
11. Chilean Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, op. cit.