By Natalia Pastori Curbelo
Education in Latin America was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the region having one of the most prolonged closings of schools on a global scale. The need to continue with students’ learning processes posed a critical challenge and led to a rapid shift within the traditional “in-person learning” education system and a variety of alternative solutions in terms of schools’ calendars and curriculum adaptations.
Most of the remote learning strategies implemented were based on the use of technology. Therefore, students’ access to the Internet and information communications technology (ICT) devices became essential to manage the continuity of their education. However, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most Latin American countries — it is important to note that Latin America is a highly diverse continent, with significant differences between countries, as well as considerable within-country inequalities — were already dealing with digital inequality, which was exposed and even exacerbated by the new global scenario.
Access to internet and associated challenges
According to data presented by the WB (2021), 77% of 15-year-old students in the region had access to the Internet at home, with only 45% of low-income students (bottom quintile) having access. While data disaggregated by race and ethnicity is insufficient, it suggests that the indigenous and afro-descendent populations have limited access compared to the white population. Moreover, indigenous languages are severely under-represented on the Internet, prompting a language divide in internet use. As a result, studies show that in households where Spanish is the primary language, internet adoption increases. Persons with disabilities also struggle to access the Internet, with existing data showing that they are five times less likely to be online than persons without disabilities. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis revealed a gap in connectivity infrastructure between rural and urban settings, even though the inclusion of mobile internet access in rural areas and other initiatives have been showing encouraging results to meet the demand for connectivity in more isolated areas. The aforementioned suggests that the use of digital resources and platforms as a strategy to continue with students’ learning processes may have been an obstacle for those living in rural and marginal urban areas with low or no internet connectivity and limited access to ICT devices, rather than an inclusive mechanism.
Focusing on the gender digital divide, results in Latin America can be misleading. Overall, the gender gap in access to ICT is smaller than in other emerging regions: in terms of internet access, there is a 6-point difference between men and women (63% for men and 57% for women), and in terms of access to a mobile phone, there is a 3-point difference (83% for men and 80% for women). Still, there is a significant gap related to the creation and management of technology as well as to its usage, with men making greater use of these tools for educational, labour and productive purposes.
Plan Ceibal — an innovative initiate
Within Latin American countries, Uruguay’s pre-existing investments and efforts provided more favourable starting conditions to face the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. Plan Ceibal was essential for the country to implement non-face-to-face ways of learning and played a central role in how the country’s education system adapted to the new reality. Launched in 2007, Plan Ceibal is a national education initiative based on the “one laptop per child” proposal, aimed at improving education through the mediation of technology and, since its conception, it was designed as a way to promote social inclusion and provide equal opportunities by narrowing the digital gap among students.
Initially, through Plan Ceibal, Uruguay distributed digital devices to students and teachers and provided all schools within the public education system with internet access. After this initial stage which was directed at reducing the digital divide, the plan expanded towards including technology in classrooms and school curriculums. These efforts created a digital culture which unwittingly left the country better positioned in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Ceibal in numbers:
- 100% of educational institutions (3,038 institutions) with Wi-Fi (December 2021)
- 99.85% of students enrolled (733,000 users) have access to broadband Internet (December 2021)
- 68% of lower-income primary and middle school students only have Ceibal computer (2019)
- From 2007 to 2019, among students aged 6 to 13, access to a computer device rose from 30 % to 90 %, with the largest increase observed among students from lower-income families (from 9 % to 88 %).
As such, Plan Ceibal enabled educational continuity and demonstrated having one of the region’s most robust infrastructures and offering of digital content and the capacity to innovate and overcome the difficulties of the new context. Together with the National Public Education Administration (ANEP), Plan Ceibal’s contingency plan — Ceibal at home — was implemented to mitigate the disruption caused by the closure of schools across the country.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest challenge Plan Ceibal faced since its creation in 2007. While it showed the value of investing and incorporating technology into the classroom, it also presented a series of issues that need to be addressed to secure its success during this time.
Firstly, to ensure it reached all homes equally, an agreement with the state-owned internet provider and other private companies was made to secure free or reduced rates on mobile data to access educational resources and platforms. Secondly, a contingency procedure was developed to safely deliver devices to students in rural areas and vulnerable communities, which was crucial to guarantee equal access and opportunities. Likewise, a protocol was created to sustain and expand services for the staff working remotely to cover tasks such as computer repair.
Thirdly, the capacity of the technological infrastructure was increased by 400%, with maintenance work being carried out at night to avoid interruption during the highest traffic. An automated end-user tool was also created to deal with the high demand for user support. Lastly, Ceibal at home required training for teachers to improve interaction with students through digital platforms and to expand the content offered. In addition, taking into account the socio-emotional effects caused by social isolation, it provided relevant information on wellness during the pandemic for teachers, students and their families and developed a guide, “Psycho-emotional support for families during the coronavirus quarantine” with ANEP and UNICEF.
With the success of the Plan Ceibal initiative, UNICEF Uruguay and Plan Ceibal designed the “Digital Bridges for Education Equity” project to expand Plan Ceibal’s scope as well as create a replicable model for other countries. The project stems from the fact that, as stated by UNICEF Uruguay (2022), between June 2020 and December 2021, nearly 77 million children globally were disengaged from education and during school closures, at least 1 in 3 school-age children did not have access to distance learning. Consequently, it is essential to document and advance an initiative as Plan Ceibal to continue building digital bridges between students in Latin America and worldwide.
About the Author
Natalia Pastori Curbelo works as a Bilingual Associate Researcher at Includovate. She graduated from the Republic’s University in Uruguay with a degree in Political Science and later on, completed her Master’s degree in Government and Public Administration from the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). In 2019, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Coimbra Group of Brazilian Universities (GCUB) awarded her a scholarship that allowed her to study at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in Brazil and achieve her second Master’s degree in Social Policy. She has experience in Policy Analysis, Policy Evaluation, and Social Network Analysis, mainly focusing on social protection issues, gender, and migration. Natalia is currently based in Brazil and can speak Spanish, English, French and Portuguese, fluently.
Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.