Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Inés Dussel

Earlier this summer, I shared with you some of my experiences in Buenos Aires where I was a speaker at the VI For Latinoamericano de Educacion, hosted by the Fundacion Santilla, an event attended by education ministers and educational researchers/policy makers from many of the Latin American countries. My host for the event was educator and public intellectual Inés Dussel who is one of the co-authors with Luis Alberto Quevedo of a new white paper exploring the impact of new media on education in Latin America, Educacion y nuevas technologias: los desafios pedagogicos ante el mundo digital. I was deeply impressed by Dussel and her colleagues: she is highly engaged with the work we've been doing through the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiative, as well as the debates taking place in South America around these same topics. I wanted to be able to share more of her perspectives with English-language researchers and educators in hopes of brokering more conversations between educators in the North and the South who are confronting the ways that rapid media change is reshaping the lives and interests of their students.

While I was in Argentina, you released a significant report which sought to explore the impact of new media on educational practices in Latin America. What were your major goals for this project?

The report was commissioned by the Organization of IberoAmerican States (OEI) and the Foundation Santillana, which is affiliated to a major publishing house in the Spanish-speaking world. They organize annual conferences that bring together Ministers of Education from throughout the Southern Cone, educators, and media people. It is an important venue for public policy and debate in education.

The 2010 Forum, on which you were the guest speaker, was devoted to the pedagogical challenges of IT technologies in the region. Luis Alberto Quevedo and myself were asked to write the discussion paper, which actually turned into a 60+-pages report. Both Luis Alberto and myself have been working on these issues for a number of years, and run together an online course on education, visual culture and media designed primarily for educators. Above all, we share an active engagement with public debate in and around media, both in public and commercial media, although Luis Alberto has a more sociological take on this and I bring a pedagogical concern with what people learn from their experiences with the media.

Our goal with the report was to provide a broad frame that helps organize a discussion around the different alternatives that are being explored either by public policies or by the schools themselves in the introduction of IT. We talk about four major strategies: a) organizing computer labs in schools, b) getting one laptop to every child (1-to-1) either by joining the OLPC initiative or through major commercial firms, c) having portable carriages with laptops for planned, alternate usage in classrooms, and d) introducing electronic boards in each classroom. Each strategy has different assumptions about the extent to which IT should permeate the daily life of schools and of course imply different costs and mobilization of resources.

In the report, we were also interested in taking a look at the production of content, especially the work done by teachers with the use of blogs or video production for educational purposes, and by the Argentinean Ministry of Education, which has done an interesting TV series for rural schools called Horizontes (Horizons) whose impact on school practices we want to investigate. These schools usually have only one teacher with multi-grade classrooms, so IT technologies can be a great help in supporting teachers who usually exhaust themselves in their daily work.

We could only get a glimpse at content issues and DIY media production in the report but it seems promising, and we are currently doing research to get a better understanding of what is going on. And finally, we made a review on the changes on teacher training, looking in particular at changes in curricular contents, and discussing whether there are new teaching figures appearing in the landscape of schools (IT specialists or audiovidual assistants, among others). So, as you can see, the scope was broad and it calls for more research and more writing, which is the step in which we are currently engaged.

Which models have gotten the greatest traction in Latin America and why?

So far, the most extended strategy in the region is to equip computer labs, but research shows that, while it was helpful in the 1990s to get at least some teachers interested in IT, today it tends to confine the novelty to a marginal place in the curriculum and does not contribute to a deeper discussion on the big changes brought about by digital culture in the production and circulation of knowledge in our societies. Also, it has been noted that computer labs usually get trapped in the micro-politics of schools, with power games around who's got the key or privileged access to the lab (the same can be said about any innovation in schools, of course, but the concentration of computers in one space contributes to a more centralized struggle around access and control).

There is also a particular Argentinean context that has to do with the scarcity of resources: the first reaction of school principals and teachers when they get computers or even books is to lock them off so that they are not lost or ruined by usage. This sounds absurd, but it has to do with an entrenched learning that in schools you don't get good things too many often, so you better preserve them, even though this might mean not using them at all...

So, as we all know but tend to forget, innovations and new technologies in schools have to negotiate with multiple levels of adaptation and with different school dynamics that produce unexpected effects. Sometimes they are able to mobilize creative, wonderful energies and forces in the schools, and sometimes these effects are undesirable. When involved in the innovations, we tend to forget about the latter.

The second alternative, which is actually becoming the most common nowadays, is the 1-to-1 strategy of equipping every child with a netbook. In Uruguay the Plan Ceibal, effective since 2007 and based on OLPC, has been very successful in doing that with all elementary school children in public schools (around 320,000 students, ages 6 to 11). Uruguay is a relatively small country, with a flat land, and is one of the most socially egalitarian in the region, so in many respects it has not gone through the challenges of connectivity that other countries are undergoing right now, especially when there are high mountains with blind spots for telecommunication, lots of isolated villages, or heavily marginalized groups with a predictable feeling of resentment towards State policies (which might derive in high levels of theft or destruction of equipment), challenges that countries such as Argentina, Chile, or Perú are facing. Argentina's government has recently started a program called ConectarIgualdad (ConnectEquality) that will provide 3,000,000 secondary school students in public schools with netbooks, manufactured by commercial firms. It is probably the largest single investment in the region, and we are all eager to see how it will work.

The third and fourth alternatives (portable carriages with laptops and smart boards) are being implemented in small scale, and more research is needed to understand their effects. Both seem interesting ways of making a smoother transition into the digital culture than the 1-to-1 strategy, because they are closer to the way in which classrooms are organized today. But apparently the 1-to-1 option is the route that the educational systems are taking in our region. It might be interesting, though, to keep these other possibilities in mind, as we don't know yet how effectively the 1-to-1 strategy is going to work, and also because we don't think this should be an "either/or" option: school systems are large conglommerates of people and institutions and they should be able to incorporate new media through many different strategies that might be useful for different purposes.

What are the goals of Latin American governments in seeking to expand access to new media?

Our reading of initiatives like the 1-to-1 option is that they are great strategies for digital inclusion, and the main effects are not only to be seen on children's lives but on their families'. In Uruguay and Argentina, the fact that the netbooks are going to public school children means that they are helping to bridge the digital gap in terms of access (middle and upper classes have fled to private schools some decades ago).

There's an ad from the Plan Ceibal in Uruguay that is rich in images about the social progress that rural children will make with their laptops. The song is performed by Jorge Drexler (Oscar winner with the film The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevara's youthful journey across South America) and says something like this: "I want to be a sailor/ on the Austral sky/ without getting away from my haven/ under the shadow of my ceibal" (which is a common tree in the pampas). The symbolic aspect of having an opportunity for growth and development without being forced to migrate to a big city or to a foreign country is something that is really strong in the Latin American context, and points to a transformation in the economy and the politics of our societies. I want to stress the complexity of the symbolism that is being mobilized: it is conceived as part of the rights of every citizen; it also has overtones of deep quests for social justice in Latin America and it implies an affirmation of local development not in a nostalgic mood but with hope for the future. This is a major change, and, from my point of view, quite an interesting and promising one.

Surrounding these initiatives there is, however, a significant lack of discussion about what it will mean for schools and classrooms to have children connected to individual screens, presumably moving at their own pace in a rich environment with multiple alternatives and pathways to be followed. This sounds fantastic on one level, but it is also terrifying for most teachers who have no clue about how to handle these new situations.

A person who is doing research in Uruguay told me some days ago (two or more years after they started) about the kind of problems teachers get when some students are not able to connect, which sometimes can happen to almost 50% of the class. The netbooks might have software or hardware problems, and at any rate teachers are not prepared to deal with them and do not have a technical aid at hand. Thus, the classroom sequence they prepared most likely starts to sink. When you encounter this kind of problems, you cannot simply tell the students with failing equipment to shut up and let other children work (in fact you can, but this won't make things any better!). There are things to be done in these situations, but what I mean is that teachers should have a repertoire of alternatives that they don't have yet.

The training they are receiving is on software and, as far as I know, there is no organized training or discussion about the pedagogical situations they are facing. This is something that could be dealt with if there were more concerns about pedagogical issues and about the skills and practices that are needed to implement these changes.

There is also not much reflection on the demand for new content and sequences for teaching that this change will place on teachers and school administrators, and unfortunately there has been no significant investment so far to put up to this challenge. In educational journals and in mainstream media there are lots of apologetic talks on the "School 2.0," most of the times in de-politicized terms, that propose an ideal of a direct (un-mediated) access to information and knowledge and that assume the model of the business websites for participation. In this view, with the Internet 2.0 children will (finally!) be free from the domination of the teacher and the institution of schooling, and the rhetoric promises that, instead of having ill-trained teachers, young people will be able to access any site and get all the expert advice that they want from top scientists and thinkers.

The mainstream rhetoric is no different, at least from what I've read, from what you hear in the U.S. or in Europe. I have many problems with these arguments, among them, the derogatory view they have of actual schools and teachers and the uncritical privileging of expert knowledge, but probably the largest difference lies in the assumption that there is an access to knowledge that is un-mediated by existing social knowledge or institutions.

Let me give just one example of this difference, referred to the type of production children and young people do with digital media. As Sonia Livingstone, Mimi Ito and Julian Sefton-Green have shown in their work, tyoung people's uses of digital technologies are not necessarily creative, but tend to be shaped by their own culturally-mediated practices with existing media. For instance, some years ago the Ministry of Education developed an interesting program on short-film making with digital media (camcorders, simple editing programs, a notebook) in low-income schools in the northern provinces of Argentina -the ones with the highest levels of exclusion and poverty, and lower performance rates in schools. The program was led by a great team that included popular educators and young filmmakers (interestingly, Argentinean film industry is booming and the film schools are producing many graduates who have trouble finding a job, so teaching is actually an option for many of them, and while this is bad for the young graduates, this is a great opportunity for schools to involve people from the creative industries).

During its first year, the program was very open about the kind of topics and styles that students could use, and the short films that young people produced were all in the line of TV reality shows, with topics such as drug addiction, juvenile crime, teenage pregnancy, etc. The aesthetics was mimicking that of the TV shows such as Cops or alike. Most of these young people lived in small villages with different problems than the ones narrated by these sensationalist shows, but the students, when left on their own, had a hard time imagining other narratives or alternative aesthetics than the ones they learned from the TV shows (Julian Sefton-Green and David Buckingham's work in the UK show the same thing). So, after discussing this development, the second year of the program the organizers decided to ask the students to produce short films based on their dreams and with a surrealistic approach. The range of genres and of topics was much more interesting this second time, when actually the framing was more clearly defined in a top-down manner.

For me, this example speaks about the inescapable connections between the kind of productions and uses that young people do with new media and the cultural industries. When I say this, I do not intend to demonize cultural industries; but being naïve about the kind of constraints that are at play is no good either. I like very much Mimi Ito's Engineering Play, because it shows all the nuances of media production in the case of videogames, the different genres, but also all the range of practices in media use or consumption by young people. What I want to stress is that the most likely outcome of this "non-mediated" (which in fact means non-mediated by schools or teachers) access will be in fact mediated by young people's experience with the media outside schools, which is far from being pure or uncontaminated by social class, cultural habitus, etc..

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She's currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.