In the Hinterlands

Educational Technology for Urban Schools

Sao Paulo (BR), November 2009 - Betina von Staa is a doctor of Applied Linguistics at the Catholic University in São Paulo, Brazil. She is also research coordinator for Educational Technology at Positivo Informática, and she has also worked in face-to-face and in distance teacher professional development. Here, Dr. von Staa offers her insights into the impact of educational technology in her country.

What is the situation in Brazil today? Which kind of technology is new and currently being used by teachers and students?

Betina von Staa: Brazil is famous for being a country of contrasts, and this is also true for educational technology. We have schools with the best equipment possible, and we have both public and private schools with no equipment, software, or access to educational portals whatsoever. In general, the federal government has a program to equip each urban school with a computer lab and high-speed Internet by 2010.

Apart from that, some municipalities or states make their own investments in technology. We also have a "One Laptop per Child" federal pilot project and one of the five municipalities chosen to lead the pilot project to invest in the purchase of one "Classmate" laptop for each of their students.

So, depending on where you go, a simple computer may be something completely out of the ordinary for students and teachers, and in other places, having access to interactive boards or a private laptop may be something normal - in public as well as in private schools.

The case we will be presenting at ONLINE EDUCA Berlin, 2009 is of a municipality in the hinterlands of Brazil. In this area, before our project, only about thirty percent of the teachers had ever used a computer for any reason at all and students very rarely had access to a computer at home.

We offered the eleven urban schools of this municipality a set of first-rate equipment, which included desktop computers, laptops, interactive boards, document cameras, and specific solutions for schools: E-Blocks, Aprimora, and an Educational Portal. E-Blocks is a multi-sensorial learning program, and Aprimora is a learning system that includes learning objects and a teacher management system. Everything was new for everyone, but the sudden access to such high-quality technology motivated teachers, students, and even their parents.

What changes in the role of teachers?

Betina von Staa: Teachers who have access to technology in class have a tendency to be less teacher centered and more student centered. With technology, teachers have access to a vast amount of resources for students to read and interact with, as well as resources for students to create a variety of materials. Moreover, classes in which students can see high-quality images and manipulate texts are more interesting, and students can visualize concepts more easily. As a consequence, they interact better, asking more relevant questions and engaging in debate.

Which mindset does a student need in a technology-based learning scenario?

Betina von Staa: Actually, even the students who do not have access to technology at home are curious and feel comfortable trying out the various buttons of the equipment and trying to solve the problems that are posed to them. They enjoy sharing their success and doubts with their classmates and teachers. This mindset is completely adequate for learning with technology. However, what surprised us all during our project, for the simple reason that it was too obvious for us to spend time thinking about, was that a student needs more reading skills to use a computer in class than to copy from the board.

One of our first difficulties was to learn how to deal with students who evidently needed more reading skills to be able to navigate through the program and to solve the problems. The issue ended up being resolved more or less by itself: students were motivated to use the computers, classmates and teachers helped the ones with more difficulties, and they are now gradually developing better reading skills.

Are students more motivated to learn when they have access to technology?

Betina von Staa: They are certainly very motivated. Principals and teachers notice immediately that school abandonment rates diminish strongly when there is technology at school. Students also miss fewer classes. I believe this is so because computers are part of the real world, and they make the school more meaningful in general because students notice that to be able to use a computer is something useful that they will need out of school, too.

Moreover, school-specific software makes learning curricular topics much more interactive, more meaningful, and more fun. And apart from this, when teachers develop new teaching practices, which is a constant side-effect of our technology integration programs at schools, they tend to think more deeply about their own work, their successes and their frustrations, and they end up developing strategies that are more motivating for students as a whole.

What are the biggest problems for teachers and how are they solved?

Betina von Staa: The biggest difficulty tends to be to find a new way to prepare classes. Teachers need to spend more time at school to use computers, interactive boards, or even to use the Internet and the school portal. Another difficulty is to put the new ways to teach when using technology into practice.

Our policy at Positivo Informática is to offer courses for teachers to understand the relevance of the resources, so that they themselves decide to try the equipment out. We also have assistants who visit the schools regularly whose task is to help teachers out at the moment they have difficulties, to help to set up the computers, and to prepare the lessons. Teachers react very well to this model and visibly develop new teaching practices.

More details on the situation in Brazil will be presented in the session "Shift Happens - Going from Teacher to Learner Centered" on Friday, 04 December 2009, 11:45 - 13:15, room "Potsdam I"