Thirty-three fifth-grade students crowd into a classroom at a public elementary school in Cuajimalpa, a poor district on the outskirts of Mexico City. Trucks and buses rumble past the window, making it difficult to hear, but the students snap to attention when four of their classmates stride to the front of the class and take charge of a $5,000 multimedia teaching station. Two of them command a personal computer while the other two stand on either side of an interactive whiteboard, steering the class through a textbook lesson.
With a click on an icon, they summon up a movie about the natural wonders of southern Mexico; a hyperlink leads them to Encarta encyclopedia for audio and video clips of animals from the region. Then, with the help of their teacher, the class composes a proverb and corrects the grammar on the screen.
"School is a lot more interesting now and I think it's really cool that we are learning how to use computers," says Oscar Carrasco, 10, whose father works as a security guard and who, like most Mexicans, has no computer at home.
This is Enciclomedia, the Mexican government's ambitious program to introduce multimedia teaching to schools throughout Mexico. Over the past three years, the government has spent more than $600 million digitizing textbooks, packing them with links to video and audio archives, and installing multimedia teaching stations in 145,000 fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms from the jungle of Chiapas to the Sonoran desert.
Another $1.5 billion has been committed to run the program for the next four years, with an additional $900 million to expand it to 42,500 seventh-grade classrooms. Experts say that it's one of the biggest efforts in the world to use digital technology to revitalize teaching.
Enciclomedia is the brainchild of Felipe Bracho, 56, an Oxford-educated mathematician who was instrumental in bringing the Internet to the National University of Mexico in the late 1980s. He recruited Steve Rodriguez, then a computer science student, to design a platform, and they showed a prototype to President Vicente Fox, who asked them to roll it out nationwide as quickly as they could.
Fox, whose election in 2000 ended seven decades of authoritarian rule, embraced Enciclomedia as a way to shake up Mexico's hidebound educational system, with its heavy emphasis on memorization and rote learning. "This program allows us to make classroom learning more interactive and therefore more exciting and significant to kids," says Bracho.
Although multimedia learning is advanced in other countries, Mexico started with an advantage that no other country has: its 46-year-old program of government-produced textbooks, 300 million of which are distributed free to primary and secondary students each year. Because of the common nationwide curriculum, it was relatively simple to digitalize the proprietary content.
Enciclomedia then obtained free material from government agencies—interactive maps and charts from the National Geography & Statistics Institute and films on the country's many archeological sites and museums from the National Institute of Anthropology & History.
Now the creators of Enciclomedia are rolling out an innovative interactive platform to teach English to the country's 20.4 million elementary and junior high school students who attend public schools. Designed with ELLIS, a Salt Lake City-based company that creates software for English-language instruction, the program enables teachers who don't speak a word of English to teach the class, learning along with the students.
A pilot program at 168 schools in half of Mexico's 32 states showed students averaging 82% scores on exams taken just four weeks after starting their English instruction. The program starts nationwide in January. It's badly needed—few Mexican educators speak English well enough to teach it, yet Mexico's economy is so closely tied to that of the U.S. that English is fast becoming a requirement for many manufacturing and service jobs. "The results show that we can do amazing things with this technology," says Bracho.
While Enciclomedia is certainly impressive, it has had its share of problems. Many Mexican primary schools are in precarious shape, missing windows, doors, and in some poor regions, even walls. Others lack electricity and Internet access. Local authorities must ensure that suitable, lockable classrooms are available to protect the equipment from inclement weather and thieves. In many towns, parents anxious for their children to learn about computers paid out of their own pockets to improve schools.
Teaching the Teachers
Ana Rita Domínguez, principal of the Cuajimalpa school, says power surges, outages, and a leaky roof wreak havoc with equipment. And there are security issues. A year ago, thieves broke into the school's media lab, taking five desktop computers and leaving 10 others inoperable. Fortunately, the seven Enciclomedia systems were untouched.
Another problem: Many Mexican teachers have never used a computer and can barely manage after a one-day training course. "They give us this amazing equipment but many of the teachers are ill-equipped to take full advantage of it," says Domínguez. "They feel insecure, especially when the kids have to show them how to make it work."
Maintenance was also an issue, especially at schools in remote locations. But after buying the first 21,000 multimedia stations, the government decided to lease the rest of the stations from vendors who are paid only when the equipment is working. Those companies formed rapid-response tech-support teams throughout the country, which seems to have solved the problem.
And, while many education experts applaud Mexico's initiative as forward-looking, they note that the country's poor education indicators are unlikely to improve unless major curriculum reforms are carried out. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development, only 40% of Mexican students graduate from junior high school with sufficient writing and math skills to compose a letter or do a simple calculation.
Although the average number of years of schooling has increased from 6.6 to 8.2 since 1992, many students quit because what they learn seems irrelevant to their lives. That's why Enciclomedia was first introduced in the fifth and sixth grades.
"Students today need to learn problem-solving and critical analysis skills, and they're not getting that from the Mexican education system," says Carlos Ornelas, an education expert at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City. "I like Enciclomedia because it will allow us to offer education for the 21st century, using technological advances without pushing teachers aside."
"Active and Engaged"
After just two years, it's too early to evaluate the true impact Enciclomedia will have on Mexicans' educational performance. David Cavallo, who works with the MIT Media Lab's One Laptop per Child program, says Enciclomedia, while interesting, will have a much bigger impact if the technology can be supplemented with radical modernization of the curriculum (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/06, "A Crusade to Connect Children," and 6/21/06, "For Brazil's Poor, a Digital Deliverance?").
"Kids learn best by being active and engaged, not just having stuff presented to them," he says. "There is a lot of money going into Enciclomedia. If it were my budget, I would focus on making the content as innovative as possible, with the kids helping to construct it." Steve Rodriguez, 29, who designed the original Enciclomedia platform before going on to earn a Masters degree in artificial intelligence, now is director of research and innovation.
A Good First Step
He's putting the finishing touches on an updated version, which will provide accessibility for blind, deaf, and physically handicapped students starting in the 2007-08 school year. It also will provide instruction in five of Mexico's 62 indigenous languages to reach the 10% of Mexicans for whom Spanish is a second language.
President Fox, proud of the program, has donated an Enciclomedia multimedia lab to each country in neighboring Central America. And education experts from Egypt to Brazil have visited Mexico to see whether the program could work for them. Although other countries may have tighter budgets than Mexico, Bracho believes the investment is worthwhile.
"This is going to radically reduce the digital gap in Mexico, because within a very short time, any child who graduates from primary school will know how to operate a computer," he says. That's the first step in making Mexicans more competitive.