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A portable bridge for the digital divide

If you happen to be near the entrance to Sharon Primary School in Jackson, Barbados, when the last bell rings, you will see children toting laptop computers with the nonchalance usually reserved for old textbooks. The laptops–sturdy, shockproof models designed to survive schoolyard scuffles–are part of an unorthodox effort to eliminate the digital divide in the country's poorest schools.

Barbados is in the second year of a comprehensive seven-year Education Sector Enhancement Program to overhaul its education system. The $213 million program, partly financed by an $85 million IDB loan, aims to improve the relevance and effectiveness of the national curriculum, teaching methods and assessment mechanisms in the education system. The goal, according to the government, is nothing less than to "increase the number of young persons contributing to the sustainable social, cultural and economic development of Barbados."

In addition to human resource development and curriculum reform, a substantial part of the program involves rehabilitating existing school buildings in order to enable the installation of computers and data networks. But according to Bruce Hackett, the IDB specialist who is working on the project in Barbados, a few of the country's older school buildings present a special challenge in this regard. "Some of the schools in lower-income areas are housed in converted church buildings," he explained. "There is a single open room partitioned into individual study areas for each grade." These partitions cannot easily be wired for computer networks, and brand-new buildings are out of the question for the time being.

They laptops come with standard word-processing and spreadsheet software, plus browsers to surf the Internet. CSS also provides teachers with access to an Academic Information System (AIS) run by NETSchools with more than 24,000 curriculum-correlated websites, a Curriculum and Resource Management System and a Classroom Control System.

Children can access the Internet through the school’s server or from their homes if they have a telephone line, according to Hackett. "This has turned out to be a flexible and affordable way to introduce students and their parents to the information technology and the Internet," he said. "The children seem to like the laptops because they can take them home, share them with family members and login to the Intranet to do homework assignments."

A total of 1,148 StudyPros and 76 teacher laptops are being used at the two primary schools and one secondary school in the pilot program, according to Hackett. Three more schools are slated to come on stream in the second phase of Barbados’ education reform program. Other schools in the reform program are gradually being wired and fitted with normal desktop computers. According to the director of the reform program, Alies Jordan, the Ministry of Education is closely monitoring the implementation and impact of this innovative technological solution, and may eventually extend it to other schools, depending on the results of the pilot.

For more information about Barbados' education reform program, see links at right.

In an effort to ensure equitable access to technology in a cost-effective way, the government decided to hire CCS IT Ltd, a local information technology firm that is the Barbadian partner of NETSchools Corporation, a U.S. company that provides integrated computer-based learning and curriculum management services. As a pilot program in three Barbadian schools, CCS set up wireless local area networks and provided students with the rugged laptops, known as StudyPros, which students can use anywhere in the school building and also at home.