At a recent social occasion with several other couples, I discovered that four members of the gathering were teachers. I asked them about the news that the SEP is opening a bid tender for 1.14 million tablet computers for fifth graders in fifteen states. Amidst laughter and exclamations of disgust, I asked again: “The census of Mexican schools found that 82% of elementary and secondary schools have no Internet connection. Shouldn’t they install Internet first? What good is a tablet without connectivity? Reactions were swift and convincing: “First they should install electricity, water, bathrooms, drainage, floors! You don’t have to climb the farthest mountain in the state to find schools lacking basic infrastructure. There are a number of them right here in Pachuca!”
The history of SEP givaways of digital equipment has been rocky. Last month (February 2015) the report of the Supreme Audit of the Federation (ASF for its initials in Spanish) for fiscal year 2013 was published. This was the year that the SEP first gave out laptops. 240,000 were acquired for students in fifth and sixth grades in three states: Sonora, Tabasco and Colima. The ASF pointed to multiple irregularities in the purchase and distribution of this equipment.
- They didn’t work. The Linux Operating System is slow and prone to freezing up. Some laptops didn’t turn on and others only worked for a year.
- The users were unaware of any guarantee or of a customer service number for the laptops.
- The ASF confirmed that the SEP did not provide an orientation program for their optimum use.
- From 1,687 surveys completed by sixth grade students came the following conclusions: maximum use was once a week, only when required by the teacher.
- After declaring the bid tender vacant, the SEP adjudicated the contract directly, spending three million 840 thousand dollars more than the total price offered by the winning bidder. (http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2015/02/19/politica/006n1pol)
Again in 2015 the SEP plans to give away computer equipment. This month the bid tender will be published for the purchase of 1.14 million tablet computers at a projected cost of US$99 each.
These four teachers were right in pointing out more urgent school priorities than computer equipment. However, that does not negate the need for all Mexican students to acquire information and communications technology skills. So we come back to the question: what good is a tablet without Internet? Even the 18% of schools that are connected don’t have enough megas to support Internet use by multiple students at the same time.
Consider some statistics about Internet use in Mexico: (www.amipci.org.mx)
- Of 113 million Mexicans, 51.2 million are Internet users. This number has been increasing each year by 11 to 16%.
- 49% of users connect with their smart phone.
- 46% of users are of lower-middle socioeconomic status, and 7% of lower SES.
- On average, users connect to the Internet for 5 hours and 36 minutes daily.
Trends point to a rapid increase of Internet use among the majority of Mexicans with only the most marginal classes suffering from “the digital divide”. Every indication is that, if wi-fi is installed in schools, only the poorest students would not be able to take advantage using their own digital device. Would it be possible to target the neediest students to receive tablet computers through a program like Prospera, which also has personnel and systems for follow up and evaluation of results?
The federal government published its National Digital Strategy in 2013. It promises Internet access to all Mexicans by the end of the current presidential period (2018), by way of 250 thousand wi-fi hubs scattered throughout the country. But distributing tablet computers before ensuring connectivity and training for proper use seems to be a false step. The National Digital Strategy has no practical plan with starting references and concrete intermediate steps to achieving its ambitious goals. According to Alejandro Segovia, voice on the vanguard of digital inclusion, “The National Digital Strategy is no more than a compendium of good intentions.” Meanwhile, tablet computers costing a hundred million dollars will be used in homes in fifteen states to participate in social networks and electronic games, and to download music. Use will be sparing in schools without Internet, without teachers trained in digital teaching strategies, without electricity, without bathrooms….