Brazilians love their technology. I remember decades ago when I first visited the country to see that people would mark their seat at a buffet by leaving their cell phone on the table. In fact, Brazil was probably among the first country to have cell phones outnumber wired lines, although that was largely due to the difficulty of getting a new wired phone line at the time.
But technological romance remains quite high. Our local shopping center’s Apple store is full of people. Samsung’s store in the same center is also quite busy. Even Nokia, whose future remains uncertain, gets some traffic – and this is not just window shopping! The number of iPhones, Galaxy tablets, and iPads coming out the door is amazing to see. In fact, a recent study by Accenture shows that Brazilians are three times more likely than the global average to be purchasing a tablet in 2012.
This caught me by surprise given the explosive growth of this sector worldwide.
While tablets are coming into US schools at a fairly good pace, some Brazilian schools are listing them as back to school accessories along with crayons and paper notebooks. The explosion is not restricted to the private schools. In Pernambuco (the state where I am in the northeast of the country) the government is purchasing 170,000 tablets in a pilot with second and third year high school students. Nationwide, other pilots in the public sector are adding 350,000 more tablets to the mix, with the goal to bring these devices to every student in the country.
Now if tablets were cheap devices, this would be one thing, but they are not. The duty on imported electronics is so high that, for example, Apple products are nearly twice as expensive in Brazil compared with their price in the US. Of course, with the rapid growth in sales volume, Toshiba and other major players are opening Brazilian factories to avoid duties and thus bring the price down.
The alpha-geek in me loves to see all this activity. I’m an avid and active tablet user myself. But when it comes to education, huge projects are taking a big risk if they are not thought out in advance. For example, what is the wireless telecommunications infrastructure of the school? Can it handle a thousand kids online at the same time? How will the tablets be used? If they are just glorified textbooks, much cheaper alternatives exist. If the uses are more in support of creativity and inquiry, what tools will the tablets have? Most importantly, how (and when) will teachers be provided not just with the mechanics of tablet use, but with the pedagogical support to transform education in rich ways?
Without thinking these questions through, the huge influx of tablets will likely fail to effect permanent change. With the right support, though, we may see that the consumer driven romance with technology (especially among the young) will produce benefits that far exceed the cost of these devices, and this is a result worth seeking.