COVID-19 Impacts

Latin American National Responses to COVID-19 in Digital Learning:

Current Trends and Future Impact

Teachers College/ILAS, Columbia University

The Latin American National Responses to COVID-19 in Digital Learning file displays the measures adopted in Latin American countries regarding digital learning to abide by COVID-19’s social distancing policies. All countries in Latin America but Nicaragua are undertaking some kind of digital learning strategy to continue providing education during the COVID-19 emergency situation. The majority of the countries have a platform or portal that provides educational material, although some countries prioritize the use of TV and radio. With a few exceptions, using already existing educational channels and platforms instead of creating new ones has been the trend in most of Central America. In those cases, available material does not seem to correspond to a specific grade curriculum, whereas for countries with online platforms implemented because of COVID-19, educational material tends to be divided by grade. Universities tend to follow virtual classes. Nonetheless, the situation is preoccupying because most measures seem to be improvised, and the recurrent education problems in the region (urban/rural gap, non-completion of education) are likely to increase due to unequal access to digital learning.

With the exception of Nicaragua, all other Latin American countries proceeded to closing their school establishments near or on the day national quarantine was declared. The Latin American National Responses to COVID-19 in Digital Learning file offers a comprehensive overview and analysis of the measures undertaken in Latin American countries regarding digital learning to abide by COVID-19’s social distancing policies. 

The file is composed of four tabs. The first tab displays the estimated total number of learners affected based on UNESCO’s (2020) information. Two tables are shown. The first table focuses on providing information disaggregated by gender, while the second table focuses on the totals per level. All levels are shown, from pre-primary to tertiary education, to provide a general picture of the situation. Figure 1 below corresponds to the second table in the first tab of the Excel document:

Tab 2 of the file displays the number of actions in education according to ECLAC’s (2020) monitoring. ECLAC’s information is updated to April 3, 2020, and it is divided into general measures and distance learning-related measures. Based on the accompanying information, ECLAC takes any distance learning measure into account in the second column, regardless of whether it is digital or not.

Tab 3 of the file offers a table on the e-readiness of some of Latin America’s biggest commercial markets for the United States (VISA, 2019). The table is accompanied by two graphs, each one corresponding to the indexes that may be related to education: device access percentage, and online connectivity percentage.

The first three tabs set the basis for the summary appearing on tab 4.

Responding to social distancing through digital learning in Latin America
Tab 4 offers a comprehensive summary of Latin American national responses to COVID-19 in digital learning. In the first five columns, countries appear according to their estimated total population for the year 2020 (ECLAC, 2019), ranging from the highest populated to the least populated country. This first part of the table displays two more types of data: education completion percentages, and percentages of households being able to access the internet from a computer. The education completion percentages are divided into upper secondary and tertiary education to show the completion gap between those levels under normal circumstances. In addition, each of those categories is disaggregated into urban and rural population percentages, also to highlight the inequalities per region under normal circumstances. The data were taken from WIDE (n.d.), where the information for the tertiary level for some countries is not available. As for upper secondary education, the data for Argentina and Venezuela display their disaggregation per locality and not per region. The data from Venezuela are the oldest, going back to 2000, while all other countries display data roughly between 2008 and 2016. The percentage of households with internet access and with a computer are also shown to point out differences between categories. As an exception, Puerto Rico is included in the estimated total population, internet access and households with a computer. This is because the data were taken from ECLAC (2019). However, because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, other education-related data are not provided by UNESCO and do not appear in the table. 

Figure 2 below corresponds to the information above, in addition to the number of measures per country to continue educating due to COVID-19. The information presented in these two sub-columns was retrieved from ECLAC (2020, April 3) and from UNESCO (2020 b). To complement the data presented in Tab 2 of the file, both columns are updated to April 13, 2020, and present only digital learning measures in the second column (for Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, please refer to Figure 3): 

The second set of columns show information related to the measures taken in digital learning due to the COVID-19 emergency. The dates of school closures and of initial date of digital learning planning may slightly vary in other sources depending on whether the data were taken from official communications or effective dates of enactment. The table aimed at providing the dates closest to official communications, but it also presents enforcement dates whenever the former were not available, especially for some of the platforms (as for Argentina). The column representing the measures per country to continue educating due to the COVID-19 emergency shows general and digital measures separate to make digital measures stand out (ECLAC 2020; UNESCO, 2020 b). The general measures include new digital strategies such as platforms, decrees of school closures only when issued by the respective Ministry of Education of the country, measures on food provision, and other distance learning measures taken after school closures (see, for instance, Chile’s “Aprendo en casa”). Other digital learning measures that existed before COVID-19 are not part of the “Digital” column, but are mentioned in the “Others” column. An exception is Uruguay’s “Plan Ceibal”, which existed before COVID-19, but which is officially currently functioning as another platform for digital learning. The rest of the columns provide information on the specific official learning platforms of each country, a brief description of their content, and the levels of education that they cover (see UNESCO, 2020 b). Figure 3 below illustrates this part’s information:

Current trends and future impact of digital learning during COVID-19 in Latin America
Based on the summary table in the accompanying Excel document, all countries in Latin America are implementing distance learning due to COVID-19 but Nicaragua, where schools remain open. Nicaragua is also the country with the lowest completion percentages, both in upper secondary and tertiary education, both urban and rural (comparison with Venezuela is not possible because the information displayed for Venezuela is that of its lowest performing locality). Most other countries are uploading new educational material to official platforms or online channels, some of which were already functioning and some of which are under continuous updating. A few countries are making use of other technologies as main channels of transmission of educational content, such as Ecuador, Cuba, Honduras (YouTube), or Venezuela (Whatsapp and Facebook). Others, like Bolivia, are using their already existing portals (Bolivia), or recurring to previous emergency plans, such as Paraguay. In the case of Brazil, there is no federal online platform, yet, but actions at the state level are taking place (see UNESCO, 2020 b).

The blanks towards the middle of the table are noteworthy. Not only do they correspond to little or no government support to implement official online platforms, but they also correspond mostly to Central American countries, in addition to Ecuador and Bolivia. It is also noteworthy that, for most of those cases, the level covered by the existing platform is mixed, that is, it is not divided by grade, but offers educational material by topic (for example, how to learn to multiply). For the tertiary level, most university systems are adopting the virtual class modality, regardless of the content of official portals or platforms. A few exceptions exist where calendars are being modified for physical attendance at a later point, such as some universities in Argentina (see UNESCO, 2020 b). In addition, the new material in most platforms mainly offers basic mathematics and language skills, as well as advice on how to study during social distancing; few are the cases where a broader selection of subjects is available online, such as Costa Rica (see UNESCO, 2020 b). Another exception in the region is Mexico, where students were out of school for a month and went back through TV or virtual classes following the national curriculum, using national textbooks, and dividing educational broadcasts by level and grade (Aprende en Casa, 2020).

Putting all the information together, measures taken in digital learning to face COVID-19 are fairly in line with the internet access and computer available at home. In Ecuador, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, for instance, TV channels and radio stations seem to play a more important role than platforms because they aim at reaching areas without internet access or with absence of computers as home; in the case of Argentina, mobile data are available at no cost to encourage platform use via mobile devices. Either way, with very few exceptions, the overall situation in Latin America is preoccupying because the large majority of countries are improvising the uploading of material, striving to prepare their teachers to teach online, and are not organizing content according to national curricula (see UNESCO, 2020 b). Farther-reaching consequences concern lags in education when compared to North America or Europe, as well as an increase of the public and private gap at the national level, most private establishments being able to continue teaching via virtual classes. The real impact of these disparities cannot be specified, yet, but it points towards the likely reinforcement of the urban/rural and upper secondary/tertiary education disparities; access to professional opportunities in the future for the generations currently in school is also an issue to ponder.