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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 (53 million pound) programme 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 programme: "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 (41 to 89 pounds) 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 computerise our nation. We have to start with students from an earlier age."
THIN CLIENTS
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.
Although the numbers add up to fewer than the total 360,000 students, because schools operate two shifts all children will have access to a computer while in class, the minister said. The country is also buying 22,000 Acer laptops for teachers, Ivanovski added.
"It is very energy-efficient. It of course doesn't make noise when 34 computers are connected in a classroom. Instead of 34 you only have five," said Ivanovski. "The heat factor is much smaller...so you preserve the energy, and for maintenance and upgrade it is much easier."
NComputing's "virtual desktops" are winning market share.
Its chief executive Stephen Dukker said the company now has 15 percent of the U.S. educational market for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, as well as large installations in the Indian state of Andhra Padesh and the Pakistani state of Punjab.
"Our technology is being deployed broadly worldwide," he said. "In the last six months we have won 100,000 seats of enterprise class deployments in markets like retail distribution, banking call centres."
Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at research firm IDC, said NComputing grew an impressive 11 percent in second-quarter unit sales compared with 2008. He said the company is now third worldwide in sales of linked computers known as "thin clients," measured by units. Leader Hewlett Packard has a 26.9 percent share, followed by Wyse at 21.1 percent.
"Their growth has been very strong," he said, adding the worldwide market for thin clients is at nearly 3.5 million units for 2009 and projected to reach 4.2 million units in 2010.
NComputing has a 7.7 percent share, up from six percent a year before, O'Donnell said.
"MODEL TO THE REGION"
John Davies, an Intel vice president, said the Macedonia government's commitment to a one-to-one e-learning environment for young people "should serve as a model to the region."
The reality is more challenging.
Large patches of faded linoleum floors at the Grigor Prlichev school are cracked, missing or badly scuffed after 45 years of children stomping through unrepaired hallways.
Cold pours through dilapidated, poorly insulated windows in winter, and despite renovations two years ago, some bathrooms are missing toilet seats.
Given the many needs in Macedonia's ageing schools, some question whether the goal of one computer per student is the proper allocation of resources.
"To my mind, if Switzerland, Germany and other countries with higher economic standards do not have a computer for every child why should we?" asked school librarian Ljupco Jordanovski. "Computers are important but not the most important thing. They should take care of other matters first."
Children stood at attention when a visitor made the rounds to the various classrooms -- a gesture of politeness dating to the socialist era -- but were not shy to list the school's shortcomings.
Some said the school should repair the bathrooms, fix the outdoor basketball court, install benches in the gym changing room, replace the windows, or, said one girl breathlessly, provide lockers in hallways, just like in America.
All of the students in several classrooms at this school said they had computers at home. But for now, 7th-grade students know a different kind of "virtual" technology: a lack of textbooks means they take rote dictation from their teacher.
(Reporting by Adam Tanner in Skopje and David Lawsky in San Francisco; additional reporting by Kole Casule in Skopje; Editing by Sara Ledwith)

Reuters