27 Apr, 2015 | Nadia

Culture and Social issues

"Could you research Simón Bolivar for me?"

I'm looking after my family's Internet Center in El Alto, and a high school student is brandishing the silver coin with which he hopes to purchase my highly valuable research skills.

"No. I already have my High School certificate," I say.

The boy looks perplexed. Why would I risk losing a client to one of the many other Internet places nearby that would be more than happy to oblige?

"There's a computer over there," I say. "You're welcome to sit down and do some research, and if you need any help, I'm right here."

I'm the annoying foreigner who refuses to do people's homework.

Disgruntled, the boy sits down at one of the computers and types "Simón Bolivar" into the Google search bar. The first hit is Wikipedia. The boy clicks on the link, highlights the text and copies it into a Word document.

"Can you print it for me?"

I sigh and print off his investigative research project, wondering if I shouldn't have just done it myself. He plays a violent war game for the remainder of the fifteen minutes his 50 centavos will buy.

According to the Bolivian Census of Population and Housing 2012, only 9.45% of Bolivian homes have Internet access. Schools are only just beginning to be connected to the Internet in fulfillment of a pre-election pledge by Evo Morales in 2010. As such, businesses that provide Internet access to the public for around 2Bs (USD .30c) an hour, serve the function of school library--a service most schools do not have--and a place for young people to connect with friends, both online and in person.

After school each day, students race each other to the Center to secure a computer next to their friends, and amid the hubbub of hollering sweaty teens, employing virtual machine guns to brutally murder one another, I feel my inner grandma shout, "Don't you have anything better to do? Go outside and kick a football or something!"

As someone involved in one of these businesses, my concern is to what extent Internet Centers contribute to learning, and to what extent they hamper it.

In a bid to find out, I asked Rusvel, who completed his high school degree last year, what happens when my young clients present their research projects to the teacher.

"The oldest teachers think we do it all ourselves because they don't know, but the younger ones know."

He explains how he used to simply print off articles found on Wikipedia or a site called "El Rincón del Vago "  ,where completed assignments can be downloaded on any topic. He would copy them by hand into his exercise book and present the transcription in class as his own work. Some teachers became suspicious.

"They know the student writes everything a bit wonky, forgets to use accents. If we copy it perfectly, the teacher knows it's too perfect and says, 'You've copied this from the Internet,' and he takes some marks off."

But even when teachers are aware of the powers of the Internet, there are still low expectations of what students are capable of. In many cases there continues to be an emphasis on rote learning and not on creation or critical analysis.

"They just have to copy it into their book by hand," says Guichi Samo, who visits the Internet Center with his children to help them with their homework. "By copying it out, they're reading it, and at the same time they're memorizing a bit. We download the information, print it, so the work is already done. They copy it into their exercise book, they hand it in, and they get their mark."

But moves have been made to change things in this regard. In 2010, the Morales government enacted a new Bolivian Education Law that focuses on "promoting scientific research for scientific and technological progress." The new law also allows for flexibility in the school curriculum. It allows teachers to adapt the content of their lessons to focus on research that is relevant to the local environment, explains Roy Villca, who is a chemistry and physics teacher at a local high school. It also allows them to incorporate new technologies in an innovative way.

Roy, for example, is using a software package in his chemistry lessons in which students can create 3D molecular structures. But teachers need to have the training, resources and motivation to use technology effectively.

In recent years, the government has been working to make information and communication technologies available to all teachers and students. The Director of Colegio Nuevo Amanecer Fé y Alegria, Edgar Aru, told me how in 2012 each of the teachers at his school received a laptop as part of the "One Laptop Per Teacher" initiative. Last year, each final year student around the country was provided with a laptop to be used in the confines of the school.

The new law also aims to train teachers with "a scientific outlook and the ability to use research methodologies and techniques," as well as "the ability to incorporate the use of new information and communication technologies into education." All teachers have been trained in the use of the new laptops, and the Ministry of Education created a website that provides online courses for them.

The government and some NGOs are also promoting initiatives to incorporate information and communication technologies (ICTs) into the classroom, but at the very grassroots level, some teachers are devising innovative ways of their own to use new technologies to motivate their students.

"Some of the younger teachers have Facebook and Twitter pages," says Rusvel. "And sometimes they say, 'I'm going to give you homework and you absolutely have to do it that day, even if there's a roadblock or a festival. If you can't come to school, take a photo of your exercise book and post it on Facebook and I'll know you did it.'"

Victor, a final year student and frequent visitor to the Internet Center, tells how some teachers are trying to use social networks to make learning fun.

"Most students access social networking sites, and I've seen that teachers are trying to use them as teaching aides. For example, the teacher goes on there and posts, 'Who can tell me what happened in the Chaco War?' And the students respond. It's a way of studying, shall we say, but it's fun."

So what of Internet Centers in all this? As more and more schools are connected to the Internet, and as more Bolivians gain access to it at home or through mobile devices, perhaps the Internet Center will cease to become such an important and highly frequented place for young people. And as teachers become more knowledgeable and adept at incorporating ICTs into learning in innovative ways, the hope is that students will find themselves wanting to do their own research, rather than asking others to do it for them.

But I find myself wondering, if the Internet Center were to die, what would the kids do after school?

Perhaps they would go outside and kick a football, like in the old days.

Photo: Nadia Butler


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