An Interview with Miguel Brechner About All Things Plan Ceibal


Resumen en español al final del artículo

After our recent Q&A with OLPC Australia's CEO Rangan Srikhanta and the subsequent interview with Daniel Castro about OLPC in Costa Rica I discovered that I really like this format for learning more about what's going on in the many OLPC projects around the world. As such I am planning to continue interviewing leading people behind these efforts on a semi-regular basis.

Today I'm very happy that we can present this interview with Miguel Brechner (Centro Ceibal's President). Among other things he discusses the three requirements to develop a project such as Plan Ceibal, the project's status quo and cost, the impact of improvements in its maintenance system, and some plans for the future.

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 Miguel in the comments below.

Miguel Brechner (by: Casa América)

OLPC News: What is your role at Plan Ceibal? And how did the initiative come about in the first place?

Miguel Brechner: I am the President of Centro Ceibal. Centro Ceibal was created by law to be the Center for technology and education, responsible for programs to support education technology and social inclusion in public education.

The initiative came about in October 2005 when I read the idea of One Laptop per Child of Nicholas Negroponte. I contacted OLPC and in June 2006 David Cavallo came to Uruguay to explore the feasibility.

In December 2006 President Vazquez launched the plan and committed to have one laptop and connectivity for all children in public education before 2009. All purchases were made by tenders. OLPC won the tenders for the delivery of the machines for primary school.

Much has been said and written about Plan Ceibal and the fact that Uruguay is the first country which took the vision of "one laptop per child" and put it into practice. However could you still provide us with a short overview of the status quo of the initiative, how many pupils and teachers have received laptops, whether you have saturated secondary schools, how many schools now have Internet access, etc.?

We now have 570.000 laptops in the hands of students and teachers covering 1st year of primary school to 3rd grade secondary school and technical schools. 99.5% of these students have internet in their educational facility and 50% don't have to walk more than 300 meters to have free internet from Ceibal. We have fiber optics in 40% of the urban educational facilities, and plan to cover all (urban) by the end of 2013. We have 2635 schools and secondary education connected to Internet, we have 2600 servers, more than 700 public places with free internet, 300 shanty towns with WiFi.

We have trained around 26.000 teachers. We have deployed robotic kits for secondary and technical education giving 1 kit to every 4 students. In 2012 we are changing the first XOs that we deployed in 2008 for new machines.

The costs of the project is less than 5% of the cost of each student in public education.

Naturally Plan Ceibal has attracted the interest of many governments and organizations from around the world who want to implement similar projects. For a while now you have been making your knowledge and experiences available to them via Plan Ceibal Servicios which I understand to be a sort of consulting service. Can you tell us more about this effort? I'd be particularly interested in what kind of common misconceptions you initially encounter when being contacted.

To develop a plan like Ceibal you need political leadership, a vision and a very clear understanding of how to implement it (meaning the institutional design for implementation).

Many countries are interested very much in the idea, but it becomes very complicated for them to implement when these three things are not taken into account. Ceibal Services is part of Ceibal and its mission is to help the different countries in solving technical issues, design issues and implementation issues.

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. Looking at the evaluation section of Plan Ceibal's Web site it seems that the majority of materials there were published in 2010 and before. So what is your take on the role that evaluation plays or should play in ICT4E projects such as Plan Ceibal? And what do you consider to be relevant metrics to decide whether Plan Ceibal has been successful?

The impact measurement has to be analyzed in different aspects. Plan Ceibal has impacts in social areas, cultural areas and educational ones. Some things are so new that no one has been able to come yet with how to measure them.

How do you measure that thousands of children know how to program in Scratch or eToys? how do you measure that thousands of children have learned how to play music, or take pictures or film? How do you measure the families that were able to access to information they needed because of the laptops their children have? How do you measure the self esteem increase of children that have received the laptop and is the only personal thing they have? How do you measure the new role of teachers by which they have to lead and orientate much more than give information that is available.

I could continue with many more examples. There is no question that the social and cultural impacts in Uruguay have been huge. Today 88% of the population thinks that Ceibal was either very good (71) or good (17) for the country.

In the educational side, things take longer time. The online evaluation has been adopted by public and private schools. Independent research is being done on different learning levels by local and foreign universities that we hope to have available next year. Sugata Mitra is publishing a paper about his experiments in Uruguayan schools, in which among other things he says that Uruguayan children that did his experiments read and comprehend equal or better than their counterparts in UK.

We are very open to anyone coming to do research in Uruguay about Ceibal and its impacts.

In May 2012 we commemorated 5 years since our pilot started. We are just at the beginning of our road map. Ceibal has been a disruptive innovation in many ways.

Ceibal will allow us to personalize education, to look for different ways of facilitating life to teachers so that the use of technology is natural to them. Ceibal empowers the students in a way no other tool in the past could do it. There are many questions still not answered but this is the road of innovation.

During this year we are also working with Michael Fullan and his team on technology education and change. We hope to get more answers and also raise more questions.

One of the challenges which Plan Ceibal has faced is the fairly large percentage of XO laptops which is broken at any given time. This led you to improve your maintenance system in early 2011. Do you have any up-to-date information about how these improvements have worked out?

The problem we had was not that the laptops break, and we were aware that even as they were designed against breakage, they would still break.

We had designed a system by which the broken laptops were sent for repair to a central location or a local location (for free), and were delivered to the children back at their home. This was a very good theoretical model. Then we realized that many people didn't have the money to take two buses to go to the post office to send the laptop for repair, and/or couldn't reach the post office when it was open.

Since then we go to every school in the country to repair the broken laptops. We go either once a week, once every two weeks or once a month. This has improved very much the situation and today we have approximately 13.3 % of machines that are out of service.

To solve the problem of children that have the machines broken, we also have delivered extra laptops to every school so that the teachers can use these laptops in class.

In October of last year you gave a presentation in Madrid where you said that the cost of Plan Ceibal was $400 per child for 4 years. This is a significantly higher figure than the $276 which you had mentioned in late 2009. What were some of the factors which led to this increase? I'd also be interested in your current 4-year TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) estimation and how this breaks down into its components.

The TCO is 400 us$ for 4 years, this makes 100 us$ per year per child. This figure is very solid and has been the same for the last two years.

In 2009 we calculated the cost of implementation and operation for the period 2007-2009 and it was 248 per student, we added some estimated future costs and came to that figure. It was an estimation based only in the laptop costs.

We have introduced more services, more hardware, and more software that has put the figure in 100 us$ per student per year. This figure includes, the laptops, the replacement after 4 years of use, the network, the spare parts for support, the internet costs , fiber optic costs, robotics, the video conference we are installing in 1000 urban education facilities, the platforms for LMS, books, mathematics , reading and comprehension. It also includes the training we give to teachers, administrative costs and many other things.

We are in the middle of changing our accounting system to a new ERP. I can give you the break down by the end of the year. The computer cost is 45% of that cost, internet and connectivity is 5%, spares 5%.

What are some of the key plans and activities you want to implement over the next year or two?

We have started a proof of concept project for teaching English. As we don't have enough Eenglish teachers in the country, we have started a program by which the class teacher works with his students with the laptops and a software for English learning and he is supported by a remote native English teacher connected to the class via video conference using fiber optics.

We have started robotics in all secondary schools, technical schools, and full time primary education schools.

We have built an Online Evaluation System. In 2012 we took more than 500.000 tests on mathematics, reading and comprehension, and science. This covers 3rd to 6th grade of primary school. By the end of the year we will also have an adaptive test.

We are also building nationwide adaptive platforms for mathematics and reading and comprehension.

Last but not least we are working with the publishers to have all textbooks for free in digital format.

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

Miguel Brechner on Twitter: @mbrechner

Resumen en español: Después de nuestras recientes entrevistas con el CEO de OLPC Australia Rangan Srikhanta y con Daniel Castro sobre OLPC en Costa Rica, he descubierto que me gusta mucho este formato para aprender más sobre lo que está pasando en los varios proyectos de OLPC en todo el mundo. Como tal, tengo la intención de seguir entrevistando a los líderes de estos esfuerzos en una base semi-regular. Hoy estoy muy contento de que podamos presentar esta entrevista con Miguel Brechner (Presidente de Centro Ceibal). Entre otras cosas, habla sobre los tres requisitos para desarrollar un proyecto como el Plan Ceibal, el estado del proyecto y su costo, el impacto de las mejoras en su sistema de mantenimiento, y algunos planes para el futuro.


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When I first read about OLPC and learned about what it does and doesnt do, I wondered about such things as repair, student testing and the sharing of knowledge between pilots. Plan Ciebal has developed systems to address those and more. It has become a resource for other pilots, something I thought OLPC would do as it has its roots in the FLOSS world where collective knowledge resulted in Wikipedia. But their effort is just as good and its outside of OLPC, making it more able to stand-up to criticism and it is not just theoretical ideas, but based on dog-fooding. As long as their are around, other pilots can look to them for support and governments can be less weary about what an OLPC implemention will look like. Thank you to OLPC news, you are the only source of information relevant to the OLPC world, again I expected news from OLPC but if someone volunteers internally to do it or externally, the result is just as good.

In their book "Wired for Innovation: How Information Technology is Reshaping the Economy", Byrjolfsson and Saunders review research that shows that ICT has the biggest payoff in companies when it is accompanied by a cluster of complementary changes, like organizational restructuring, process re-engineering, up-skilling of the labor forces, etc. And it often takes 5-7 years after the ICT investment for the big payoff to be realized. I would like to ask Prof. Brechner what he considers the 'cluster of complementary changes' that are needed in education for OLPC to have a maximum impact?

is there more information in the web to find about what Mr. Sugata Mitra is doing in Uruguay ? Any links / blogs / talks ?