A Partnership Supporting Computers in the Schools: Lessons From Portugal

By Stephen C. Ehrmann

Reform efforts in large, rich nations can be splintered into competing camps, each with an issue, constituency, and not enough money. Perhaps we should look to smaller, poorer nations if we want to learn about creativity, cost-effectiveness, and truly effective partnerships. I was recently privileged to be the United States representative in a team of four evaluators invited by Portugal and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to assess a recently concluded Portuguese program called Project Minerva. Minerva's purpose was to foster broader use of computing in Portuguese schools. The project had lasted seven good years. Portugal was bringing it to a close, taking stock, and thinking about what to do next.

Minerva was a college-school-government partnership, initiated by college faculty, funded by an equally imaginative government agency, and staffed largely by school teachers. Its goal was to get computers into the schools and, far more important, to help teachers improve formal and informal learning by exploiting the new machines.

To give you a taste of Minerva's achievement, here's one case of many that we included in our report.1

The coordinator of a computer center serving several rural Portuguese schools told our team, "Last year one school did a project on 'How did our grandparents live?' They collected all kinds of information, including recipes about what their grandparents ate. One of the boys said, 'We have so many recipes, we can do a cookbook!' Alentej has a very distinctive cooking style, but there has never been a cookbook about the cooking of this region. Our book will be produced next June, and distributed by schools all over Portugal. The children are now in a different school but they come back to our center regularly and ask about their book. When it is published, there will be a party. The boys will wear ties, and the girls will wear their smart dresses. The children were 9 and 10 years old, and they will have written something people all over Portugal will read."

This anecdote illustrates several features of Minerva the role of the computer in enabling a broader pattern of curricular change (desktop publishing enabled but did not encompass this exciting project), collaboration and sharing of resources, and the reforming power of the children's own energy drawn from their encounter with the world outside the school. Several features of Minerva are not apparent from the story, however, among them the roles of the university, school, and governmental partners.

The design of Minerva had an elegant geometric simplicity. Visualize a triangle with the Ministry of Education at one vertex, the universities at a second, and the schools at the third. Minerva had a distributed leadership structure: you can turn the triangle so that any vertex is on top each of the three partners could be seen as the true leader of Minerva.

For example, the Ministry of Education provided not only funds but also a central point of reference and leadership. Although Minerva was invented by university faculty from several institutions who then approached the government for funding, and although its first director was in a university, its later directors were Ministry officials. The Ministry allocated ("seconded") teachers to Minerva (all teachers are paid by the central government) and also paid the bills for training, equipment (including a computer each year for the participating schools), university staff, publications, and other expenses.

The universities were equally the leaders of Minerva. Each participating university controlled the use of the resources for its area, and was responsible for the quality of the operation. Each university selected its schools (often around fifty of them) from a number of applicants, and tailored services to their needs and the university's special capabilities. For example, a university might specialize to a degree in the development of courseware, while another might specialize in services for special education; all universities, however, had to provide a base of general services for their schools. In the beginning, the universities organized only training courses and support to teachers. As their staff of seconded teachers (often around 20 of them) became more knowledgeable about computers, they also offered subject-oriented seminars and other services.

The schools were equally the leaders of Minerva. At its peak, almost 1200 schools were participating. Their "seconded" teachers shaped and delivered the services offered by the universities. Some of the key government officials in the Ministry were themselves seconded teachers. Also of course the schools decided what ultimately was to be done with the opportunities created for them by Minerva.

Each group had its own distinctive rewards (i.e., incentives) which helped to power and stabilize this distributed leadership.

The Ministry could display visible, valuable national leadership.

The universities' education faculty could gain entrance to the schools for their research. Minerva influenced the in-service and even the pre-service offerings at a number of universities and colleges. Faculty from departments other than education could play a role in improving schooling (and thus the qualifications of students seeking entry to their institution) and could develop courseware for use in schools.

The schools had the greatest incentives to lead and collaborate. They could get computers, extensive training for their teachers, and opportunities to advance the broader education reform agenda in Portugal. The seconded teachers benefited professionally, from what they learned in doing their work and, for some, graduate study.

Each university operation (called a "node") and its cluster of schools was mainly on its own, and appreciated its loose interdependence with the other nodes. As one school teacher said of the seconded teacher at a nearby computer learning center, "If I don't know, I go to Amelia. If Amelia doesn't know, she goes to [her node]. If [her node] doesn't know, there are other nodes. There is quite a network, through the computer bulletin board system, through workshops offered by other nodes." Three times during Minerva's history there were national meetings. More frequently contact came in meetings with a defined purpose (e.g. discussing Logo) that were sponsored by one or more nodes and, sometimes, by associations. When one node offered a workshop, sometimes teachers from other regions of the country would also attend, especially if the workshop dealt with specialized topics. Because of the linchpin role played by seconded teachers, and because of the strength and confidence that came from a distributed leadership structure in which no party was subordinated, Minerva participants could collaborate across what traditionally have been almost insurmountable organizational barriers in Portugal.

Our team concluded that the distributed leadership structure at the heart of Project Minerva was a great success, worthy of close study by Portugal and other nations. I think it has some special lessons for the United States.

l) Portugal was able to create a national school-college-government partnership to deal with a serious, long-term educational problem. The United States has not yet shown itself capable of doing that.

2) Minerva demonstrated that such a partnership could function with a relatively non-hierarchical, distributed leadership structure, one in which each of the three major parties could be seen as the leader and key driving force behind the whole.

3) Minerva also showed that it is foolish to divide the reform effort into "technology initiatives" and "normal initiatives." Minerva was not a computer literacy project. Computers were the key enabling factor but the range of benefits ran far beyond the immediate uses of the machines. For the schools, let the Alentej cookbook stand as the symbol of what Minerva can accomplish. For the universities, let the enlivening of their teachers education programs stand as a symbol of their broader benefits. For the government, so recently an autocracy, the triumph was in supporting and, in its later years, directing a program that was a model of distributed leadership.

In these days when any initiative seems too expensive to a government agency, a university, or a school, let Portugal stand as a symbol of what our poor country might yet accomplish.


1. This and several other sections of this article are adapted from our report, Report of the Minerva Project Evaluation, 1994, (JSBN 972-614-271-2), available from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, rue Andre Pascal, 75775 PARIS CEDEX 16, France. The authors are Monique Grandbastien, Stephen C. Ehrmann, Bridget Somekh, and Rick Withers.

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