“On YouTube, there is an 11-minute video of the veterinarian-assisted birth of a calf on a farm in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, a small town in a dairy-rich region four hours north of the capital, Montevideo. It’s an amazing thing to watch—at least, to a city slicker like me who doesn’t get to witness the miracle of birth every day. But what makes this particular video remarkable is that it was shot by a fourth-year student at Villa Cardal’s Public School 24, using the built-in camera and recording software on the student’s XO Laptop, within weeks of the machine’s arrival at the school last year.”Wade Roush 2/1/08

Perhaps just as amazing is that the low-production (that is, zero-production) video has already been viewed by nearly 40,000 individuals. How did a lower-middle class rural Uruguayan fourth-grader learn to take video of a cow giving birth and share it with so many people across the globe?.

Villa Cardal is a rural town of around 1,300 residents in the department of Florida, Uruguay. Last May it became the unlikely destination for dozens of technology correspondents from major media outlets around the world after the One Laptop Per Child project chose it as a testing site for for their XO computer, formerly called the $100 laptop. (Each laptop actually cost the Uruguayan government $205.)

You can get to know Villa Cardal better in Google Earth or, to a lesser degree, with Google Maps. You can also check out many photographs of the town which were taken by students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade using their XO laptops. I am personally a fan of this photograph as I tend to make the same face when staring into a webcam.

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Rising Voices grantee Pablo Flores, who is the technical and educational coordinator for OLPC’s implementation in Villa Cardal and throughout the province of Florida, has also posted some interesting videos of Villa Cardal and the young students using their XO laptops on his YouTube page.

During the OLPC’s pilot project in Villa Cardal, the Uruguayan government was also testing out the Intel’s Classmate PC. In early October, after intense negotiations which brought the XO laptop down to $205 compared to the Classmate PC’s price tag of $258, the Uruguayan government ordered 100,000 XO laptops with an option to buy 50,000 more at $199 per unit.

Two months later and the first non-pilot deployment of XO laptops was launched at Escuela No. 109 in rural Florida. The laptops in Villa Cardal were also replaced with new XOs with updated hardware and software. The OLPC project in general, and its first deployment in the Uruguayan province of Florida specifically, have both attracted a good deal of international criticism. The most common critique is that the $205 per student would better used elsewhere; for example, on the renovation of shoddy schoolhouses, the purchase of textbooks, or the salaries of underpaid teachers. Another common criticism is that the laptops won’t be effectively used by teachers, who will probably have a more difficult time than their students in adapting to the new technology.

For those interested in how those criticisms specifically applied to the 6 month pilot phase of the OLPC project in Villa Cardal, you could do no better than reading “Reflections on a Pilot OLPC Experience in Uruguay“ by Juan Pablo Hourcade, Daiana Beitler, Fernando Cormenzana, and Pablo Flores. The paper is largely optimistic, but its authors do note that:

While the Uruguayan government is making a great effort in providing funding for the hardware, there is no funding for designing and developing software and content for use with the laptops. We are interested in developing technology to help setup and facilitate partnerships between local communities, schools (children and teachers), software developers and funding sources to foster the user-centered design, development and evaluation of open source software and open content for the XO laptops.

Another excellent resource for frank feedback about the value and challenges that those lime green laptops brought to Villa Cardal comes straight from the students’ parents and teachers. Again, we mostly encounter gratitude and optimism, but parents do note that the laptops have been the cause of some arguments between siblings while teachers observe that some of the students become distracted in class by focusing more on their computers than the classroom activity. Flores also writes, “The phrase ‘… and we are waiting for Internet’ was repeated by most of the parents. Teachers also had some difficulties with Internet, because apparently not all the time there’s good connectivity inside the school.”

What kind of content are the young students producing with their laptops? Much more, it turns out, than just videos of birthing cows. You can find out yourself by taking a look at the classroom blogs for grades one, two, three, four, five, and six at Villa Cardal’s Escuela Italia. (As the new semester has just started, most of the blogs have not been updated since before the holiday vacation.)

For Pablo Flores the XO laptops are much more than an educational tool; they are also an important communication device which he hopes will allow all Uruguayan students to be heard by the rest of their country and participate in the online conversations which will affect their future. Flores’ Rising Voices project, Bloggers Desde la Infancia or “Growing Up Blogging” will organize four series of workshops in strategic rural locations throughout Uruguay. These gatherings will bring the young XO-toting students and their teachers together with national and international veteran bloggers, podcasters, and producers of online video. They will go over intermediate and advanced blogging techniques, how to add meta information to the photographs they upload to the web, how to create conversational video threads using YouTube responses, and much more.

As Flores wrote on his project proposal [es]:

Creemos que hay una enorme potencialidad de extraer información rica desde todos los rincones del país, involucrando a los maestros, los niños y sus familias. Esto brindará una gran riqueza de visiones sobre las noticias, la cultura, el quehacer y todas las expresiones de la realidad desde todos los rincones del país. Es una oportunidad para promover la real integración del país a la sociedad de la información. Creemos también que la experiencia de Uruguay puede servir de referencia para otros países que estén impulsando modelos educativos de un computador por niño (1:1).

[English translation:] We believe that there is an enormous potential to bring out rich information from all of the corners of the country, involving the teachers, the children, and their families. This will put forth a richness of stories and narratives about the news, culture, daily tasks, and all the expressions of reality from around the country. It is an opportunity to promote the real integration of the entire country with the information society. We also believe that the experience in Uruguay can serve as a reference for other countries that are launching educational programs based on the one laptop per child model.

Obviously, before organizing the participatory media workshops, Flores is first overseeing the complete distribution of the laptops in rural schools throughout Florida and the rest of Uruguay. He says the series of workshops will likely take place throughout July and October, though that many of the OLPC schools will have their own classroom blogs before then.

I will be visiting Villa Cardal and many of the other OLPC deployments in Uruguay throughout the month of April. We’ll make sure to bring Rising Voices readers more updates and videos as the months go on.