By Jim Wyss | McClatchy Newspapers
MARACAIBO, Venezuela — As Hender Reverol heads to third grade this year, he will have Venezuela's newest educational tool tucked beneath his arm: a government-issued laptop.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has vowed to give every elementary school student - more than 5 million of them - a free personal computer. If the government meets that target, Venezuela would join Uruguay as the only countries in the world to fully embrace the goals of the so-called one laptop per child program.
Since inaugurating the initiative in 2009, Venezuela has issued more than 750,000 of the rugged, blue-and-white laptops called Canaimas. During the current school year the government expects to deliver at least 900,000 more machines and plans to deploy 3 million by 2012 - putting it at the vanguard of a worldwide educational movement.
"The Canaimas will keep coming," Chavez told a group of cheering students last month. "There will not be a single child without a Canaima."
The computers have 8.9-inch screens, built-in cameras, wireless cards and one gigabyte of memory. They also come loaded with open-source, Venezuela-produced educational software. While most of the laptops are imported from Portugal, Venezuela is ramping up a factory that will churn out 500,000 Canaimas per year.
"One day we may even export them," Chavez mused on television.
Venezuela's Ministry of Science and Technology, which runs the program, did not respond to multiple interview requests. But it's clear that Venezuela is buying into an educational philosophy that is catching on globally.
By encouraging children to take their Internet-enabled laptops home, the theory is that their natural curiosity will spur learning in an increasingly connected world.
"With a computer lab, you might be able to teach a child how to use a computer, but the child will never get to the point where the computer is facilitating learning," said Robert Hacker, the chief financial officer of the One Laptop Per Child Association, or OLPC, which helped spark the movement.
Started in Boston by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC recently moved their commercial operations to Miami. The nonprofit organization makes solid laptops designed to be massively deployed in the developing world. Their XO laptops cost $209 and some 2 million machines have been distributed in more than 40 countries. The organization's biggest success has been in Uruguay, where 98 percent of all elementary school students have XO laptops.
While the organization is not involved in the Canaima project, there has been some informal communication with the Venezuelan government, Hacker said. OLPC also provides consulting services to countries even when they are not using XO laptops.
"One of the most significant realizations that we've made is that the key to a good one-to-one deployment is teacher training," Hacker said. Without supervision and constant updates, the laptop programs can sometimes go adrift. "All of the one-to-one deployments that have been done without OLPC struggle with trying to realize the educational and learning benefits that they hoped for," he said.
While Venezuelan authorities in charge of the program would not talk to The Miami Herald, anecdotal evidence suggests it might be facing some growing pains.
Eight-year-old Hender received his Canaima last year in the second grade. His mother, Carmen Reverol, said he often gets math and Spanish homework he's expected to do on the computer. But Hender seemed to struggle with the machine.
Asked what he could do with the computer, the boy said he could take pictures with it. Pressed about other ways he uses the computer, he said, "I like to look at pictures, too."
Deomira Rosales is the secretary of education for Venezuela's most populous state, Zulia, where Hender is a student.
She said that while the central government has been handing out Canaima laptops in Zulia, local education officials have been cut out of the process. The computers have only been given to national schools - run by the central government - while state schools have been excluded, she said. And many of Zulia's teachers aren't familiar with the machines.
"What sense does it make to hand out computers if the teachers don't even know what's on them or how to use them?" she asked. "We haven't even been allowed to evaluate them to see if the software is appropriate for our students."
The government does have a website dedicated to the computers and the educational software with a special section for teachers.
Rosales is also the sister of Zulia's former opposition governor Manuel Rosales, who fled the country in 2009 amid corruption charges. He and his followers claim those charges were trumped-up by Chavez to sideline him before the 2012 presidential election. Deomira Rosales suggested the laptops were being used as political gifts to try to woo the state's poorest families in the run-up to the vote.
Rosales said her office remains focused on creating school-based computer labs - that are also open to non-students - where trained staff can guide users.
Other families contacted by The Miami Herald in Maracaibo admitted that they had sold their Canaima laptops.
Hacker, of OLPC, said his organization cracked that problem by requiring XO users to log into their school network every 48 hours. If they don't, the computers go dark.
"If you're not in school for two days, your laptop is just a piece of plastic," he said. As a result, less than half a percent of all the laptops issued by OLPC have been stolen or gone missing over the last four years, he said.
While many Latin American nations have embraced the one laptop per child concept, there are some notable holdouts.
Mexico and Colombia, in particular, do not have national programs, Hacker said.
Hernando Jose Gomez, director of Colombia's National Planning Department, said the private sector is already producing cheap and powerful computers, and financing for the machines means that even the most humble families can afford them.
The chokepoint, as the government sees it, is access to the Internet. That's why the administration is focused on expanding its fiber-optic network from 200 to 700 municipalities over the next few years. It's also rolling out a plan that would subsidize the Internet for the nation's poorest, he said.
"We think that computer labs are still the best way to use computers as tools for research and learning," he said. "But we would never rule out a one laptop per child approach."
The Canaima project has yet to reach its full potential, but it's clear that it has been a hit with the families that have benefited from the program.
"I like the changes that Chavez is making to the educational system," said Hender's mother, who has put five other children through school. "This is the first time anyone in the family has had a computer."
©2011 The Miami Herald