Thursday, May 14, 2015

Connecting Cuban Schools


Cuba plans to provide Internet connectivity to all schools at all levels during the next three years. We offer a few suggestions, based in part on the US experience of the 1980/90s.

Fernando Ortega, Director of Educative Informatics Services at the Cuban Education Ministry, has announced a plan for connecting Cuba's 295 high schools and 395 polytechnic institutes to the Internet during the next school year. During 2017 they plan to extend the education network to junior high schools, day-care centers and special schools and in 2018 the network will connect the remaining primary schools. They hope to connect 26,650 teachers to the Internet by next May.

This is an encouraging announcement, but it leaves many policy and technical questions unanswered, like:

  • Will the schools be connected to the international Internet or the Cuban intranet?
  • If connectivity is international, will it be over the undersea cable or satellite?
  • If the link is to the Internet, will sites be filtered out?
  • Will users be surveilled and tracked?
  • What will be the backbone technology and speed?
  • How fast will the backhaul links to the schools be?
Regardless of the answers to these questions, a school backbone and connectivity to it is only a small part of the networking of schools. What about school LANs? Curriculum? Teacher training and student expectations? Cuban schools are facing the same questions US schools and universities faced when first connecting to the Internet -- can they benefit from our experience?

In the late 1980s, the National Science Foundation connected all US colleges and universities to the Internet. (They also connected networks in many developing nations, including Cuba). They did this by establishing a backbone network (NSFNet) and gave each school a router and paid for a link to the backbone. That cost the US taxpayers $94.5 million, but it was just seed money.

The schools spent much more collectively -- hiring network technicians, building local area networks (LANs), buying computers and incurring overhead on all of that. Could Cuba do something similar -- connect schools to an education backbone and leave the rest to the schools themselves?

I reviewed the curriculum of Cuba's University of Information Science in a report I wrote in 2011. Compared to the US, the curriculum was relatively practical and it involved working on real-world projects. If the government of Cuba were to construct an educational backbone and provide a high-speed connection to each school, advanced university students could be deployed to schools where they would lead the installation of LANs by the students and faculty of the schools. (Note that idealistic, motivated graduate students implemented much of the ARPANet).

This decentralized, do-it-yourself approach was used in networking California high schools. Sun Microsystems founder John Gage led the NetDay initiative in which equipment kits were assembled and distributed to schools for installation by students and faculty under the supervision of professionals. In a similar effort, my students established a wireless LAN connecting the rooms in our campus dorms to out campus backbone.

There was a major change between the time of John Gage's NetDay project and my student's dorm connectivity project -- WiFi equipment became available, making our task easier. Necessity being the mother of invention, it turns out that Cuba has experts in the deployment of modern WiFi LANs -- the people who have created mesh "streetnets". Cuba might also take a look at Google's experiments with high frequency wireless communication. Sun Microsystems is not longer with us, but might Google sponsor a Cuban NetDay?

A Cuban "NetDay" project would establish a LAN at relatively low cost and also provide initial training and involvement for the people who would eventually run and use the LAN.

What about computers? Mr. Ortega reports that there are about 30 students per computer in Cuban school labs and his plan is to replace them with tablets. I would think twice about those tablets.

Los Angeles, where I live, recently cancelled an ill-advised project, which sought to deploy tablets in schools. The project envisioned a large expenditure for tablets that would quickly become obsolete. Furthermore, machines with keyboards, and perhaps touch screens, would be more appropriate. Today, the best bet for most students and many teachers would be Chromebooks and, where necessary, laptops. One Laptop per Child has distributed laptops to over 2.4 million children -- how about One Chromebook per Child in Cuba? (Is anyone at Google reading this)?

But the biggest problem with the failed deployment in Los Angeles was not sub-optimal hardware, it was in software and curriculum. The tablets were to come with installed teaching materials provided by a single vendor. The tablets were "Trojan Horses" for the curriculum.

I would worry about something similar happening in Cuba -- top-down design and distribution of teaching material by experts at the Ministry of Education. Cuba has developed some educational software, but it is limited in scope and quantity and, more important, not Internet oriented. We are in the midst of a boom in MOOC-inspired online education and innovation in curriculum, technology and pedagogy. Cuba should look to the outside (the Khan Academy in Spanish would be a good place to start) and also encourage decentralized domestic development -- perhaps providing a hosted, Spanish-language "YouTube" for teaching material using Google and MIT's open source MOOC.org platform. (Better yet, that should be hosted by Google).

Without answers to the questions I raised at the start of this post, one cannot say what will happen with Cuba's school network. I've assumed the best intentions on behalf of the Cuban government and thrown out some relatively low-cost ideas, some of which were helpful in getting US schools online. Let's hope Cuban kids are enrolling in MOOCs and working their way through Khan Academy material before too long.

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