Searching for information is a pressing global issue, given the wealth of data and its dispersion. However, for an average student in Cuba, the problem is not only pressing, but has reached critical proportions; so much so that it doesn’t even need mentioning.
For some years, our educational system has been the subject of conceptual change, especially in high school. The essence of these new ideas can be summed up in: less teacher presence in classrooms, the active participation of students in the learning process and the prominent role of technology as an educational tools.
In other words, with the new methods it is assumed that the teacher, instead of standing in front of the class like a talking book, plays the role of a guide or mentor, like the head of a research team in a scientific center. On the other hand, students are obliged to a more active role, which will lead, among other things, to establish habits and skills in searching for references and arriving at their own conclusions based on their research.
A few days ago, my nephew and his classmates were assigned to do a report about the life of Carlos Baliño. The official textbook, The History of Cuba, barely mentions Baliño’s presence in the foundation of the first Communist Party of Cuba... and nothing else. A visit to the school library did not add any additional data. The same happened later with Manuel Sanguily. Finally, after a one-hundred-entry search in Google pursuing Sanguily’s trail, we found a Cuban web page from where we copied... a single paragraph.
The immediate solution for many of these reference shortages, in addition to the Internet, the great international network, is to develop a «National Intranet» – one which goes beyond the narrow limits of an institution but does not surpass the borders of the country.
The first question that arises is how many Cuban websites continue to remain really active two months after their launching? Secondly, which ones have a really useful content?
Making Cuban society more computer literate has had, like all human effort, positive and negative results. Like good Cubans, we know no middle ground; either we don’t reach the goal or go way beyond. With the proliferation of computers, Community Computer Centers and internal networks became the trend among websites.
I say «trend» and not «natural consequence,» because all Cuban institutions are desperately eager to have their own website. As a matter of fact, I know about places where the website is given priority over production quality. The important thing is to publicize themself.
Finding significant information about a merely Cuban matter is all but an odyssey. Many sites are satisfied with a trifling and silly main text accompanied by wide frames, where there are always links to Cubaweb and Granma, and a logo of the Cuban Five. As such, we comply with our commitments to the government’s Battle of Ideas program.
There are also completely opposite cases, where information appears in ample, permanent, aseptic and meticulously designed websites, but enclosed in an inaccessible «.com», as happens with pages devoted to the life and work of many Cuban artists.
However, coming back to educational tools, where can our students find the information that allows them to draw their own conclusions?
Génesis Multimedia, a department of Prensa Latina, is about to launch «La Gran Enciclopedia Cubana (The Great Cuban Encyclopedia)» – or at least that’s its unofficial name. It is a huge project on which numerous specialists have worked for several years.
I am one of the lucky people that have seen this sort of «Cuban Encarta.» Its general design, although similar to Microsoft Encarta, is much more elegant, functional and, of course, more original than that of its transnational counterpart.
However, every time I ask about the state of our encyclopedia, I receive the same answer: it’s being revised. Now, if editors are dedicating themselves to the constant updating of the data, we run the risk of never actually seeing the encyclopedia, because this never-ending story will turn it into the interminable encyclopedia.
All encyclopedias age, like the picture that captures a moment. According to dialectic reasons, it is irrational to prolong the launching of an edition waiting for more up-to-date data. What is no longer valid the day after the launching will have to be corrected in next year’s edition. That is the risk of all encyclopedias.
The Cuban Encyclopedia is already a fact. With or without thorough revisions, it is already there thanks to years of work of the multidisciplinary team of Génesis Multimedia. It is an unprecedented event because never before has there been such an exhaustive, detailed, and graphically, video and audio-packed work compiling an outlook of Cuba in all spheres of life – history, geography, arts, literature and culture. What could be a better present for Cuban students and people in general?
Summing up, given that international connections are so expensive to Cuba**, and that we are fully aware of the enormous power of that tool of communication, and thus of the immense support it will provide to the new concepts of education, why not create our own educational and informative pool based of our National Intranet?
The more interesting thing is that we won’t have to start from zero. In fact, Cuba is the only country in the Third World that has the conditions to take this leap.
On one hand, there are hundreds of thousands of computers distributed and installed in the Electronic and Computer Science Clubs, education centres in the country and in remote and mountainous places. On the other hand, regardless of the fact that the Cuban encyclopedia is packed in a DVD to be sold here and abroad, the truth is that this great work of compilation, design and revision is practically done and it will be a wonderful starting point.
The mere fact of having access to fresh information professionally complied, structured, classified, written, illustrated and designed about our country, will be a huge boost and a priceless promotion to research among our students.
First, a network of servers should be set up and distributed depending of the specific population of each province. These machines will then be connected to a national network.
Second, the information pool can begin from the Cuban Encyclopedia, but this will be only a starting point. The topics limited to Cuba could expand first to the country members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, later to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, until it comprises everything related to universal culture.
Once the Educational Intranet is established, different levels of updating should be created. They could follow a general scheme with the responsibility lying on local specialists.
We have serious, competent and creative specialists in all fields who can extend the original content of the encyclopedia and enrich our Educational Intranet.
We also have excellent artists, designers and programmers to create illustrations, animations and interactivity programs for different topics and give the Intranet a face of high aesthetic, didactic and functional level.
* Engineer on Telecommunications, 3D Animator of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television.
** Cuba is denied access to US-controlled underwater fiber-optic lines and must use slower, more expensive satellite connections