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A Faltering Digital Leap

Georgia is giving netbooks to first-graders, but there’s little content for them, and many doubts about teachers’ readiness to use them. From EurasiaNet.

by Molly Corso 13 April 2011

TBILISI | Officials hope a government program to equip first-graders with netbooks marks the first step in an education revolution in Georgia. Critics caution, however, that for computers to have the desired impact on learning, teachers need to be keeping pace with technological changes.

 

Under the netbook program, which started last year, the government is spending 32 million laris (about $18.9 million) to buy 50,000 Georgian-made netbooks for first-graders by the start of the 2011-2012 academic year. The netbooks are not intended to replace standard textbooks, but to complement them. Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin, citing unspecified surveys, contended that the netbooks enable children to learn “twice faster.”

 

“[W]hat we have seen, for example, is [that in] Georgian, English, and mathematics, the children who went through the [netbook] program [completed it] in two months,” Shashkin told EurasiaNet.org. “Other children, who do not have the netbooks, need four months.”

 

President Mikheil Saakashvili has promoted the program as a way to encourage the rise of a Georgian “Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg.” On the first day of school last fall, the president visited a first-grade classroom, smiling broadly among students as they opened their new computers, emblazoned with a blue bird and a Georgian flag.

 

The netbooks are being distributed free of charge to parents. Currently, Georgian public schools do not distribute textbooks for free, except to children from poor families. Textbook expenses can run as high as 100 laris (about $59.43) per child per year, publishers say – a sizeable expense in a country where monthly salaries average just 550 laris ($325).

 

Around 30 percent of Georgia’s 624,000 school children were not able to purchase textbooks before the government started picking up the tab, said Bakur Sulakauri, who runs a company in Tbilisi that publishes textbooks.

 

A lack of educational content for netbooks is raising questions about what first-graders can actually learn on them. The government-run website for the netbook program offers mostly educational games; the only “educational resources” clearly indicated for first-graders are an English-language course and a lesson about agriculture in the ancient Georgian kingdom of Kolkheti.

 

Materials based on Georgia’s national curriculum have not been purchased from publishers, Sulakauri said. “The correct way would be first develop content and then do netbooks for students,” he said.

 

The computers, manufactured by the Georgian IT company Algorithim, come with an Intel operating system and a Georgian-language education packet designed to introduce children to computers.

 

How teachers will use the new technology is perhaps the key question. The Education Ministry plans to hold workshops and various training sessions this summer for teachers from some 2,400 public schools about how to incorporate the netbooks into their 2011-2012 lesson plans, Shashkin said.

 

That might seem like a tight timeframe, but Algorithim General Director Givi Korakhashvili downplayed any difficulty in getting public school teachers to embrace digital methods. “It’s not very different from other computers,” Korakhashvili said. “If a person has had some contact with computers, it is not hard.”

 

Principals at several Tbilisi schools did not respond to requests for comment about the netbook program, or grant permission to EurasiaNet.org to speak with teachers.

 

But one prominent education specialist maintains that there is little evidence that teachers are ready to use the netbooks. “The teachers are not prepared, of course; not only not prepared for teaching with the netbooks, but not prepared psychologically,” said Simon Janashia, an assistant professor of education at Ilia State University. Janashia is also the former director of the Education Ministry’s Center of National Curriculum and Assessment.

 

Training specialist Sophio Giorgadze, the former head of the Education Ministry’s Teachers' Professional Development Center, worries that focusing on “little things that don’t count in the big picture” could mean that there is less emphasis on “developing teachers.”

 

Despite years of education reforms in Georgia, anecdotal accounts continue to circulate about unqualified and badly prepared teachers. Without intensive attention to netbook training, “[s]uddenly, it will appear that first-graders are better than their teachers in certain areas,” Janashia predicted.

 

Despite the logistical challenges, many Georgians are backing the netbook program. “Whatever our government is doing that is beneficial for our children, I think it’s good,” commented Lola Mikiladze, the Tbilisi grandmother of a second-grader. “The reforms are working more actively.”

Molly Corso is a freelance reporter in Tbilisi. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet. Photo from the website of the Georgian Education . Photo from the website of the Georgian Education Ministry.

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