Cecilia Rodriguez Alcala’s Facebook page resembles that of many young adults: photos of art she likes, snapshots of her nieces and nephews, a group selfie on a night out with friends in Asunción, Paraguay. She also quotes Abraham Lincoln and posts links to media coverage of her job.
But Rodriguez Alcala isn’t your typical young professional and MBA graduate. She believes in the power of one, and she set out in July 2008 to transform theory into reality as the founder and executive director of Paraguay Educa.
One laptop per child. That simple declaration has led to a non-governmental organization (NGO) that, so far, has raised more than $6 million dollars to create Paraguay’s first “Digital City” in Caacupé, benefitting 35 schools by bringing connectivity, education and laptops to 15,100 children.
But it took a one-of-a-kind woman to set the wheels in motion.
Rodriguez Alcala was born in Asunción but moved to Miami, Florida, with her family when she was 15, where she attended a large public high school rather than the private schools that had been her experience. She aced her classes and earned a full scholarship to Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she majored in international relations and history and minored in political science.
But learning is a hands-on activity, so she also worked for Yale’s Jumpstart program, training college students to work with low-income preschoolers, and accepted a position on the board of Sparks International, which created the first co-ed school in Kabul, Afghanistan.
With her diploma tight in hand, she accepted a position with Fundacion Paraguaya, an NGO for entrepreneurship, self-sufficient schools and microfinance programs, and wrote for FOCO Magazine. During an interview with computer scientists for an article, the seed of an idea was born: Computers in the hands of schoolchildren could change education dramatically.
She threw herself into making this happen, not just securing the hardware but addressing teacher training and code programming lessons for every student in Caacupé. Using the results from her One Child, One Laptop program, Rodriguez Alcala then teamed up with youth organizations and journalists to push for a trust fund for education in Paraguay that now earmarks $1 billion.
Thanks to these efforts, she earned the AMBA (Association of MBAs) Independent Student of the Year award in 2015 upon her completion of an MBA at IE Business School, and was named adviser to Paraguay’s National Educational Reform in 2017. She also forms part of major international platforms that include the Global Shapers Community of the Davos World Economic Forum.
Rodriguez Alcala brings critical insights to all of her roles. And she also shares the wisdom her mentors have passed along: “The final myth about changing the world is that it’s better to wait until you have more experience. It may seem from where you sit that the impact you can have at this point in your lives is negligible. But I’m a big believer in the power of inexperience… . The world needs you before you stop asking naïve questions, and while you have the time to understand the true nature of the complex problems we face and take them on. Don’t put your desire to change the world on hold. Start now … . If you don’t give yourself room to explore by starting early, immersing yourself in an issue you care about and embracing the iterative process, you’ll never end up with your best draft – or your best self.”
Rodriguez Alcala sat down with ISTE to talk about her international efforts.
You raised millions of dollars to bring connectivity and devices to thousands of school children in Paraguay, and you helped pass legislation that establishes a trust fund for education-related projects to the tune of $108 million a year for 10 years. Was there a situation or particular event that motivated you to tackle such extraordinary projects?
During my childhood, my parents always insisted that my education was the most important investment in my future. Both my grandparents had been university professors and were examples of lives dedicated to teaching and giving back to their community. In 2000, my family moved to the United States and I went from a small private school in Asunción to a 4,000-student public high school in Miami.
In Latin America, there are few success stories that emerge from public schools because there is a big gap in the quality of public versus private school systems. Given my own experience in a private school, I was very surprised when I heard that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, had graduated from my same public school in Miami. Not long after, I earned a scholarship to study at Tufts University, a school focused on public service, which made me appreciate, once again, the opportunities that arise when you work hard at achieving your goals.
After graduation, I returned to Paraguay and was urged to do something for Paraguay’s education system where only four out of 10 students graduate from high school.
What impact have you seen as a result of this work?
We’ve carried out four external evaluations in 35 schools in Caacupé, the city where Paraguay Educa has been working since it was founded. First, there are social impacts that go beyond academics, including providing children with identity cards, vaccinations and the opportunity to interact with their parents living abroad.
In terms of learning, impacts range from improving self-esteem and fostering a growth mindset to the development of 21st century skills, such as collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking and global citizenship.
There’s also a multiplying effect in the community; children teach their parents how to use technology for their jobs and to make more informed day-to-day decisions. Children from the project have earned awards from international competitions, such as the Google Code-In initiative or Nickelodeon’s animation challenge.
Three classes have now graduated from the program. I’m gratified when I witness the children’s impact in their surrounding community.
Every effort to bring about large-scale change hits some roadblocks. What have been some of your challenges along the way and how have you overcome them?
Paraguay Educa has encountered a number of barriers, mostly related to the overwhelming corruption that exists in Paraguay. Once we worked with a governor who promised to develop the project in the Chaco region, and we helped him commit congressmen to allocate $1 million U.S. dollars to purchase laptops, connect schools and carry out teacher training.
It was terrible to see him steal the funding after we trusted his intentions and carried out advocacy efforts with citizens in the region who were truly committed. Our only resource was the press, where we insisted he should be judged and condemned for his actions. As a result, he faced a civil trial and his party lost the elections in the next term.
Our lesson learned was to always seek public-private partnerships when allocating funding in order to have trustworthy citizens as a check and balance to corrupt politicians.
The one-laptop-per-child (OLPC) initiative has been widely criticized for not living up to expectations. In uruguay, for example, only 21 percent of educators who received the laptops were using them regularly. Often the devices, which ended up costing twice the original estimate, were dropped off in communities where no one was trained to use them. For these reasons and many others, some have called the program as a whole a failure. How would you categorize the success of the program?
The OLPC initiative is being implemented in more than 60 countries, each with its own objectives and implementation characteristics. In Uruguay’s case, the government’s objective was to reduce the social and digital divide rather than focusing on academic performance. Consequently, I consider Uruguay a success in terms of its universal connectivity and elimination of its digital divide.
In contrast, Perú established a learning objective but failed to provide adequate teacher training and a support system for its IT infrastructure. The Zamora Terán OLPC experience in Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala is a great example of a comprehensive educational program. So I’d be hesitant to call the OLPC program a failure as there are many differences within the 1:1 model, and a successful experience depends on each country’s objective and its commitment to adequate deployment.
How do we prevent waste when it comes to using educational technology funds effectively?
Everyone we talked to about school reform mentioned the importance of investing more in teacher training and curriculum development. It’s evident that professional development must be a priority in any edtech initiative. However, by observing children in the program taught in their own schools, we realized children’s capacity to teach themselves, teach each other and teach adults of all ages. Normally we think of children as quick learners, but we underestimate children’s ability to teach.
We also learned that if you give kids responsibility, they will rise to the occasion. Faced with the challenge of encouraging teachers to incorporate programming in their lesson plans, some students volunteered to be the facilitators of the workshops. When we told the Ministry of Education our trainers would be kids, no one believed us. That’s why I advise investing in teacher trainers but also in children who can be mentors and leaders in capacity-building initiatives.
You’ve said that kids, when provided with the right tools, can come up with amazing solutions to everyday problems. Can you give us an example of that?
Ignacio is a passionate student at our Technology Center Serranía. Because he is blind, he was unable to walk to classes because the sidewalks in his community didn’t accommodate children with disabilities. This problem inspired five students from a school in Caacupé called Cristo Rey to create a “smart cane.”
The cane works similarly to the technology we use to park our cars. Using sensors, the cane sends audio signals to the user in order to alert and guide. To optimize costs and create the prototype, the children recycled various elements in their community, including a selfie stick, an old radio and speakers that were used to add music and allow Ignacio to listen to soccer games while he commuted from one place to another.
This is a great example of a design that was created by kids who were motivated to solve a real-life problem by collaborating and using their creativity.
How can a teacher in a relatively underresourced school still be effective in preparing her students for the jobs of the future?
It’s definitely more challenging for teachers to be effective in places with scarce infrastructure or limited pedagogical support. And in underprivileged areas, children face a number of social problems associated with extreme poverty that go beyond academics.
However, we’ve seen various teachers with limited resources use their creativity to plan lessons incorporating design for change or project-based learning methodologies. They work with their students to solve community problems and, in doing so, develop critical thinking, collaboration and creativity skills.
Providing teachers with mentors and a learning community is also helpful, and a school’s leadership can make a big difference in teachers’ motivation and peer collaboration.
How successful have you been in your efforts to engage girls and young women in stem? What strategies do you recommend?
We have been successful at engaging girls in programming and mathematics through a program called Programate. The biggest participation gap occurs when girls turn 12- 13 years old and reduce their participation in extracurricular activities due to security problems.
To address this issue, we partnered with organizations like Girls Code and developed specific strategies to involve parents and teachers in groups that could look after girls attending our Technology Center Serranía. We also created WhatsApp groups to register their departure and arrival to different activities.
As a result, we were recently very proud to have a Scratch Day where 80 percent of the participants were girls.
What are the key elements for a school to consider in a digital transformation of their learning environment?
I recommend a five-point plan:
Design a shared vision that identifies the critical steps needed to achieve a shift in the learning paradigm and a dynamic innovation-driven school culture. Provide professional development for teachers, school directors and administrators.
Provide resources that connect content, technology and curriculum.
• Involve parents and other stakeholders in the community in formal and extracurricular activities.
• Establish technical and pedagogical support teams with constant feedback from end users.
When educators look to buy edtech solutions, how can they make sure those solutions will meet the needs of their learners?
We believe educators should choose edtech solutions according to their local context, including education objectives, student preferences and resource availability.
Oftentimes, through the foundation, we recommend open source software that can provide children with the opportunity to get involved in creating their own learning environments or personalizing existing solutions at a low cost.
In terms of edtech acquisitions, Paraguay’s Ministry of Education operates through a very centralized structure as compared to the U.S. The advantage is that economies of scale allow for a reduced price in the edtech acquisitions, but disadvantage is that oftentimes there is a single solution provided for schools that have very different realities. In my opinion, there should be a mix between centralized and decentralized support systems for teachers to choose the solution that best fits their needs.
Is there a school you’ve worked with that was able to really transform their approach with the power of technology? Tell us about it. What made them successful?
Daniel Ortellado in Caacupé is a school I always love to visit because it’s an example of a learning culture driven by transformative leadership. Lucia Villalba, the school director, has involved all the teachers in making the school a model for the community despite its limited resources. During one visit she explained that lunch was a key time to carry out teacher planning sessions and in doing so, integrate different subject matters for school projects.
Since most teachers went home for lunch in their neighboring homes, she decided to cook the meals herself and treasure this time for team initiatives.
On another occasion, we introduced her to an intern from Italy who was an expert in programming. Lucia valued his work so much that she found a place for him to live in the community.
Daniel Ortellado teachers have one characteristic in common – they’re always researching and coming up with novel approaches to learning. There are many children from this school who have created an extracurricular group called “xo evolution” that has led them to work on a number of interesting robotics initiatives. Some of these kids have said that before the project, they thought they were destined to work in certain trades but now they have a number of options and aspirations.
Can you think of a particularly effective leader or educator you’ve worked with? What made them so impactful?
Brothers Nelson and Daniel Ojeda come to mind when I think of effective leaders. They teach fourth and fifth grade with so much enthusiasm. They’re very resourceful in finding edtech solutions that will engage their students. Their classes are also characterized by the integration of computational thinking across the curriculum.
A common denominator between the Ojeda brothers and other teacher leaders we work with in other schools is that they are focused on continuous improvement and adaptation of their lesson plans according to students’ interests and the local context. They believe in encouraging students to develop a growth mindset for increased motivation and achievement. I don’t think there’s a substitute for dedicating quality time to prepare classes and receive constructive feedback from students.