How Uruguay Can Inspire Other Countries

Versão em português

With a clear goal of reducing the population’s digital inequality, Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to deliver portable computers to each of its 300 thousand students in Middle and High School in the territory’s 2,300 public schools. The initiative, called Plano Ceibal, was born in 2007, inspired by MIT researcher Nicholas Negroponte’s NGO One Laptop per Child. Every school has internet connection, machines are replaced every four years, and the country has been raising the amount of community centers for internet access or open Wi-Fi.

Before Ceibal, only 5% of low income families had access to computer and internet. Six years later, this index has gone up to 80%, practically the same of wealthier families. A study from the United Nations puts the country in first place in the digital inclusion and government transparency ranking. It also has the best performance out of all Latin American countries as far as information and communication technology, according to the ICT Development Index. Uruguay offers highest wideband velocity for lower rates.

Between October 17 and 19, 2013, the Uruguayan Ministry of Education promoted in Montevideo the second edition of Expo Aprende Ceibal, a meeting with the goal of sharing education experiences and debating the main challenges of working with digital technology. Invited as a specialist in education and digital culture, I was well familiarized with the initiative, but was nevertheless surprised by the quality participation of teachers and students, who had come not only to hear, but, especially, to present and discuss their practices.

In the beautiful Sodre auditorum’s central patio, hundreds of posters showing the experience of their respective authors—teachers as well as students—brought life to a space which, in educational congresses, is traditionally occupied by big technology and publishing companies booths selling their products.

During his speech at the end of the event’s first day, Miguel Brecher, Ceibal’s president, was brief and concise: “Technology has changed our lives greatly, but it hasn’t changed education. Technology got to education in compliance with what technology sellers wanted, not what we, educators, wanted.” He also said: “The challenge, not only for Uruguay, but for every country in the world is to adapt technology to education—and education isn’t only absorbing content, but educating for life, sharing our knowledge with the whole community.”

The pedagogical idea of technology use behind Ceibal is bold, and completely distant from traditional view. It is not about substituting analogic material with digital devices in order to favor the transmission of curricular content and, therefore, rise in the official educational exams ranking. The goal is introducing digital culture into the educational environment, thus promoting creativity, autonomy, and authorship for those involved, as well as stimulating a motivating and permanent learning process.

“By creating a game on Scratch and unveiling all the codes in that programing language, students are working on calculus. When launching the game in the school blog, they had to write the tutorial in a clear, understandable way, therefore learning about proper verbal conjugation,” said a proud basic school teacher about her project of creating games with the students. The results of this process, though, are not showing on official evaluations of the country’s education, which continually registers stagnation in the learning of reading and math.

“When we created Ceibal, we weren’t expecting improvements in math and native language. We know that’s the consequence of medium- and long-term work. What we did was create a project for a country focused on social inclusion through education,” highlighted Miguel Brechner in São Paulo, during an event organized by Instituto Educadigital and Comitê Gestor da Internet. Brecher took the time during that occasion to announce the news they are implementing at Ceibal: videoconferences to enhance the reach of foreign language teaching, attended by 1,000 groups from 196 educational centers in 2013 alone, as well as an adaptable platform for math which, in five months, has had 19,000 users and 1 million problems solved.

In the following items I highlight some other aspects of this Uruguayan educational ecosystem called Plano Ceibal which can serve as inspiration for public policies and other educational initiatives in various countries:

Independence and Administrative Autonomy

Plano Ceibal is an organ independent from the Ministry of Education, created by presidential decree in 2007. Its governance is made up of a team of executive management and a consulting commission with representatives from public organs such as Education Councils. All actions are financed with public resources, but the management team has complete autonomy in hiring staff, suppliers, aides, buying equipment and educational material (including copyrights), among other actions. The educational program’s constancy, since it does not depend on presidential mandates, is one of its high points. A national research in 2010 showed that 94% of the population favored the initiative.

Valuing Teacher’s and Student’s Authorship

Students and teachers are always considered protagonists in teaching and learning processes. There is a basic curriculum, but educational materials are not inspected by the government, and pedagogic strategy and methodology are left up to the teachers, who are constantly stimulated to create and openly share educational resources and projects online. A video explains how to create Open Educational Resources. On their end, students are greatly encouraged to learn how to program, especially using Scratch, a platform created at MIT which allows for the creation of games, animation, and interactive stories. With this tool, curricular contents are dealt with transversally, according to a project’s methodology. Students also participate in Design for Change, using Design Thinking to solve real problems in the school space, such as improving the service at the cafeteria, fighting bullying, and so on.

Motivation to Follow a Teaching Career and Systematizing Experiences

Martín Rebour, Ceibal’s coordinator for the formation of educators, says that every year 10 thousand educators take part in the program’s educational actions, through on-site or online courses and workshops. In order to support the educational use of the “ceibalitas,” an affectionate nickname for the computers, inside the schools, specific courses are organized by the Education Boards: Maestro de Apoio Ceibal (MAC), Maestro Dinamizador and Maestro Conteudista. Various online courses are offered throughout the year in the CREA platform.

Participation in the courses is voluntary and not remunerated. Wage gains come later, as the teachers take on new offices. Recent news have showed that the increase in teachers’ wages has been a trend with this public policy.

Pedagogic experiences are constantly systematized and shared—such as with SembrandoLivro Azul and other publications. The initial formation of teachers is also part of the program. Some courses stimulate the creation of learning objects by university students, for use at the Ceibal schools.

Family and Community Involvement

By taking the “ceibalitas” home, kids and teenagers stimulate their families’ involvement in their relation with the school, since they are the ones responsible for taking care of the equipment. A study by the Autonomous University of Mexico and the Catholic University of Uruguay showed families have confidence and are certain of the computer’s importance in bettering their children’s education, especially by opening up future work opportunities. It also showed, though, that, in the beginning, they were suspicious of the frequent use of games, reproducing the traditional view that games are not suitable for school education. However, over time and by interacting with their children and the “ceibalita” at home, they came to realize the value of games in learning. Not only that, they also use the computer for family activities, such as taking pictures, finding information about any theme or talking to a distant relative.

Besides families, a vast group of volunteers was assembled to support Ceibal’s actions and activities.

Exchange with Other Countries

Brazil, Costa Rica, and Argentina are amongst the countries with which Uruguayan schools exchange projects. Communication via internet and even on-site visits are happening, such as at Escola Estadual Osvaldo Aranha, a state school in Ijuí, Rio Grande do Sul state (Brazil), and Escola República del Paraguay no 94, in Rivera, which are exchanging information about Brazilian poet Mario Quintana and Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres García. The Ijuí school is included in Província de São Pedro, a recent project from the State Secretary of Education which equipped with laptops the Brazilian schools in border towns, while simultaneously educating teachers to “not let Brazilian students in the area in a disadvantage toward their Uruguayan colleagues,” explains Maria Lúcia Pinto, the project’s pedagogic coordinator at the Education Secretary, who also participated in Expo Aprende Ceibal.


Fellow Ashoka, Master in Education, Family and Technology from the University of Salamanca (Spain), journalist specializing in educommunication, cofounder of Instituto Educadigital. Priscila has been developing projects and researches regarding education in digital culture since 2001, and she also facilitates educational processes involving Open Education Resources and Design Thinking.