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Can schools in Latin America continue to function without digital infrastructure and internet connection? For many schools in Latin America, especially in rural areas, this is still the case, but for how long can they continue to function without the proper internet connection and using inefficient mechanisms for administrative purposes? Many schools operate with outdated administrative practices, this makes for slow and inefficient processes like keeping student records on paper. We talked with Gabriel Sánchez Zinny, former Minister of Education in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He details how he tackled the issue of administrative managing in the region and describes several long-lasting effects of equipping schools with the tools of the future. We welcome Gabriel Sánchez Zinny to the Education program’s Working Group on Innovation and Technology in Education at the Dialogue to contribute his experience implementing technology in the ministry and the education system.
What role does technology play when doing administrative managing?
Technology was undoubtedly a key tool for the Office of Culture and Education in carrying out the educational reforms we have enacted. I want to highlight that it was integral to all our education efforts; not only in administrative processes, but also in fields such as teacher training. It helped us improve a lot of services, mainly by reducing process wait times and bureaucratic formalities that were previously slow and cumbersome. On top of that, it also aided us in revolutionizing all types of educational content, from connectivity to robotics.
What aspects of the Ministry’s management improved with the incorporation of technology?
We began by standardizing the information of all students in the province and created an application to gather some basic information about them, their parents/guardians, and other economic data like their socio-economic status, certification, health, family assignments, and student ticket. As a result, today we have robust documentation for 3.8 million students.
In addition, remember that this is a ministry that interacts with more than 18 thousand schools, which millions of students attend every day. This system administers salary payments which are made to more than 400 thousand people, an average of six thousand medical licenses per day, and more than five thousand retirements every year. And all these processes were done on paper, making the system cumbersome, slow, and ineffective. At this point, technology and the modernization of these systems were a necessity.
I recently visited Primary School 10 of Videla Dorna Place, in San Miguel del Monte, as the educational community of the school celebrated its 75th anniversary. It is in a small town, located 14 kilometers from the center of its city and more than 100 kilometers from La Plata. I had a long conversation with Carolina, the director, who showed me the sheets of paper she was using for registration, attendance, and reporting, which have been the same since the founding of the school in 1943. This antiquated system seemed impractical in the age of artificial intelligence and digitization.
With the help of technology, we worked to replace those outdated processes through various initiatives. The implementation of Sistema Único de Novedades de Agentes (SUNA) meaning an integrated human resource information system in English, allowed all the news inherent in the educational system, such as requesting the incorporation of new staff or departure of employees, licenses, absences, etc., to be uploaded digitally. This enabled greater control and provided auditor data, in addition to the decrease processing wait times for the vacation of a position. The digital retirement was another great achievement in terms of modernization. This procedure can take more than four years that with the new system we reduced to 90 days without having to travel to the city of La Plata.
Another interesting innovation involved the digitization of licenses. The teachers’ medical licenses were slow because they were written on paper, and the discretionary way that they were granted invited corruption. Once we transformed this management model, we were able to minimize teacher turnover, which directly impacts the educational quality of the student. It’s important to remember that, in the end, that’s what matters: We manage the system so that all students from the Province of Buenos Aires can receive a quality education.
What were the most important technological initiatives you promoted to improve the quality of education during your period in the Ministry of Education?
Undoubtedly, the implementation of the Robotics Plan in all the primary schools of the province was the most interesting from a technological perspective. This is a project in which fifth and sixth graders incorporate new knowledge of robotics and develop skills such as programming and computational thinking, something that undoubtedly empowers their problem-solving ability. The program emphasizes the critical thinking and analytic side of mathematical reasoning, which opens the way for new possibilities in the future. This program was so successful that we extended it to all the schools of the province.
Connecting schools was another key point. On top of simply incorporating technology, we began the connectivity plan with the goal of accompanying that technology with the necessary infrastructure. What would be the point of getting phones, computers, and tablets if the school didn’t have fiber optics to use them?
As an example, visiting rural schools in the province, we met Primary 35 of Mapis Station, a small town in the Olavarría Partido, a county in rural Argentina. During the visit I met Silvana, the director of the establishment, who told me about the impact of the internet, not only on the school, but on the whole town. Thanks to the internet, the entire community could be connected through the school, something that seemed impossible a few months ago. We have connected more than seven thousand people, just like this school, throughout the province.
How do you ensure that the new technology is utilized adequately?
For the Robotics plan, for example, we provided teachers who were not accustomed to the use of technologies with guides developed in order to better include technologies in the classroom. This gave them the ability not only to learn how to use the new devices but also to accompany and guide students in the learning process. In addition to the guides, we have also had a virtual platform, edurobotica.abc.gob.ar, to provide online resources.
Another one of the changes that I think is important to highlight is the update of curricula, which were adapted to the real needs of today’s students. Most of the curricula that existed when we began the project were at least 15 years old, developed in a context in which information and communication technologies (ICTs) did not play a massive role. We had to change them, update them, and adapt them to the new times. Again, the delivery of robotics kits, 3D printers, tablets and computers doesn’t help if the curriculum has not adapted to these technologies.
We also focused our efforts on incorporating new ICTs into teacher training. Not only did we teach them virtual skills, we developed a detailed evaluation methodology that allows us to analyze the success of the training and plan future actions. Furthermore, we added pedagogical lessons to the virtual skills, so that teachers without an enabling degree can complete this section.
What did the joint work with IBM consist of?
We promoted the pilot of the P-TECH educational model, a joint project between IBM and our Office. IBM’s idea arises in response to a lack of technological skills, the need to prepare young people for new types of technology jobs, and the lack of access to quality education in this area.
This model proposed a new type of public school ranging from the third year of the secondary school to the 2nd year of tertiary school, focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and technical education. The goal is to get students to master the skills they need, whether to graduate with a technology-linked tertiary degree, enter a growing STEM industry, or to continue and complete their studies at a four-year higher education institution.
Being able to be part of this initiative was very rewarding, since we have been working and rethinking how to transform secondary schools to adapt them to this new digital age. In fact, our program of promoter schools deals with this by using project-based learning that is more related to technologies. It encourages exploration and experimentation, which generates curiosity and hopefully gets the students to be interested in finishing their studies.
The P-TECH educational model will be implemented in 2020 at the number two Technical School in Munro and with a curriculum based on the needs and opportunities of the IT industry from the first day of school. IBM argues that after finishing high school under this program, studies can be completed with the new Artificial Intelligence and Data Science Steanic at the new Higher Institute of Technique Training.
Thinking about the available data on school dropouts, what actions did you take to address this reality?
Reversing school dropouts was a clear goal from the beginning of this administration and one of the biggest needs to improve education in the province of Buenos Aires, where half of the students who start high school do not complete it on time.
Asistiré (I will attend) was one of the technology programs that helped us most in reducing school dropouts. With this project, we distributed devices (tablets) to schools in order to digitize attendance recording, which facilitated the early detection of repeated absenteeism of students through a dropout-risk alert system.
On top of addressing current students, we also had to think about former students that have already dropped out. Our statistics said that in the province of Buenos Aires, there were more than three million adults without primary or secondary school education. Here the challenge was to generate tools that facilitate the inclusion of adults and their return to the educational system. In this framework, we promoted different programs such as High School with Jobs, Adults 3.0, and Remote Education. These programs were designed for adults to complete their studies, expanding the accessibility and variety of classes offered to include in person, remote, and online courses.