Virtual Education in the Times of Covid-19: Seminar in Memory of José María Antón

This post is also available in: Español 

Panelists Main Photo: Lucélia Ribeiro, Children at school. Flickr. Adapted to black and white and blue wash.

On April 7, the Education Program hosted a webinar to reflect on the legacy of José María Antón, the president of Virtual Educa and a visionary leader who sought to improve educational outcomes through technology, and to discuss the digital educational opportunities during the Covid-19 crisis. This virtual panel featured Jorge Antón Jornet, the brother of José María Antón and a manager at Virtual Educa; Eugenio Severín, the executive director of Tu Clase, Tu País; Elena García, programming director of Virtual Educa; Martha Castellanos, academic vice-chancellor of the Fundación Universitaria del Área Andina; and Fernando Valenzuela, a manager at the Global Impact EdTech Alliance. This seminar was moderated by Ariel Fiszbein, the program director of the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

The current world crisis has brought to the forefront the discussion surrounding the capacity to develop virtual education in Latin America. Jorge Antón Jornet began by remembering his brother as someone who believed that, “in this world, anything and everything is possible”. José María Antón was a pioneer in his vision for virtual education and dedicated his life to promoting a better education system in countries around the world. While traveling throughout Latin America and working with a variety of governments, teachers, and businesses, Antón did everything he could to give a voice to education in the region. Eugenio Severín recalled that Antón’s dream was to create an education system that is more democratic and inclusive of all students, especially those from rural areas.

Martha Castellanos remembered the strength with which Antón envisioned, “all of the possibilities that virtual education had in breaking social and economic gaps” which has stayed with her throughout her professional career. In relation to the current crisis, the panelists stressed that the challenge is two-fold: on the one hand, the need to develop and introduce new virtual platforms that can reach all the students that need it and on the other hand, to reduce the inequality between Latin American students. In the next few months, for urban and rural areas with less internet connection, it will be difficult to provide the same quality of education. The challenge is to not only expand coverage, but also provide quality education that has a transformative power that can develop human capabilities and where teachers can create disruptive learning models that develop soft skills through a new way to approach learning.

Severín argued that apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram present opportunities to expand the way we use technology in education. However, Fernando Valenzuela cautioned that there is not one single option that can help students and schools during this time, and we must create a balance between virtual platforms, television, radio, study guides, and other teaching systems. This led to a discussion of the different ways to integrate technology into education in areas with low connectivity that were introduced in the document Transforming the learning experience through the use of educational technology: Challenges and Opportunities in Latin America, which was developed by the Dialogue's Education and Innovation Working Group.

Collaboration between different actors across the public and private spheres is essential to creating these digital spaces where teachers and students meet. A challenge, according to Castellanos, is "how to work with sectors of the economy that did not communicate ... and invite them to transform and make education a reality through virtual means and tools." Valenzuela explained that education is a complex system with many stakeholders and components that do not belong to only one country or institution, so everyone should collaborate with the same goals in mind when designing a virtual education system. Through public-private partnerships, we can integrate a new reality with the goal of comprehensive, quality education that prepares students for the challenges of today's world.

The seminar concluded with a discussion of the future of virtual education over the following months and years. Elena García emphasized the power of this virtual education, especially in this time of crisis, to redefine the educational system and reach a place we could not reach with traditional education.


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