Sustaining Collective Thinking | digitalLEARNING Magazine
February 2006

Sustaining Collective Thinking

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Omar Dengo Foundation,  over the past two decades, has made partnership constitution, growth and sustainability as its fundamental goal, engaging the government, corporate,
academic and international agencies, to bring about strategic change in the  learning schemes and the appropriation of ICTs in education.

The widespread integration of technology-enhanced learning environments into Costa Rican public elementary schools began in 1987 with the creation of the National Program of Educational Informatics.  The project was conceived in a moment of growing concern for  the technological, educational and socio-economic gap that the country experienced both at the  international level  —with relation to industrialized countries—, and at the national level —among different population groups, areas and sectors within the country. As a result, the government and other leading political, social and  economic actors jointly envisioned a Program oriented to introduce  technology to schools, as a tool to
bring about strategic change in learning schemes and appropriation  of digital technologies in order to prepare the country for the knowledge and   echnology- based emerging economy.

The Costa Rican national program of educational informatics 
The Program was conceived as a key national effort, designed to impact  the education system and the Costa Rican society. From the beginning,  the computer was considered a tool to stimulate the cognitive and creative potential of children, youth and teachers.  The National Program of Educational  Informatics, Costa Rica, chose computer programming and projectbased,  curriculum-related learning strategies as decisive resources for the new student-centred learning  environment. It has also had a strong focus on improving learner’s  problem-solving and thinking skills and strengthening the interest and understanding of math  and science.

Partners involved in the program
Partnerships have made it possible to reach and even exceed the initial objectives of the Program.  At the core of these partnerships, is the collaboration established between  the Omar Dengo Foundation (www.fod.ac.cr), a private non-profit entity, and the Ministry of Public  Education (www.mep.go.cr). Other  organizations from the corporate, academic and international  cooperation sectors have made critical contributions at different moments  throughout the two decades of project existence. From the beginning, the Omar Dengo Foundation has played a fundamental  role in partnership constitution  growth and sustainability. As is evident from the  description and  nalysis of the first members involved in the initial phases (1987-1990), there has been a  ide representation of sectors  and organizations:
• The Ministry of Public Education defines education policy issues.  It also provides a linkage to  educational institutions participating in the Program and
supplies the educational  informatics tutors who lead the activities within the computer  labs, as well as the specialized personnel assigned for its implementation with students and teachers. Since this is an official  national program, the Ministry also supports the program  financially. The relationships
between the Omar Dengo Foundation and the Ministry are  framed by agreements and laws  that define the roles and responsibilities of each partner.
• The Omar Dengo  Foundation (ODF) leads the Program and is in charge of its academic, logistic and financial management. It  also conducts the training  of teachers and specialized personnel as well as the  pedagogical and technological support  actions. It provides the evaluation, research and  development components too. Likewise, it is  accountable to the Ministry and the National Controller.  ODF also facilitates  funding for the project and conducts fund raising activities to support different Program initiatives.
• United States Agency for International Development (USAID) granted the necessary funds for the launching of the program. It  also provided ODF with an endowment that was critical to guarantee program sustainability, particularly in the initial phases.
• IBM was the IT company from  which the initial computers were purchased. As part of the tender granting requirements, it also  facilitated the participation of Seymour Papert and a group of  Media Lab specialist as educational and technical advisors and collaborators.
• The Media Lab of the Massachussets Institute of Technology contributed to the pedagogical and strategic design of the Program, which was  developed jointly with other Costa Rican experts. This contribution extended far beyond the initial limits of the IBM-related consultancy period. Their major  collaboration has always been associated to epistemological and learning  issues, particularly in relation to teacher training in computer programming (Logo during the first phase and  Microworlds and robotics more recently).
• The University of Costa Rica assigned six  professors who, together with other Ministry of Education teachers, formed part of  a core leadership group that was trained at the  Media Lab and that contributed  significantly to Program design, policy, training  orientation and follow up procedures.
• Local communities are a key stakeholder. They provide the classroom, furniture, security  measures and other elements necessary for the computer labs to function. Each school’s education board and  groups of participating parents do fundraising activities and organize to comply with  these infrastructural requirements.

The partnering process
The Costa Rican government set up a technical commission integrated by experts in education, technology and finances in order to establish the  basic guidelines of the project. One of their first decisions was to create an  independent and private foundation to oversee the project. This would allow the project have greater  technical, administrative and  financial autonomy and to reduce the  risks frequently associated to  changes in  government administration. The  Omar Dengo Foundation was  thus conformed and  soon acquired its distinct and   own personality. It has played a  crucial role as the lead partner  together with the Ministry of  Public Education. ODF launched an international  tender in order to search for a  company that could supply the computers required for the Program.  It was explicitly required that participating companies suggest   edagogical frameworks and  accompanying software within  which the technology would be used.  They were also required to present  research and evaluation information as to how these educational approaches had been used in  other contexts and to document their results.It was due to the  quality of the  educational proposal that IBM  won the bid. Its proposal integrated  Seymour Papert and  a group of  specialists from the Media Lab at MIT  as consultants. In parallel, the  technical  commission set out  to raise funds for the  initial phase of the  project and obtained financial support from USAID.  The key success factors that  are at the base of this partnership  are clearly related to the vision,  leadership and commitment of  the lead partners and their  representatives. The capacity to  make technical decisions,  mplement  efficient processes and respect  strict accountability and  ransparency  measures have been critical to the  excellent partnership outcomes  and to the recognition of mutual need. Among all members, there is
a clear consensus about the  importance and effectiveness of the multi-stakeholder approach.  Multi-stakeholder partnerships  have made it possible for over 1.5benefit. This is quite an  accomplishment in a country of 4.1 million inhabitants. These  collaborations and others that have developed over time, have made it  possible to have the Program grow and evolve over two decades of  uninterrupted work. Today, the Program reaches 53.0% of students in public elementary schools  (including a large number of kindergarten children) and 72.4%  of public high school students nationwide.  Likewise tens of thousands of
teachers have been trained and have  undergone important professional development experiences. Students,  teachers, educational authorities and even parents and community  members have been empowered by a Program that stresses the  cognitive and creative potential of digital technologies within
development efforts.   

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