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From issue: Connectivity and the Digital Divide (Winter 2009)

AQ Feature

Digital Democracy

Ensuring that students have access to computers and the skills to use them will make Uruguay the most wired country in the world.

Illustration by Andrea Wicklund
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There is no development without innovation. This is as true today as it was during the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Our challenge in the Americas is that, while some countries are leaders in science, technology, innovation, and development, the majority are constantly struggling to catch up.

In Uruguay, we have chosen to stand with the innovators. Our goal is clear: by increasing connectivity and reducing the digital divide, we intend to take our place as one of the hemisphere’s information technology (IT) leaders.

We are already well ahead of our neighbors. According to surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s (ECLAC) Observatory for the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean (OSILAC), Uruguay has some of the highest rates of household access to telephones and cellular phones, cable TV, computers, and the Internet. But these figures obscure the continuing gap between those who have access and those who remain outside the digital revolution and the potential that it presents. When I took office in March 2005, only 29 percent of Uruguayan households had a computer. Of those, just half had Internet access.

This gap may seem strange in a country that has always boasted high levels of social cohesion and education. But appearances can mask reality. The truth is that previous governments have allowed these levels to decline. Although it has been a while since Uruguay suffered under a dictatorship, subsequent democratic governments until now have lacked a national development strategy based on economic growth and social justice.

As a citizen and a politician, but also as a medical doctor and university professor, I have argued that development is a right, not a privilege. That is why I have focused on creating a twenty-first century educational system. Since I took office, public school funding has tripled, and at the end of my term in 2009 it will reach 4.5 percent of GDP—above the regional average. Establishing high-quality schools accessible to all is a development priority. Our children must have the opportunity to succeed and to learn how to compete in the IT-based economies of the new century. Their futures and our national competitiveness depend on it.

But funding must be accompanied by innovation. In May 2007, Uruguay launched an ambitious plan: the Basic Information Educational Program for Online Learning (CEIBAL). (Its Spanish-language acronym is also the name of a tree native to Uruguay.) The project’s immediate objective is to provide all public primary school students and teachers with free laptop access. As a small country of 3.5 million inhabitants, Uruguay can become the first Latin American country to achieve this remarkable goal.

Promoting Social Justice

But CEIBAL’s longer-term objective is to promote social justice by promoting equal access to information and communication tools for all our people. The school plan lays the groundwork by encouraging active participation by both students and teachers in the Internet world. It does more than just distribute laptops: multiple government agencies and volunteers work together to provide teachers with the resources and training necessary to adapt instruction to a digitized classroom. This allows for a more dynamic learning environment that encourages innovation and creates a culture of lifetime learning.

This makes CEIBAL different from previous efforts to bridge the digital divide in Uruguay. It combines the distribution of computers with a program to train teachers in the cognitive skills needed to use IT for maximum benefit. It is not oriented toward creating an IT-friendly environment merely inside the classroom, but also outside: students are expected to take laptops home so that the computer can then be shared among family members.

That in turn provides the foundation for thenext phase of our strategy: to bring Internet access to all Uruguayan homes. In order to accomplish this, CEIBAL will use the latest innovations in connectivity—asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) and 3G/Edge cellular technology—and take advantage of engineering advancements such as point-to-point links. If we are successful, Uruguay will be the most connected country in the world.

We are implementing the plan one step at a time. To date, we have delivered 151,918 XO computers—low-power laptops that operate with flash memory and a Linux operating system—to students in public schools in Uruguay. By the end of 2009 one laptop will be delivered to each of the 301,143 students and 12,879 teachers in Uruguay’s 2,064 public schools. Students with mental, visual, hearing, or motor disabilities—as well as their schools—will also receive computers specifically tailored to meet their needs. CEIBAL’s total initial cost, financed entirely by the Uruguayan state, is $100 million (each computer costs $220). In addition to that, the government will spend $15 million annually for the program’s maintenance and continuity.

The next step is to extend the distribution of computers and training of teachers to the almost 6,000 rural, public secondary education centers. The teachers will be able to acquire laptops at subsidized prices and on easy payment terms. We anticipate that approximately 8,000 out of almost 15,000 teachers will participate.

Private schools are also taking part. Since their students come from a higher socioeconomic background, computers are not free but can be acquired at a very low price. Still, we anticipate that around 25,000 of the almost 47,000 private school students will receive computers next year.

Beyond its ambitious scope and multiple efforts in the classroom, CEIBAL also seeks to broaden society’s access to information and knowledge. Its website (www.ceibal.edu.uy) provides educational and other important materials for students, teachers and the community at large, with the goal of allowing Uruguayans to interact and share knowledge on line. The website will coordinate with other areas of government to provide information on health care, preventative health, transit safety, environmental protection, and other programs.

Can CEIBAL be replicated elsewhere in the hemisphere? Not without major adjustments.

CEIBAL was created to respond to the particular dynamics of Uruguayan society and its educational system. But it can still serve as a reference point for others. With this in mind, the CEIBAL Plan Research Center—with the support of national and foreign universities and research institutions— will begin operations by mid-2009. Its mission is to share the plan and to build on it while supporting the adoption of similar models in other countries.

Applying Technology to Democracy

Linked to the implementation of CEIBAL is another landmark government initiative: the 2008–2010 Uruguayan Digital Agenda for an Information Society. This is a development strategy based on combining innovation, technology and knowledge with social inclusiveness. Similar to e-government initiatives in other places, a key objective is to increase the access of citizens —including the most marginalized—to government services and public institutions through the use of the Internet.

At the same time, technology will enable Uruguayans to participate in the design, discussion and evaluation of public policies at the national and municipal levels. Citizens will have a more direct voice in government; and in turn, government is expected to be more responsive to citizen demands. This new dynamic is imperative in today’s society, where government actions must have institutional and technical legitimacy along with social support.

Overcoming the digital divide is more than just a matter of technology, budgets or infrastructure. It is also about creating a culture of citizenship with clearly defined rights and responsibilities.

Recognizing individual rights is the foundation of a truly democratic society that fosters long-term economic and social development. In order to accomplish this, governments must equip their citizens with the tools, knowledge and capacity to benefit from the opportunities presented by technology and the global economy. They must, in other words, look to the future.

That is why ensuring that our economic growth is tied to technological innovation is a central goal of my government. Since 2005, the Uruguayan economy has grown 23 percent. But investment has especially jumped in sectors that benefit from technology advances, such as agro-industry, biotechnology, port services, real estate, and tourism. More than 150,000 jobs have been created and, at the end of 2008, our unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent—the lowest in decades. In less than four years, our poverty rate has decreased from 31 percent to 21 percent.

But we still have work to do. We have yet to achieve our goal of greater social equality and cohesion, both critical factors for reducing poverty. But building bridges across the technological divide is an important step in helping to get us there.

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