Digital capacities and distance education in times of coronavirus. Insights from Latin America

By Nicolas Buchbinder, GEM Report Fellow

Due to the coronavirus, schools have closed their doors in almost the entirety of Latin America. This is a situation with no precedent in the region. Countries have implemented different policies to continue the academic year. Many are using paper materials, radio and TV, but the fact is that this formats are not able to capture a significant proportion of the content that is taught in schools for each grade. Online education is in this sense the most important tool, which many governments are providing. But just how far can this reach in the region? And how are we going to support teachers that were not prepared to teach online?

Sadly, we need to start thinking of this situation as a “new normal”. There is consistent evidence of the negative consequences of interruptions in academic activity on learning achievement. This implies that the better we do in ensuring academic continuity now, the smaller the remedial education efforts that will be needed later. Ministries of education must treat this with paramount importance, and the region is offering some great examples.

Image: Matt Cooper

Teachers need curated and organized materials, courses, guidelines and protocols. Chile and Colombia have developed great, well-organised platforms with activities, lesson plans and multimedia resources that thoroughly cover the curriculum, which teachers can use easily.

Many are also providing pedagogical guidance for teachers to shift to distance education (see, for example, those created by Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica). Costa Rica has also provided teachers with specific protocols for using digital devices and virtual etiquette norms, which are very useful for teachers that are not used to work with ICT.

Mexico and Uruguay have established psychological assistance services for teachers. Furthermore, it is important to keep administrative mechanisms working: Colombia has adapted its system for creating teacher positions to work online and recruiting.

What about those who do not have access to ICT?

Access to ICT for education is today almost a synonym of access to education. Access to digital devices and Internet has been expanding throughout the world, and Latin America is no exception. Nevertheless, the PISA 2018 shows that only 60% of 15-year-old students in the region had access to a computer at home, 79% had a link to the Internet, and 78% had at least two smartphones. If we further analyse these data, we see that only 68% live in households where an internet connection is available, and where there is a computer or two or more smartphones. This means that at least around a third of the students in the region do not have access to the Internet or to a device at their homes, and will have serious difficulties to benefit from online education.

The characteristics of the households that cannot access online learning are not surprising. Of students who do not have internet plus a computer or at least two smartphones, 57% are in the poorest quartiles of their countries, and 51% live in households where not even one of their parents had finished secondary education. In addition, 41% do not have a desk they can work on and 60% do not have literature books at their homes.


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PISA also captures the fact that many schools in the region are not ready to use ICT to teach, let alone embark on online education. On average in Latin America, although with much variation between countries, 67% of students attend schools whose principals think there is not enough educational software available, 42% of students attend schools whose principals believe teachers do not have sufficient technical and pedagogical skills to teach using ICT, 50% attends schools whose principals believe teachers do not have enough resources to teach using ICT, and 66% go to schools whose principals believe there is not enough assistance staff.

There are many caveats to these data, however. Let me point out three. First, 15-years-old students mainly attend secondary schools in Latin America, so these figures do not tell us much about the reality of primary school students, which we could argue may be much worse off. Second, they do not tell us much about the quality of the ICT resources that each student has access to; even if a student has a link to the Internet at home, this says nothing about their bandwidth. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) data, among the Latin American countries that participated in PISA 2018, there were 16.5 fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2018, while in developed countries there were 32.5. And, third, part of the analysed data relies on principals’ perception of their teachers’ readiness to use ICT for instruction, not on actual capacities.

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 18.16.27Even so, the data are clear in pointing out a problem: although numbers vary by country, around a third of students do not have sufficient ICT resources and, according to the principals’ perception, around half of teachers do not have enough skills, resources or assistance to deal with online teaching. Intuitively, this context will increase inequalities between those that can do online education and the ones that cannot.

This means that other kinds of solutions have to be put in place for students that cannot be reached with technology. Paper materials, which all countries in the region are distributing, are necessary, but not sufficient, because of the importance of student-teacher interaction. Some countries are teaching via TV or radio (as Mexico’s Telesecundaria), but it is unlikely that other countries will be able to develop such structured interventions in the short term.

A first solution is to provide computers and internet to students that do not have access, which Argentina, Chile and Colombia are pursuing. However, this is not likely to reach all students in need in the short term, meaning that in-person strategies have to be put in place. A very interesting example of this is found in Uruguay, which has re-opened rural schools with very strict protocols. In rural areas, the possibilities of transmission of the virus are smaller, because social distancing is easier to comply with, and there are no crowds in public transport. Other strategies might consider that students that cannot benefit from online education attending once or twice a week to receive tutoring.

While avoiding learning loss seems impossible for reasons that exceed what schools can remedy, governments have the duty to make these damages as small as possible. Scaffolding and supporting teachers for online education and focusing on the students that cannot benefit from online learning are the natural steps that should be pursued to accomplish this objective.



  1. It’s hard for the children and teachers nowadays. We don’t even know if when they will be given the opportunity to learn especially to those who can’t make it via online classes. Surely this pandemic sucks.

  2. Now more than ever schools must take their infrastructures seriously. With there being more and more common interactions and learning online, it’s vital to ensure everyone’s personal wellbeings are kept safe

  3. Now more than ever it’s important for schools to bolster up their technologies, train their staff to effectively teach students through the internet and secure their infrastructures

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