Education and Skills

Why COVID-19 is an EdTech opportunity for Latin America

Denisse Toala (C), a 16-year-old student, teaches children in an improvised school she has set up under a tree since they have been unable to attend virtual classes in the low-income neighbourhood Realidad de Dios, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Guayaquil, Ecuador July 2, 2020. Picture taken July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Santiago Arcos - RC26TH9RALAO

Children unable to attend virtual classes in a low-income neighbourhood of Guayaquil, Ecuador, are taught in a makeshift classroom Image: REUTERS/Santiago Arcos

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SDG 04: Quality Education

  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 154 million children or about 95% of the enrolled students are temporarily out of school owing to COVID-19;
  • There is a significant digital divide in the region which threatens the accessibility of remote learning and other education technologies to all;
  • Governments and start-ups are stepping up to meet the challenge, deliver learning programmes and overcome the region's connectivity issues.

Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. Three-quarters of Latin Americans are categorized as low or lower-middle-income with 30% living below the poverty line. Though many countries in the region have made significant strides towards lowering income inequality in the past few years, the richest decile of Latin Americans still owns 71% of the region’s wealth. Combine the region’s income inequality with the COVID-19 crisis, and low-income families are now facing unprecedented challenges.

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Access to quality education is a necessary tool to address inequalities, but the current situation with school closures in Latin America is creating new challenges to the implementation of education technology (EdTech) that is accessible to all.

The snowball effect of school closures

In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 154 million children or about 95% of the enrolled students are temporarily out of school owing to COVID-19. School closures can have a significant impact on children’s education, as well as their health, well-being and safety, and the situation is likely to worsen as isolation measures heighten risks in the home.

Nine out of 10 children in Latin America and the Caribbean between three and four years old are exposed to at least one of the following major risk factors: emotional abuse, domestic violence, failure to receive early education, lack of support and inadequate care. With a large number of parents working in the informal economy and many without a safety net of savings, finding quality, affordable childcare presents another major challenge. What is more, some 80 million children in Latin America are currently missing out on school meals, which is another issue for families who are struggling to put food on the table.

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic
School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic Image: Our World in Data

Exposing the digital divide in education

School closures expose the region’s significant digital divide or the gap between those who have internet access and those with limited or no access. While students in more developed countries – and primarily in big cities – have moved to online instruction, the reality is that digital education is not an option for everyone.

According to a report by ORBA de la CEPAL, 67% of Latin America’s population uses the internet, but there are drastic differences between countries. In countries that are considered “well-connected”, internet penetration in rural areas still only reaches 40-50% of the population; in poorly-connected countries, that number drops to an average of 10%.

In many Latin American countries, the percentage of children under 15 years old who are considered internet users is under 50%. In small towns like Arbelaez, Colombia, teachers now send homework to students by Whatsapp, even though only 30% of them have access to the application. The rest have to rely on their parents to collect physical copies of the instructions.

Internet users by world region
Internet users by world region Image: Our World in Data

While some governments have been quick to take action and help ensure students have a way to receive educational materials, there are still significant gaps. Innovative approaches are needed to overcome the challenges of connectivity and guarantee access to education for the region’s most vulnerable populations.

How governments are responding to the crisis

One way governments across Latin America are attempting to avoid the interruption of education and guarantee access for all children at home, including those without internet access, is through existing radio and television infrastructures. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street and Sésamo, recently joined efforts to deliver quality educational television content to preschool-age children in Latin America and the Caribbean. The programming, which will run until June 2021, will be in Spanish for Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America and Portuguese for Brazil.

Governments are broadcasting educational programmes on both television and public radio for students in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and El Salvador. In other countries, such as Costa Rica, the government is offering hard copies of resources for parents without internet access. Others are increasing public wifi access: in the Dominican Republic, more than 1,000 free public wifi access points have been set up to facilitate resource distribution.

The gaps that still exist for start-ups to explore

While many government initiatives are focused on providing instant solutions and resources to families in need, the challenge will be to ensure that new digital technology solutions have a positive long-term effect and effectively address existing inequalities.

The World Bank outlines some important issues for Latin America, and the list serves as a great starting point for entrepreneurs thinking about providing digital solutions. For example:

  • How to prepare the region’s digital infrastructure for a significant increase in demand;
  • How to transition from education delivery to meaningful learning;
  • How to better prepare educators and parents to navigate this new context;
  • How to combine online and offline learning technologies or multi-channel strategies (such as TV and Whatsapp);
  • How to implement quality assurance under the new circumstances;
  • How to avoid dependence on a few vendors;
  • How to protect learner privacy.

EdTech challenges and opportunities

As the crisis escalates, there are significant opportunities to help families manage all of these challenges; however, any digital solutions must also navigate the region’s connectivity issues. Providing resources through low-tech options, such as television, radio and mobile apps that can function on slow connections and require less data is helpful for families in the short term.

The Wawa laptop project in Peru is providing students with solar-powered laptops made from recycled materials that run on free Android and Linux operating systems. Alba, a Chile-based start-up that helps match parents with caretakers, recently launched Alba Live to offer free online classes to children under eight years old in an effort to help parents keep their children learning and entertained while they have to work.

Delivering affordable educational resources is just one part of the challenge. To ensure the learning experience is also engaging and meaningful, connectivity improvements and digital literacy must play more prominent roles in EdTech’s success in Latin America. There’s never been a better time for start-ups to focus on innovative solutions that help students, teachers and families access educational resources regardless of their location.

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