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.

A World of HurtMICHAEL 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."

Chilling Statistics

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


A World of HurtChile: 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 since 2002.

Brazil: In 2007, the government bought 90,000 computers-- with compatible wireless cards, wireless routers, and laser printers-- for installation in 9,000 schools.

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.

Targeted Progress

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, visit our website at www.thejournal.com. Enter the keywords Latin America/strong>.

Rama Ramaswami is a technology writer based in Wilton, CT.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.