ICT in Latin America: Policy and planning for emergencies

17 September 2020


Ruslana Iurchenko/Shutterstock
Two children using a laptop computer.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced education systems across Latin America to respond quickly to guarantee the continuity of learning. As in other parts of the world, digital policies played a crucial role. Fernando Salvatierra, an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Programme Specialist at the IIEP-UNESCO Office for Latin America, explains how the evolution of ICT progressed prior to this crisis, and what lies ahead.  

During the 2000s, the emergence of ICT throughout Latin America penetrated all social practices, and changed how challenges are addressed in public policies. Governments began to define digital strategies, plans and policies in education within the framework of public ICT policies, considering these as a means for the development of society as a whole. The formulation of public policies was focused on reducing the digital divide and promoting the creation of information societies.

Despite all these efforts, digital policies remain uneven in Latin America. The educational crisis brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic exposed this, especially with regard to access, use, and integration of ICT at the level of education systems. Equitable access has yet to be achieved. The most disadvantaged social groups continue to be systematically excluded from quality education.

Identifying trends from the last 15 years

Latin America has experienced various planning cycles for its digital policies. We can clearly identify two. The first cycle too took place from 2005-2014 with a huge emergence of digital policies in education, as well as expectations. Various initiatives for the incorporation of technologies were created: one computer per student, mobile classrooms, provision of infrastructures for schools, and extension and coverage of connectivity. All the strategies and measures were an indicator of the efforts of governments to install and sustain a public policy with strong social impact, which addresses social and educational inclusion.

The period 2015-2019 is quite uneven. Some policies went from being government projects to State policies, being sustained through different governments. However, many of the countries, at the ICT and education level, showed a certain slowdown and even stagnation. This happened, in many cases, as a result of neoliberal agendas, where ICT policies were relegated. In this period, many of the previous efforts to narrow the gaps in ICT in education  were greatly affected.

In addition, in many countries, a certain decline was observed in the ICT area, which added to the large number of broken and disused equipment and schools disconnected from the Internet. We are not just talking about rural or isolated schools, but disconnected schools even in urban areas, where access at the infrastructure level would have been possible. It is true that more of the population was accessing devices such as smartphones; however, this should not imply relegating the role of the State.

In 2020, a particular phenomenon broke the inertia of previous years. Because of the pandemic, digital policies resurfaced with force on government agendas, to respond to the educational emergency. This irruption offers the opportunity to look again at our educational systems, as well as the gaps and needs to plan for the future.

ICT: How did education systems respond to the emergency?

IIEP-UNESCO’s Information System on Educational Trends in Latin America (SITEAL) monitored what is happening at the regional level. We can identify three fundamental ways to respond with digital policies:

  • Through the creation of ICT platforms, where access and connectivity are key,
  • Through traditional mass media such as radio and TV, from which programmes have been broadcast to provide continuity,
  • Through teacher support for distance education. This is something fundamental to consider, since teachers were suddenly affected in the way in which they had been working, and as we know, distance mode is very different from face-to-face.

Likewise, several countries focused on two key issues at the infrastructure level. First, the purchase and delivery of computers and/or tablets, especially for students and social groups that did not have access to other devices. Second, several countries have agreed with the main telecommunications companies to release mobile data on the websites of their respective educational platforms, so that students browse for free.

ICT policies: going beyond the classroom

Efforts to think about ICT policies were always focused on face-to-face education, meaning technology in the classroom. However, today we are looking at technology as a tool for distance education. This is something we all know, but it is worth highlighting: basic, initial, primary and secondary education, worldwide, is fundamentally face-to-face.

In general, there is much more experience of distance education (online education) at the university level, but not at the other levels. Although many teachers may have been working with virtual strategies that implied certain work outside the classroom schedule (an example would be the flipped classrooms) this did not mean thinking about distance or online teaching proposals. Presence was always the organizing axis. Developing good online teaching proposals takes a lot of time, effort and even a lot of interdisciplinary work with experts.

The question we ask at the regional level is therefore: is this distance education?  In principle we would have to say no. That is why in the world of academia a debate arose that stands out to us, and that is to differentiate distance education from emergency remote teaching.

Unlike distance learning experiences – which are planned from the beginning and designed to be online – we could say that emergency remote teaching is a temporary change in teaching due to crisis.

The road to 2030

Today, we are 10 years away from the deadline of the 2030 Agenda. At IIEP-UNESCO, we are focusing on Sustainable Development Goal 4. At the level of educational planning, it is essential to lay the foundations to be able to – by 2030 – eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training. This has a special focus on vulnerable people, including those with disabilities and indigenous peoples and children in at-risk situations.

The current crisis reveals that digital policies in education still have many challenges to face. They are crucial to achieving the goals of the 2030 Agenda. It will be essential to redouble efforts to sustain ICT policies in education in the coming years. We will have to include planning for crisis contexts, address the need for universal Internet, and go further to align with worldwide discussions, such as big data and artificial intelligence for the planning and management of education systems.

This article has been translated from Spanish. Read the full article here.