Frances Rafferty meets an architect of Portugal's digital learning revolution, Mario Franco
Portugal may not have much to cheer about at the moment as it struggles with its economic woes, but it did allow itself a small hurrah for the news that it has increased its international ranking in the latest PISA tables of educational performance.
And taking some of the credit is the bold e.escola scheme created by the Government to provide every pupil and teacher in the country with a laptop and access to broadband.
Mario Franco is president of the Foundation for Mobile Communications. His organisation, created by the government, comprises three mobile operators, Vodafone Portugal, Portugal Telecom and Optimus (Orange), and is a public/private entity. It was his job to spearhead the e.escola project which began in 2007.
He said: “We do not have the evidence yet to make a direct connection with the scheme and the PISA result. But there is lots of anecdotal evidence that there has been an improvement in the students’ skills at learning.
'98 per cent use the computer for schoolwork, presentations and research'
"My personal opinion is that it has had a significant impact. Surveys have shown that 98 per cent of pupils say they are using the computer for schoolwork and for presentations and research. Also, PISA has a new category that includes reading digital texts and I think there must be a definite link there.”
In 2005, only 31 per cent of the Portuguese households had access to the internet and there was only one computer for five pupils at school. Prime minister Jose Socrates decided to invest heavily in a “technological shock” to jolt his country into the 21st century.
To date, the scheme has cost €1.5 billion. The business model used to finance the project meant that overall the learner contributed 40 per cent of the cost, the mobile companies another 40 per cent and the government 20 per cent. The contributions from families are means tested and it is free for children aged 6 to 10.
The cost can vary from €20 to €50 a month depending upon income and the initial cost of the laptops was €150. For those on the lowest incomes it is free.
One of the pay-offs has been that parents also have access to the computer and are getting involved with their offspring's homework. It also means that children were finding themselves being sent to bed early, so that their parents can get online.
Some schools opened on Saturdays so that parents could learn how to use them. The scheme soon became a national success and major topic of conversation in the coffee shops and bars. A rural village without broadband boycotted the European elections as a protest: internet access is now seen as vital as running water and electricity.
Mr Franco said: “Rather than sitting around watching soaps and soccer, people see the laptops as another source of entertainment. The pupils are looking up where the new members of their football team have come from. It adds a social dimension to learning. Ministers made a big splash at the launch of the scheme, visiting schools to promote it and it quickly became very popular.”
'Pupils now see schools as places for innovation'
The government backed the laptop scheme with a massive expansion of interactive whiteboards in the classroom and training for teachers. Mr Franco said: “There is the capacity to make lessons so much more interesting if teachers can incorporate videos and footage and a wide variety of images and user-friendly information in the classroom. There is a lot of rich content that can bring a subject alive.
"It is better for the pupils and it also puts teachers back into the driving seat. They are able to choose the content they want to support the learning and can tailor it to their pupils’ needs. It is also important because pupils now see schools as places for innovation.
“One of the main pillars of the scheme is to develop learning relevant for the knowledge economy. If Portugal is to compete globally, we need a workforce that has the skills and tools to operate in a world where communication, networking and problem solving are paramount. We need to be able to update our knowledge all the time.
"Our young people are learning to use technology, emails and social networking sites. They are learning to gather information and intelligence as part of their school work and part of their social life. The whole range of technology can be employed, from smartphones and tablets and networks such as Twitter and Facebook. I have an app on my phone which gives me a new English expression each day.”
During a mass demonstration of teachers last November the teachers said they had two reasons to thank the prime minister: for unifying them in opposition to him and for providing the computers that helped them organise the action. He said that it had not been a good day for him, but he was pleased that they were all using their laptops.
Towards the end of the interview, Mr Franco’s phone rang. “I must take this,” he said. It was hot news. The Government had given the go-ahead for the next phase of e-escola scheme, which will now focus on content.
His smile said it all: the technological revolution rolls on.