In their welcome remarks, both Jaime Saavedra and Emanuela Di Gropello alluded to the challenges posed by Latin America’s digital divide. They stressed the sense of urgency that the region should have, as the pandemic hindered student learning, and placed technology as a strategic tool for greater equality of opportunities. Robert Hawkins presented the new educational technology strategy, Reimagining Human Connections – Technology and Innovation in Education at the World Bank. He highlighted the five principles to consider when thinking about EdTech policies: ask why, design and act at scale and for all, empower teachers, engage the ecosystem (ministries, universities, private sector), and use data to drive an evidence-based culture.
Edna Bonilla opened the panel discussion, sharing the experience of Bogota’s education system during the pandemic. For context, she mentioned that Bogota has 36,000 teachers and 800,000 students in its public schools. Of these students, approximately 350,000 did not have access to virtual learning. Bonilla also stressed that existing inequalities and technological gaps became more visible with the pandemic. She shared that children who had online access could advance with their learning much faster than those without a stable or easily accessible connection. Bonilla also claimed that the pandemic shed light on how important it is for teachers and students to develop technological skills. She pointed to teachers as the central pillar in education, and mentioned that it is key to promote technology as a tool that can enhance their work.
Ana Caroline Santos continued, sharing Brazil’s efforts in educational technology. She said that she agreed with Secretary Bonilla on many points, especially regarding the challenges that existed since before the pandemic. She said, however, that there are now new strategies and opportunities to respond to digital inequalities. In 2017, the Brazilian Ministry of Education launched the “Programa de Inovação Educação Conectada” (Program of Innovation in Connected Education) based on four objectives: a clear vision for a local and national strategy, teacher training, the supply of technological tools to schools, and the necessary infrastructure to sustain it. That plan is still in effect and functioned as a useful framework during the pandemic. Santos stressed the importance of changing the culture surrounding traditional educational practices, incorporating technology into education. She also pointed out that there are still many challenges to face, public-private partnerships to form, and, in general, much to be done for education in the region.
Next up, Leandro Folgar shared Plan Ceibal’s efforts, achievements, and challenges in Uruguay. He mentioned that Uruguay, in its entirety, has more or less the same number of students as Bogota. In comparing the two, he highlighted the importance of technology in larger countries—which may not be the case of Uruguay, but of other nations in the region. Uruguay began reopening schools relatively early; in April 2020 they began a gradual reopening, prioritizing rural schools and then socio-economically vulnerable ones. Since its beginnings in 2007, Plan Ceibal has provided devices to students in public schools, reaching the entirety of the student population by 2019. Despite having one computer per student, the pandemic still presented challenges for remote learning, especially in terms of internet speed.
Finally, Maruja Gorday de Villalobos shared the challenges faced and strategies implemented by the Ministry of Education of Panama during the pandemic. The Panamanian education system has approximately 868,000 students. As soon as the pandemic began, the Ministry formed strategic alliances with the private sector, NGOs, and universities to provide access to TV, radios, and educational platforms and thus continue with education remotely. The minister noted that stable access to internet is an area of great inequality in Panama, so the Ministry had to implement three remote-learning solutions aimed at students who faced different realities: those with connectivity used the internet, devices, and virtual platforms; those without connectivity used radio, TV, and guides with tutorials; and those with limited access (indigenous regions, for example) used radio and printed guides. Gorday de Villalobos also shared lessons learned, for example, the importance of strategic alliances, strengthening existing tools, producing and digitalizing educational material, and supporting the training of teachers’ technological skills.
The event ended with a conversation about the lessons learned from the pandemic and recommendations for the future. Fiszbein asked the panelists, “What do you hope to be different in post-pandemic education?” They answered that, from now on, it is crucial to combine in-person and virtual education (through hybrid models) and incorporate technology effectively into in-person education. The panelists concluded that they hope that the visibility that education has gained will be maintained beyond the pandemic so that governments in the region prioritize education in their agendas.