The UK's use of ICT in schools could be leap-frogged by Mexico, writes Dominic Savage
While education ministers and officials in Westminster were wringing their hands, bemoaning the rate of ICT uptake in English schools and questioning the value of technology, the Mexican government was surveying the international scene.
The Mexican government quickly recognised that the UK was way ahead in the extent to which ICT was used in schools, and the proportion of lessons that were delivered with a technology input. But it was also aware that the benefits of this ICT intervention were obvious, clearly evident and more wide-ranging than the narrowly defined, standards-raising agenda of England.
The boldness of the decisions that ensued could become legendary. As 2000 approached, Mexico's population was around 100 million, one third of whom are under the age of 15.
Mexico has developed its education system dramatically during the 20th century: by 2000 there were eight times as many pupils in schools as in 1950; and the 1990s saw an extension to the years of statutory schooling.
The levels of investment to achieve these developments are now being directed at ICT, as the transformational agenda for the coming years.
There are two major strands to Mexico's approach. The first came from a recognition that 27 million schoolchildren could not be given individual PC access overnight. Mexican educators were, however, convinced that interactive whiteboards would bring quick delivery of ICT to classrooms and fit comfortably with a sensible rate of development of teacher skills. The decision was therefore taken to put interactive whiteboards into all 155,000 secondary school classrooms. A pilot scheme was implemented in 2004, and UK manufacturer Promethean delivered 4,000 boards and related software as a proof of concept. The main project is now at procurement stage.
The second development was the Enciclomedia project, designed to deliver a complete content solution to schools. The government publishes its own national text books for all subjects and these can all now be made available in digital versions for use through the curriculum.
Initially, this did not sit comfortably with the creative and open-ended approach that decision-makers saw to be effective in the UK and elsewhere.
Looking into the project, there were initial concerns that Enciclomedia seemed to be specified as simply a way of digitising the set text books for the whiteboard screen. However, it has become much more than that. The scheme is a partnership between the Mexican government and commercial content providers, in particular from the UK, with potential for its expanded use through Latin America.
It still retains a rigid structure, designed to suit Mexican teachers who are not subject specialists and who deliver the complete curriculum to their classes. The service is therefore designed as a series of numbered lessons, for each grade and in each subject area.
Theoretically, it would be possible for the education ministry to know precisely what lesson every class across Mexico was doing at 9am on a Tuesday morning. In reality, the service is being delivered with anticipated weekly progress charts, which will doubtless have the effect of constraining all but the most adventurous teachers. However, whether the media-rich materials will win over the rigid structure has yet to be seen.
An important key to the rapid progress of the Enciclomedia project is that it has been driven by the Instituto Latinoamericano de la Comunicaci"n Educativa (see panel, left). It was set up by the UN in 1954 in Montevideo.
Its headquarters are now in Mexico City from where, with TV and radio studios, and a software development team, it has expanded from being the satellite broadcaster of educational programmes to the whole of the South America, to taking ownership of the largest repository of Spanish-language content in the world.
As is often the case, it is one or two champions who set such a project alight. In this case it is Dr Felipe Bracho, from the ILCE, and external consultant Dr Raul Medina Mora. They offer Mexican teachers a clear vision of the future of the project, but whether that vision is what will inspire teachers is as yet unclear.
Certainly, the whiteboard pilot has received great acclaim, encouraging the full phase. We can be certain that Mexico, having got the ICT bug, will not let go of the benefits that technology has to offer both its teachers and pupils.
Dominic Savage is director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association
* Mexico's population in 2005 is 106 million. While an adult literacy rate of 90 per cent is claimed, the OECD figure for 15-year-olds is 7 per cent (OECD average 31 per cent). It is the world's 9th largest economy, but is rapidly seeking greater inward investment to develop its economy. It has a federal system with 33 states (32 plus the Federal District of Mexico City).
Much of the impetus for development is from the states which are each responsible for their own industries. The state of Veracruz, for example, worked with Besa (British Educational Suppliers Association) and the AOC (Association of Colleges) to deliver a $35m project to update the skills curriculum and provide equipment and training for the Veracruz FE sector.
This was successfully completed in 2004.
* The Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP) is Mexico's Education Ministry www.sep.gob.mx
* The Instituto Latinoamericano de la Comunicacion Educativa (ILCE) is the Latin American Institute for Educational Communication, now with a mission statement "to improve education through ICT". Working across Central and South America it could be equated to UK ICT agency Becta, with a role to deliver on behalf of SEP in Mexico, and by extension to the continent.
* The Consejo Nacional de Fomento Educativo (National Council for Educational Development, CONAFE), is effectively an agency of the Mexican ministry set up to support education for disadvantaged groups ranging from rural communities to the handicapped. It is operating with about 30,000 communities, assisting 300,000 students. Part of its funding is from development investment, such as the 2004 World Bank project which is valued at $500m. Part of that project is to provide two computers and software, with the necessary furniture, into rural schools.