Page last updated at 14:16 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 15:16 UK

Bridging Brazil's digital divide

Digital Planet
Sao Paulo Special
BBC World Service

Children from the Ernani School in Sao Paulo
59% of Brazilians have never accessed the internet or used a computer
This week the BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme is in Brazil. Here the show investigates how the country's enthusiasm for technology is now reaching schoolchildren from all backgrounds.

There are an estimated 45m PCs in Brazil, making it the world's fifth biggest market for computers.

The more striking number, however, is the fraction of the population that does not have access to technology.

"Last year's figures showed that 59% of Brazilians have never accessed the internet or used a computer," said Rodrigo Assumpcao, head of a committee that advises President Lula's government on what they call 'digital inclusion'.

But measures are underway to change all that, Mr Assumpcao told the BBC's Gareth Mitchell. He feels that being technologically educated is just as important as the basics of numeracy and literacy.

A digital or social divide?

"When you think of Brazil, you think of country that is extremely divided between rich and poor and areas that are developed and under-developed," said Mr Assumpcao.

He feels that the class divide within Brazilian society is to blame for the technological divide.

"In the 50's there was a brilliant Brazilian educator who said that public schools were meant to provide for poor children - everything that the rich children had in their homes."

Most middle-class children are brought up with computers, so it becomes second nature to them, Mr Assumpcao asserts.

"It's like a Swiss army knife, a tool with multiple uses that serves him, that's the experience of a middle-class child in Brazil."

This difference between who commands this technology and who is commanded by technology determines in our society who rules and who is ruled

Rodrigo Assumpcao

In contrast, a poor child may not gain access to a computer until his teenage years, by which time it is a necessity in the working world.

"Only by the time he is twelve or fourteen, if he is lucky to live beside a neighbourhood association that has a computer, he will only then be taught on some kind of word-processing or web browser.

"He will be taught that he needs to learn these skills in order to have some rights within the job market," added Mr Assumpcao.

"He is taught that he has to comply with technology and this perception, this difference between who commands this technology and who is commanded by technology determines in our society who rules and who is ruled, who has access to money and who hasn't and who has access to rights and who hasn't."

Online for change

Mr Assumpcao said that 56,000 public schools are presently being fitted with broadband internet, with an aim to have all of the urban public schools in the country connected by 2010.

The Brazilian government is also involved with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project , which provides a basic mobile computer for children in developing countries.

Its makers were able to produce a low-cost machine by using a less powerful processor and stripping out expensive parts like the hard disk drive.

A child from the Ernani School in Sao Paulo
56,000 public schools will be connected to broadband by 2010
Roseli Lopes from the University of Sao Paulo has co-ordinated a trial of the OLPC project at the Ernani School, northwest of Sao Paulo, that is now in its second year.

"It's a wonderful experience for the children as they love coming to school and don't want to stay at home," said Prof Lopes.

The laptop project works well in classes with large numbers of children, as computers enable individuals to go at their own pace and level.

"It's active learning, they take part in the search for information and they are not waiting for the teacher," said Prof Lopes.

"They are having more fun using this technology, not only to read and write but to make videos and take pictures," she added.

Children in Brazil only spend between four or five hours at school, so being able to take the laptop home extends the time that they have to learn.

"That is the most important thing about this project: when they go home they can continue learning and include their families in the process," said Prof Lopes.

"Even if the parents can't read and write, they can use the camera to take pictures and make the learning more rich."

Other solutions

The Brazilian government is also trialling a number of other laptop projects in five other cities, employing Intel's Classmate and Encore's Simputer.

Children from the Ernani School in Sao Paulo
Children in Brazil only spend between four or five hours at school every day

The main concern in using different laptops is that they need to be interoperable, so that is one issue that Prof Lopes and her colleagues are constantly evaluating.

However, the idea of children being able to access the technological hardware is only part of the solution in bridging this digital divide.

"We thought it was a good idea but immediately we decided that could not be conducted as the search for the next gadget," said Mr Assumpcao.

"Also, the Brazilian government has a profound conviction that free software is the way to go, so we are demanding that there is a whole suite of free and open-source software installed in these computers.

"The whole idea of having closed software on public computers is something which strikes me as wrong," he added.

With widely available broadband, laptops on the desk of many of Brazil's youth, and a culture of open-source, free software, Brazil's digital divide looks to be narrowing.

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