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Virtual pioneers: Macedonia schools to get wired
Tue Nov 17, 2009 7:19pm EST
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By Adam Tanner and David Lawsky
SKOPJE/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - "Practical English Grammar by Correspondence" -- a 1973 tome published by the Soviet Union -- sits atop a pile of books on the librarian's desk in Macedonia's Grigor Prlichev elementary school.
It's a good book for learning English, he says.
Down the corridor in a room protected by a locked door and metal gate are rows of unopened boxes of computers, waiting to be installed under a 60-million euro ($90 million) program to give every pupil in the school system access to a computer.
The prime minister pledged a computer for every student during an election campaign earlier this year in the landlocked Balkan country. Macedonia aspires to join the European Union in coming years, and hopes technology will help lift its economy.
But as is so often the case with ambitious plans to educate or feed the world through the help of technology, the gulf between the idea and reality is as wide as the distance from Silicon Valley to what was once Yugoslavia's poorest republic.
With technology from a California company the school, in the capital Skopje, received a big shipment of computers in August. It cannot install them until an electrician upgrades the school's wiring, which dates back to its founding in 1964, said principal Lida Simjanoska.
Currently the school does not have enough money to buy basic cleaning supplies such as disinfectant or rags, she added. But she is enthusiastic about this program: "It is a good idea to spend the money on computers: Macedonia needs to move ahead."
This system is unusual in the way it promises economical and environmentally friendly technology which, once installed, would be well attuned to developing world reality.
At its heart are boxes about the size of a paperback book enabling multiple screens and keyboards to be connected to a single computer, so providing computer access for each student.
Powered by technology from Silicon Valley company NComputing Inc, each box sells for between $70 to $150 and has connectors for a keyboard, a screen and audio.
The companies involved say groups of screens and keyboards linked to individual machines lower costs, ease maintenance and save on energy. An option that connects 11 students to one computer requires 1 watt of energy per user, compared with more than 100 watts for an ordinary computer, NComputing says.
"If we want to be up to date," said Macedonia's Education Minister Nikola Todorov, "we have to computerize our nation. We have to start with students from an earlier age."
Once everything is connected, NComputing's boxes will link together technology made by other manufacturers: Macedonia bought 165,000 computer stations from Haier, China's largest home appliance maker.
Chip maker Intel sold Macedonia another 53,000 laptops for $340 each, said Ivo Ivanovski, the information minister. Continued...
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