This week I was analyzing a report published by the World Economic Forum, prepared by the EdTech team of the World Bank, in which the dramatic reality of digital gaps in the education sector in Latin America is exposed. On this occasion, I would like to emphasize some statistics that are highlighted in this report, and analyze the main challenges or opportunities that lie ahead.
“Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world. Although many countries in the region have made significant progress toward reducing income inequality in recent years, the richest decile of Latin Americans still owns 71% of the region’s wealth. Combining the region’s income inequality with the COVID-19 crisis, low-income families now face unprecedented challenges. “
One of the main tools to fight inequality in the world is, without a doubt, access to quality and inclusive education; However, the question that should be asked is how prepared is our government to ensure optimal connectivity conditions throughout the country? Virtual education has proven its usefulness and efficiency in a period of crisis in which some higher education institutions were forced to adapt, and others, on the contrary, we had been implementing educational technology (EdTech) for years with excellent results.
“According to a report by ORBA from ECLAC, 67% of the Latin American 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 countries with poor connections, that figure drops to an average of 10% ”.
We agree that innovative approaches are needed to overcome the challenges of connectivity and also guarantee access to education for the most vulnerable populations in the region. Other governments in Latin America such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and El Salvador, are closing the digital gaps in regular basic education, through the existing radio and television infrastructures. Others, like the Dominican Republic, have established more than a thousand public access points with free Wi-Fi to also facilitate the connection of higher education students.
These government initiatives can provide instant solutions and resources to families in need in a period of emergency, however the real challenge is ensuring that new digital technology solutions have a long-term positive effect and effectively address existing inequalities.
The World Bank, in this sense, has selected the main topics that entrepreneurs dedicated to providing digital solutions can offer in Latin America. These topics range from: How to prepare the region’s digital infrastructure for a significant increase in demand; how to move from providing education 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 in the new circumstances; how to protect the privacy of students, etc. We see how a range of possibilities for entrepreneurship and innovation opens up so that startups and SMEs themselves can support governments in this matter.
For example, here in Peru, the Wawa laptop project is providing students with solar-powered laptops made from recycled materials that run on free Android and Linux operating systems. On the other hand, Alba, a start-up in Chile, recently launched Alba Live to offer free online classes to children under the age of eight in an effort to help parents keep their children learning and entertained while they have to work.
On the other hand, if we do an analysis based on the Ranking of internet connectivity by regions for 2019, we take into account the five regions with the worst connectivity index and compare it with their public investment, we have the following result:
|Región||Connectivity||Allocated budget||Budget Executed||Advance|
We clearly see that in these regions there is a very high budget without execution that could easily be allocated to companies specializing in connectivity and technological supplies. We must take as an example the budget execution system that was used in the Lima 2019 Pan American and Parapan American Games. At the end of 2018, they reported that their annual budget was 97.3% executed, at the total level of activities and projects. The execution was achieved saving 20% of the authorized budget. That money was transferred to the adjacent districts so that they can carry out works, according to what was commented by Carlos Neuhaus, former president of the Lima 2019 Organizing Committee. In the same way, the budget that is not executed by the regions should be used to repower the connectivity of the areas with the most technological deficiencies. An important point that we should consider is that, if until September of each year, the budget execution of each region declines, there should be a law that requires investment in favor of regional education. For this, we must have a plan with selected suppliers, quotes, etc. always update them between July – August and immediately run it from September to December of the current year. Let us bear in mind that in the regions that we take as an example, there are approximately 140,000 young people between 15 and 29 years old as potential users who could directly benefit from this service. I am sure that in less than three years we could have important results in the technological development of each region.
The Covid-19 crisis has opened a window of opportunity for us to exploit on many fronts. We must understand that making educational resources affordable is only part of the challenge. The biggest challenge is to ensure that the learning experience is also attractive and meaningful, for this connectivity improvements and digital literacy must play a central role in Latin American EdTech. As the World Economic Forum indicates, there has never been a better time for startups to focus on innovative solutions that help students, teachers, and families access educational resources regardless of location.