In the studios of TVEducativa in Rio de Janeiro, technicians bustle around, making last-minute equipment adjustments.
On tap tonight is a live, hour-long program for teachers across Brazil on using technology in the classroom. Called "Jump to the Future," the program expresses the country's determination to use technology to overcome its daunting geography and backwardness and hit the 21st century running.
The broadcast is part of a 40-program series developed by teachers for teachers. Teacher groups are assembled around the country to view and participate in the show. A moderator and two specialists mix discussion of the topic with answers to questions that come in by fax or on a toll-free phone line.
"How can I use computers and other technology in teaching reading and writing?" asks a caller from the town of Espiritu Santo. "How can a teacher be expected to use and teach new technologies when he doesn't have any training in it himself?" queries another, from Rio de Janeiro.
"We found that the qualifications and education level of teachers around Brazil is very different, so that determined the kind of programming we could develop and how technology could be used," says Maria Ester Faller, a programming specialist with TVE.
"In Rio, the norm [for teachers] is now a university education, but in the northeast many teachers don't even have a complete elementary education themselves," she says. "We hope to shift [programming] to a classroom focus at some point, but we realized it would be foolish before preparing teachers."
Educational broadcasters at TVE say they have learned another lesson: Televisions in the schools don't teach anything on their own - educational programs have to be just as interesting as commercial TV.
"The content has had to evolve to keep up with technological advances - and viewer sophistication," Ms. Faller says. "You have to have good, hands-on materials, and other kinds of support."
Another program that airs on TVE, "TV School," reaches nearly 80 percent of the country's 42,000 public schools. It's one of the long-distance education programs President Clinton heard about when he visited Brazil last year.
While the numbers sound impressive, a recent university study found that only about two-thirds of schools with the necessary equipment were actually taping the programs for use.
"That [satellite] dish looks impressive out in front of the school, but right now the TV is on the blink so we're cut off," says Maria Prado Baima, principal of the Jo-o Ribeiro Elementary School in the isolated Amazon town of Tarauac. Replacement parts are a several-days' boat ride down the river.
"Theoretically, it all sounds so good. But then you face the reality of 15 percent of the equipment for TV Escola [TV School being] out of order," says Edson Machado de Sousa, chief of staff to Brazil's education minister. "And this is only the second year of the program."
Putting PCs in Schools: Slower May Be Better
Even as computers in the classroom are losing some of their gee-whiz aura in the United States, Latin America is embarking on a high-tech spree.
The wave of computer-buying and Web-connecting doesn't so much reflect a belief that technology solves everything. Rather, it's a conviction that 21st-century children without computer literacy will lag behind.
In a vast country like Brazil - larger than the mainland US - computers and phone lines for education are more than just expensive distractions. But technology must be adapted to local needs, experts say.
What Brazil plans to avoid, says Edson Machado de Sousa, chief of staff to Brazil's education minister, is buying tens of thousands of computers and dumping them in unprepared schools. "France did that," he says, "and it was a failure."
Brazil's goal is to train 25,000 teachers a year on computers - as a teaching tool, for research, and as a way to entice children to learn.
Brazil also is embarking on a joint program with the US to develop access to the Internet II project, which aims to give more people access to education through technology.
"I don't think it's contradictory to say we're entering into a massive program of introducing computers and technology into our schools," Mr. Sousa says, "but with caution."