An Interview With Daniel Castro About OLPC in Costa Rica


Resumen en español al final del artículo

When I saw all the interest in the OLPC XO Repair Data from Costa Rica which we published last week I thought that this was a good opportunity to learn more about Fundación Quirós Tanzi's OLPC project there. Therefore I'm very happy that we can now present this interview with Daniel Castro (Fundación QT's Executive Director) where he among other things shares his experiences of giving teachers Intel Classmate PCs instead of XOs, the impacts the project is having on the schools and their communities, and what Fundación QT has learned from other OLPC projects in Latin America.

I hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I did and please don't hesitate to post any follow-up questions you might have for Daniel in the comments below.

Daniel Castro

OLPC News: What is your role at Fundación Quirós Tanzi and how did you and the organization originally get involved with OLPC?

Daniel Castro: As Executive Director, my role is to lead the organization forward according to the mission and vision set forth by our Board of Directors, to make sure that our operation is sustainable and scalable, and to ensure that the needs of schoolchildren are best served, within the scope of our program. This entails significant work in building alliances within the private sector and with the public sector.

Javier and Mariella, our founders, got interested in the program from what they saw of Nicaragua's Fundación Zamora Terán which works with OLPC. Although we did look at alternatives as part of our early research process, OLPC has been a partner ever since the foundation started.

What would you describe as being the main goals of your OLPC project from an educational perspective?

Our program has two educational goals: developing technological fluidity, and improving on 21st Century Skills, specifically problem solving and collaborative work.

Costa Rica has always had a strong focus on education as a social equalizer, but our system has not moved fast enough from teaching children facts to helping children learn skills and abilities. Our economy has shifted from an agricultural base to a services and technology base, and we strongly believe that the three areas we seek to address are the best way to ensure that our new generations can enjoy the benefits of this shift.

You started distributing 1,500 XOs to students in February 2012. However I understand that you already started with teacher trainings back in July 2011. Can you tell us more about the preparations that took place prior to the students receiving their XO laptops?

Our program has two core areas: on one side is the educational component, and on the other the technology that supports it.

For us, technology is not the goal, but our main tool in having the educational impact that we seek. Preparations in 2011 centered around these two areas, making sure the school's infrastructure and school personnel were ready for the program to start. Each school in Conectándonos enjoys open wireless connectivity, and we had to have that ready in the 15 schools. Each school has a router per classroom connected to a switch, which then goes to a server that is connected to the Internet. We also had to prepare and configure the teacher's computers, and the XO's themselves with our custom image. These two tasks consumed a couple of months. Each parent and teacher has to sign a contract, and collecting those is no little task.

On the educational side, as this was our first experience, we had to develop the program's pedagogical framework and training materials. Working with our partner, the Ministry of Education, was key in this process. Something we have learned is that doing teacher training so many months prior to the deployment is not a good idea. We've had to invest heavily in further training efforts because a lot of what we tried to transmit was lost since it was not being put into practice.

When speaking to you last year you also mentioned that while the students would be using XO laptops the teachers received Intel Classmate PCs. Why did you decide to go with such an approach and what are your experiences with it so far?

There were two key reasons behind our decision to use Classmate PC's with teachers. The first was that we did some usability tests where we had adults do different tasks on the XO's and the keyboard and screen size were a source of complaint. The second was that the Ministry of Education has an administrative program, PIAD, which runs only on Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access, so we thought we could provide a dual benefit: a netbook running Sugar and Windows.

The experience has not been as good as we thought. First of all, despite many weeks of programming and debugging, we failed to get Sugar to function perfectly; some of the activities don't size properly to the netbook's screen size, some of them don't run at all, and sharing does not work. Furthermore, by giving teachers a computer with Windows, it is hard to motivate them to use Sugar, since they naturally fall back on what they feel more comfortable on. Finally, a lot of these teachers already have personal computers where they run PIAD, so one of the original reasons behind the decision is not as relevant as originally thought.

We have discussed the pros and cons a lot, and we are currently analyzing whether to change the statutes to allow the teachers to chose which computer they wish to receive.

What other notable or unexpected experiences and insights have you found since you launched the XO distribution in February?

Many. We've had parents going back to school because they never learned to read and write and they want to be able to use the XO's, children who in four months have already programmed fully working games on Scratch, teachers who originally hated the program who now say that they couldn't live without it.

How schools are viewed by the community has changed as well. Parents, children, and high school students now gather around the school to take advantage of the Internet connectivity on wekdays and weekends. We've had some schools tell us that teacher sick leaves are down, that violence in the schools has gone down.

The main realization we've had, which may sound obvious, is that beyond the specific educational impact, this program is helping create digital citizens. Nowadays, a big part of being an active citizen, an active person, is what we do online. Think about blogs, Facebook, movements to change political leaders, systems, how news is now transmitted, how people make their voices heard, how friends are made and kept, how things are bought and sold. If we are not part of this global network we call the Internet, or if we do not have the skills to take advantage of it, we are not part of the conversation. The realization that the impact we can have is this deep has really reshaped the way we view what we do.

Your project in Costa Rica is one of the newest OLPC efforts in Latin America. Did you try to integrate the experiences from the projects in Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay, Nicaragua, etc. into your implementation plans? If so, what are some of the key lessons which you've learned from these other projects?

We've incorporated some specific aspects from a lot of these programs, as well as some general lessons.

One of the things we realized early on was that everyone talked about how giving computers wasn't enough. Typical issues, or possibilities for improvement were connectivity, teacher training, community involvement, and follow up. It was clear to us that the programs were having an impact, and that this impact could be strenghtened if these issues were addressed.

With this knowledge, we built Conectándonos on five principles, which we do not compromise on for the sake of numbers: Access (one laptop per child and teacher and appropiate connectivity for the school), Teacher Training, Technical Support, Educational support, and Community Involvement. Providing these services is of course expensive, and we constantly look to our partners for support in different areas.

Some specific things we've learned recently and are trying to replicate, for example, is the Flor de Ceibo and RAP Ceibal volunteering schemes in Uruguay, and Nicaragua's approach to educational support, where they give special training and a monthly stipend to local teachers to push the program's educational agenda forward. This is good both in terms of impact and budget.

Especially since the much-discussed second IDB evaluation report on Peru's "Una laptop per niño" program there have been many discussions about how to measure the impact of educational interventions such as OLPC projects. What is your approach here?

Evaluation is definitely something we've discussed a lot. A few months ago, we seriously analyzed different proposals from national and international bodies offering to evaluate our program. However, there was a clear gap between what could objectively be evaluated and what programs like ours are designed to do. We are of course collecting and systematizing different statistics, and looking closely at anecdotal and qualitative experiences, but we've decided that investing in an evaluation process like Peru's is not the best way to go for us at this particular point in time.

This is not to say that these efforts are not important. We have definitely learned a lot from the IDB evaluation, and it has affirmed our belief that OLPC programs can have their biggest impact in terms of cognitive skills and not in terms of grades in traditional school examinations, which is precisely what we are aiming for.

What would you describe as being the biggest challenges that Fundación Quirós Tanzi and your OLPC project needs to address over the next one to two years?

We are a new organization, less than two years old, so the biggest challenge we need to address is financial stability. Both the funds for new XO's and our operating budget come entirely from private donations, so this is a big concern. In terms of our program, we need to strengthen and create partnerships that can help push Conectándonos forward, and perfect an operational model that allows us to reach more children without weakening the five pillars that we deem are essential for success.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer our questions.

Thanks a lot for the opportunity.

Resumen en español: Viendo todo el interés en los datos de reparaciones de XO en Costa Rica pensé que sería una buena oportunidad para aprender más sobre el proyecto de Fundación Quirós Tanzi allí. Así estoy muy feliz de ahora poder publicar esta pequeña entrevista que hice con Daniel Castro (Director Ejecutivo de Fundación Quirós Tanzi). Entre otras cosas comparte sus experiencias en dar maestros Intel Classmate PC en vez de XO, los impactos que el proyecto tiene en las escuelas y sus comunidades, y que cosas Fundación QT aprendió de los otros proyectos de OLPC en America Latina. Debido al hecho que es un texto bastante largo y la falta de recursos no podemos traduccir la entrevista en este momento pero si alguien quiere hacerlo estariamos encantados de publicarlo acá.


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Resumen en español al final del artículo [more]


"The second was that the Ministry of Education has an administrative program, PIAD, which runs only on Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access, so we thought we could provide a dual benefit: a netbook running Sugar and Windows."

Any Xo can certainly run gnumeric and there are way to mirror the function of 'access' with various databases. I dont know if this is a personal program or a client app for a web database. In either case, I could not imagine that it could not be re-made to work as a gnome or Sugar app. I dont know if you have more non-linux requirements. Has this been considered.
The point about keyboard and screen size is interesting. But you can get an external keyboard if its needed. As for screen size, that is a more difficult issue if this is really worth the extra cost of the classmate. At this point, you can get models of the xo-1.75 with the mechanical keyboard.

I have an intuition about how the kids would view the xo more positively if the teacher uses it.

Thanks kevix. As for the Ministry's program, I'm sure it could be adapted somehow, but this is out of our reach (it's a completely separate program led by a separate team within the Ministry and an independent foundation). I do believe they are working right now on switching to a cloud based program that would overcome the limitation of the person having to have Access.
As for your point with the keyboards and the extra cost, I completely agree, having the new XO 1.75 with mechanical keyboard is certainly something that tips the scale.