A World of Hurt : Latin America
Massive socioeconomic problems have
left Latin American education in a dire
condition, and decades behind the rest
of the globe in integrating technology
into teaching and learning. But a few
spots in the region offer signs of hope.
MICHAEL GARCIA IS THE KIND OF academic success
story that is all too rare in Latin America. The 21-year-old
Colombian native is a computer engineering major at the
University of Alabama-Huntsville, maintains a 4.0 grade-point
average, and is a tennis star to boot. As a high school senior in
Bogotá three years ago, he beat rigorous eligibility requirements
and fierce competition to win a scholarship to higher education in the US.
But Garcia's experience is vastly different from that of the majority of
K-12 students in Colombia, or in the whole of Latin America. As a student
at Colegio Rochester, a private school, Garcia had access to facilities and
instruction that most public-- and even some private-- institutions in Latin
America can't match. "The situation is very different in public schools,"
he says. "The majority of people in Colombia don't even have access to
education, let alone access to a computer."
Even at Garcia's elite school, the computer lab provided 40 machines for the
high school class of 1,000 students-- a ratio of one computer per 25 kids. By
contrast, US public schools boast one instructional computer with internet
access for every 3.8 students, according to a 2007 report from the National
Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the US Department of Education.
Garcia's case stands out as an exception in an otherwise grim region beset
for decades with high dropout levels, poverty, violence, and social inequality.
Some Latin American countries are trying to introduce new technologies into
education and commerce, but US educators believe that these will accomplish
very little if governments in the area don't tackle the staggering socioeconomic
problems. It's an environment that makes education a low priority,
and education technology integration an even lower one.
"A lot of schools don't even have functioning bathrooms," says Luanne
Zurlo, founder and executive director of Worldfund, a US-based charity whose
sole mission is to improve education in Latin America. "At the middle and
high school levels, schools have double and even triple sessions, so the kids
are only in school for four or five hours a day. The elite go to private schools,
because you don't have wealthier suburbs with good public schools like you
do in the US."
Zurlo, a former Wall Street securities analyst, gave up her
job to start Worldfund after a business trip to Mexico exposed
her to the appalling conditions in which Latin American youth
live and learn. She speaks eloquently about the bare-bones
equipment with which K-12 students make do: "Most public
schools have one little computer room where you have one old
computer that barely works. Internet connectivity is very difficult
and expensive, especially where there's a telecom
monopoly. Then you have security issues; even if schools get
computers, students can't use them, since the room is locked
up most of the day because of security concerns."
It's hardly surprising that Latin American governments spend
so little on classroom technology, when their spending on education
itself is minimal. The Paris-based Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates
that per capita spending on primary education in Latin America
averages only 15 percent of US levels. The result has been
devastating. A 2007 World Bank report, "Raising Student
Learning in Latin America: The Challenge for the 21st Century,"
lays out the problem starkly:
"Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean consistently
perform poorly in international assessments:
Even after controlling for per capita
GDP [gross domestic product], the
region's students perform far below students
in OECD and East Asian countries.
Performance is not only weak; it is also
declining relative to other countries with
similar income levels."
Points of Light
EFFORTS AT TECH-BASED EDUCATIONAL REFORM IN LATIN AMERICA
Chile: The Stanford
Teacher Education Program is
attempting to modernize teaching.
Mexico: University technology students
troubleshoot computer problems at
public schools, sharing knowledge with
teachers and IT staff.
Uruguay: A 1-to-1 computing program aims
to provide a laptop for every elementary school
child in the country by the end of 2009.
Costa Rica: A nonprofit group has provided technology
training to more than a million students
Brazil: In 2007, the government bought 90,000
computers-- with compatible wireless cards, wireless
routers, and laser printers-- for installation in
The OECD statistics are chilling. About
40 million children and adolescents in
Latin America drop out of school every
year to live or work on the streets.
Although 92 percent of Latin American
children begin primary school, only 32
percent go on to secondary school, and
even fewer graduate. Postsecondary education
is virtually an impossible dream for
most public school students.
According to another World Bank
study, done in 2008, "Accessibility and
Affordability of Tertiary Education in
Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru
Within a Global Context," families in
Latin America have to pay 60 percent of
per-household income for tertiary (thirdstage
or university) education per student
per year, compared to 19 percent in higher-
income countries. The study also says
that living costs for the typical Latin
American family average 29 percent of
GDP, as opposed to 19 percent in higherincome
countries. Student assistance
through grants and loans is marginal and difficult to come by.
While Latin America's educational problems may seem dire,
there are some reasons for optimism. With the big picture so
daunting, reform efforts tend to be more targeted, trying for individual
success stories rather than any transformative change.
One model that seems to be working is a collaborative approach
whereby universities or vendors partner with a local school to
solve specific technological problems. The ultimate goal is the
self-sufficiency of the individual school or school district.
In 2007, for example, Stanford University launched the International
Outreach Program (IOP), which aims to use technology
to upgrade school instruction in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Headed by Stanford professor Reinhold Steinbeck, the program
adapts the university's educational content and teaching
programs for partnerships with local schools and universities.
A recent step forward has come from the IOP's introduction
of the Stanford Teacher Education Program to teachers in Chile.
STEP emphasizes critical thinking and reform-- principles that
go against the inflexible hierarchical training that is a hallmark
of teacher education in Latin America. But so far, Steinbeck
says, the program appears to have had some success, with local educators showing interest in linking theory with practice. STEP
instructors have led several workshops in Chile for educators of
middle school math, history, and the social and natural sciences.
"There's a tendency in Latin America to do things that are very visual. You
can see computers, but teacher training is intangible.
Although it's more what's needed, there's a funding bias against it."
Steinbeck says support for the program has come from Chile's
Ministry of Education, the Pontofical Catholic University of
Chile, and the World Bank. He intends his next step to be a
larger one, "to take this collaboration beyond the pilot phase
and formalize a longer-term research and development program
that allows Chile to revamp teacher education."
Another ongoing collaborative effort is Cisco Systems'
Adopt an Academy program, a partnership begun in 2005 with
Mexico's UNETE-- a nonprofit group whose acronym translates
to "Commitment and Technology for a Better Education"--
Fundación Televisa, and Metropolitan Technological University.
Since the program's inception, some 135 of the university's
students have been charged with diagnosing technological
problems (hardware, software, and network functions) in
classrooms in 14 primary and secondary public schools in the
Mexican state of Yucatán. By writing down the troubleshooting
and maintenance steps and sharing them with the teachers and
IT administrators responsible for the classrooms, the students
ensure that the technology works the way it's supposed to and
that the classrooms can be self-sufficient in the future.
According to Miguel Angel Pichardo, UNETE's general
director, the plan is to upgrade at least 15 schools each year
through the Adopt an Academy program.
The Cisco/UNETE effort to empower local educators with
the knowledge to care for their own equipment addresses what
many educators believe is keeping the region from large-scale
technology integration: Even if Latin American schools had
adequate instructional technology, few of their teachers would
be trained to understand and use it to maximum advantage.
Lack of quality teaching is endemic across Latin America.
A raft of reports from the World Bank, the US Agency for
International Development, and the United Nations Economic
Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean state that
the among the region's high school graduates who go on to
seek further education, those who apply to teaching programs
have the lowest academic scores. In other words, the worst
students end up as teachers. Worldfund's Zurlo underscores
the gravity of the situation.
"The quality of the teachers is very poor," she says. "They're
poorly paid, it's not a respected profession, and they're not
trained to use technology in the classroom. Solving that is a
greater challenge than putting computers in schools-- it's easy to
do that, but using them effectively is much more difficult."
Zurlo also faults a mindset in Latin America that views the
acquisition of technology as an end in itself, not a means
to achieve other goals. "There's a tendency in Latin America
to do things that are very visual," she says. "You can see
computers, but teacher training is intangible. Although it's
more what's needed, there's a funding bias against it."
Kurt Moses, vice president and director of system services at
the Academy for Educational Development (AED), a US-based
nonprofit agency that operates globally, also highlights the
region's misplaced emphasis on the machines. "There is still
more of a focus on hardware and the physical things and less on
what you can get from them," Moses says.
Regional leaders, Moses explains, embed technology in an
agenda for social and political change. "Technology still represents
an investment in modernity, particularly for the new
leaders in the region," he says. In most countries, federal mandates
dictate the equipment and technology that public
schools can purchase; state and local school officials have little
or no say in the matter. As a result, the ultimate goal of the
technology-- instruction-- often is lost amid the symbolism of
the device itself, which heads of state use as evidence of their
countries' increasing importance on the world stage. Rather
than being used as a tool, the technology serves as a trophy.
Still, against these many and varied obstacles, Latin America's
educators are making efforts to integrate technology into
education, although most school technology programs are
sponsored by international nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs), charities, or software vendors. Some of the more
high-profile projects include the following:
- Through the One Laptop per Child program, Uruguay
began a 1-to-1 computing pilot at a school in the town of
Villa Cardal in the Uruguayan province of Florida. Called
Proyecto Ceibal, the plan aims to provide a laptop for every
elementary school child in the country by the end of 2009.
- Brazil's Committee for Democracy in Information Technology,
an NGO, collects computers in good working
condition that businesses have discarded as obsolete and
ships them to information technology training centers,
which in turn assist schools in low-income communities.
- The Omar Dengo Foundation, a Costa Rican nonprofit
group that receives funding from US and international
agencies, offers technology training for public schools.
More than a million students have benefited from its programs
since the foundation's inception in 2002.
Brazil, in particular, under the reformist government of Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, is seeking to make technology accessible,
affordable, and purpose-driven. In 2005, the country's state-run
enterprises began adopting open source software, which has allowed the government to bring
technology to schools more easily
and economically than it could
have otherwise. In 2007, Brazil's
Ministry of Education bought 90,000 Debian GNU/Linux computers--
with compatible wireless cards, wireless routers, and
laser printers-- for installation in 9,000 schools. Tax breaks help
subsidize the sale of computers to low-income families. A basic
machine (available even in grocery stores) that runs Linux costs
about $500, which can be paid in installments and with the help
of a 24-month interest-free loan from the government.
But Brazil is no further on than its neighbors in committing
to train teachers to use technology, and that's where the integration
effort breaks down. According to Worldfund's Zurlo, the
twin tasks of focusing on professional development and learning
to look beyond the mere acquisition of technology to its use as
a vital component of education can't happen without a complete
reframing of the classroom experience in Latin America.
"It's an easy, concrete thing to bring computers to a school,"
she says. "There are a lot of NGOs trying to do this, but they're
small, silo efforts. There's a lot of discussion about using the
internet to teach more broadly. But training teachers to do this is
a challenge. The internet is spoken of as a panacea, but so much
depends on the teacher. Teaching even in elite schools in Latin
America tends to be done by rote-- the teachers write stuff on
the blackboard and the kids copy it. We're trying to improve the
quality of the classroom experience with or without a computer.
The problem is much broader than just technology."
Educators also worry about what development agencies call
"appropriate technology," or technology that is suitable for
the environment and circumstances it's brought into. Ileana
Rowe, a Latin America consultant, points to the need for
"social inclusion": adapting technology to its surroundings so
that it provides users with the skills they need to function in a
particular country and industry. The Omar Dengo Foundation
is making some strides in that direction, Rowe says. For
instance, it teaches robotics not as an abstract discipline but as
applied to specific industries in Costa Rica.
From a technical point of view, says the AED's Moses, cell
phone networks could be considered appropriate technology for
Latin America, where landlines are unreliable and much of the
population is rural and isolated. Using high-capacity wireless
WiMAX technology, which gives each cell tower a range of 25
to 50 miles, the networks could connect schools across a vast
area. But while the technology may be appropriate for the
physical environment, it is mismatched with the human element,
says Moses, because it places a set of requirements on a population
that doesn't have them. "Now you have the internet, but so
what?" he says. "You now need a whole different set of skills.
Suddenly you've got to be a hypercritical thinker to sift through
and understand all the information you get."
For students in Latin America, that may be asking too much.
Perhaps the most telling comment on how far they are from
acquiring those skills comes from the 2007 World Bank report
on raising student learning in the region. In 1960, 7 percent of
adults in Latin America and 11
percent of adults in East Asia had
completed upper secondary school.
Forty years later, that figure had
soared to 44 percent in East Asia, but inched upward to just
18 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Just how low
has the region fallen academically? Spain and the Scandinavian
countries once had similar levels of educational achievement--
more than 40 years ago.
For more information on Latin American education,
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Rama Ramaswami is a technology writer based in Wilton, CT.
This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.