Brazil: “Field Tests for Utopian Learning Machines”

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The three candidate machines.

The Link section of the Estado de S. Paulo sets out to evaluate the three candidates for the “One Laptop per Child Program” here in Brazil alongside kids and teachers at schools taking part in the pilot program.

O programa do governo federal Um Computador por Aluno – que promete distribuir um laptop para cada criança nas escolas públicas do Brasil – começa a sair do papel no mês que vem, quando deverá ocorrer a licitação para a compra de 150 mil máquinas de um dos três modelos em estudo: o XO, o famoso laptop de US$ 100; o Classmate, da Intel; e o Mobilis, da indiana Encore.

The federal government’s One Computer per Student program — which promises to deliver a laptop to every child in the Brazilian public schools — gets off the drawing board next month, when the selection process will be held for the purchase of 150,000 machines from among three models: The XO, the famous “$100 laptop”; the Intel Classmate; and the Mobilis, from India’s Encore.

Os aparelhos adquiridos serão distribuídos em 300 escolas de até 500 alunos espalhadas pelo País, numa fase-piloto que determinará se e como o projeto será levado adiante.

The machines acquired will be distributed in 300 schools with 500 students or fewer throughout Brazil, in a pilot phase to determine whether the project will go forward, and if so, how it will proceed.

Apesar das intenções do governo, não será nada fácil fornecer um laptop para cada estudante. Hoje, há 37,6 milhões de alunos em escolas públicas no País. Ao que tudo indica, o XO é o laptop com mais chances de ser escolhido, por ter o melhor custo-benefício. Nesse caso, equipar todo mundo custaria R$ 12,7 bilhões.

Despite the government’s plans, it will not be easy to furnish a laptop to every student. Today, there are 37.6 million students in Brazilian public schools. All indications are that the XO is the machine with the best chances of being chosen, having the best cost-benefit profile. In that case, equipping everyone would cost $12.7 billion.

Which would make for a unit cost of some R$335, or about US$188. Why are we still calling it the $100 laptop again?

How did it get famous for a feature that it does not have?

O Link foi conferir de perto o desempenho de cada um dos modelos. Estivemos em escolas na periferia de São Paulo, em Palmas (TO) e Brasília. Testamos cada uma das máquinas, ouvimos seus fabricantes, especialistas e o governo federal. E que dia melhor senão o do professor para perguntar se o computador fará uma real diferença na qualidade do ensino?

Link went to get a firsthand look at the performance of each machine. We visited schools on the periphery of São Paulo, in Palmas, in Tocantins, and in the Federal District in Brasília. We tested each machine, interviewing their manufacturers, experts, and the federal government. And who better to ask whether the machines are making a real difference in the quality of instruction than the teacher?

I always think a tech story is incomplete without hearing from the end user. In this case, the student. Which I think I have read some coverage of in other parts of this series, to be fair.

Reading through the series, however, I find it difficult to find actual backing for the supposedly superior cost-benefit profile of the “famous” XO — neither of the other two models merit an adjective, but the XO bears “famous” as a sort of Homeric epithet throughout the series — most of the coverage of which, in this series, deals with the series of technical glitches and setbacks the gizmo suffered through.

In a later story, reporting that the new model has “improved,” we read as followed:

“Temos análises mais qualitativas do que quantitativas”, ressalvou a professora Roseli de Deus Lopes, do Laboratório de Sistemas Integráveis (LSI) da Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo (Poli-USP), coordenadora dos testes na escola. “O número de faltas diminuiu e melhorou o diálogo entre os alunos e os professores.”

“We have more qualitative analysis than we do quantitative,” warned Roseli de Deus Lopes, from the Integrated Systems Lab at USP’s Polytechnic Institute, who is coordinating testing at the school. “The number of technical flaws has diminished, and dialogue between teachers and students has improved.”

And

Foi preciso fazer pequenas adaptações na parte elétrica, além da instalação de uma rede sem fio, para que os aparelhos chegassem às salas de aula. Os modelos utilizados são a segunda versão do XO, chamada de B2. Ela ainda tem várias das falhas eliminadas na versão B4, a mais recente. Não há, por exemplo, comunicação entre os micros via rede Mesh, uma espécie de rede sem fio local.

Small adaptations were needed in the electronics, as well as the installation of a wireless network, before the machines made it to the schools. The models being tested are the second version of the XO, called the B2. It still has a number of flaws that have been eliminated in version B4, the most recent. It lacks peer-to-peer “mesh” networking, for example.

The price keeps going up and some of the basic features are still having their bugs ironed out.

The model being tested is not the one that reportedly actually works.

There goes your basis for calling this “hands-on” coverage. You are reporting to me that the B4 works great, but that you only have hands-on experience with the B2.

Which doesn’t.

Does not quite compute.

This series — which includes a significantly larger number of articles focused on the “famous” XO than on the other candidates, it seems to me — needs fewer (Homeric) qualifiers and more hard quantifications.

More later. Got to run out.


Life imitates edutainment-themed science fiction – except that in the novel, of course, the tech always actually works.

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