In Colombia, as in most of the world, schools have had to shut down during the pandemic, which has potentially undermined the scholastic skills of the nation’s students and even the literacy rates of future Colombians. Nevertheless, a closure of indeterminate duration was the only way to ensure the health of students, as most teachers, principals, and headmasters in the country acknowledge. Colombia’s schools, especially those located outside the capital, Bogotá, are not exactly perfect in terms of hygiene due to overcrowded classes and lack of soap and water in remote areas.
Although school closures were not announced in a nationwide manner, by the early 2020, more-or-less all schools were practically shut down. In the absence of face-to-face instruction, education had to continue either in an in interactive online manner or, at least, in a one-directional way using mass media such as radio and television.
This was not an easy task: first, because access to the internet or even a television set is not a given for all children in Colombia; and secondly, because schoolchildren are notoriously prone to inattentiveness even at the best of times.
The Ministry of Education has provided various communities with distance learning programs, despite the problem of access. In some parts of the country, the internet coverage is as low as 30%, and in the least privileged rural communities, which demand even more attention, as little as 5% of students may enjoy access to the internet and sophisticated-enough computers to run virtual education software.
Fortunately, Colombia has a thriving IT secret which has seen a manifold growth since the beginning of the pandemic. Claro, Colombia’s market leader in the telecom sector, disclosed to TBY that the number of the company’s subscribers has increased by almost 500,000 in the first half of 2021, adding that the company has “now reached 99% of Colombia’s municipalities that did not have 4G coverage: 1,075 municipalities.”
In addition to the expansion of internet coverage, schools and teachers have come up with innovative, ad-hoc solutions to deal with the challenge. Since WhatsApp is the most widely used instant messaging app in Colombia, some teachers have created WhatsApp groups to keep in touch with their students and continue their lessons. Chances are that more students will have access to a basic smartphone and a limited data plan than to a laptop with high-speed internet.
Other countries have tried to offer a helping hand, as well. The EU, for example, has launched the Colombia’s Education in Emergency (EiE) program. According to the EU, “continuous communication is set up, with the teams in Arauca, Bogotá, La Guajira, Nariño, and Valle del Cauca, and consultation[s] are organized on the needs of the teams and the beneficiaries.” The EU has also pointed out that “pedagogical guidebooks are delivered for strengthening basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic.”
At the same time, educational podcasts, nicknamed audio capsules, have been recorded in Spanish which address both the nation’s schoolchildren and their parents. These audio capsules are broadcasted by some community radios in Colombia, while they are also shared by many using messaging apps.
The EU has also sent teacher-training materials to some Colombian teachers to inform them about the necessary readjustments in teaching methods that virtual learning requires. This is of utmost importance as virtual learning is, by nature, different from face-to-face instruction, and therefore, teachers need to quickly adapt their strategies to keep their students attentive and interested.
On the upside—if one can see a plus side to a tragedy such as the ongoing pandemic and the closure of schools—this crisis has forced Colombia and its educational system to consider certain plans for remote education. The experience of implementing distance education methods during an emergency will pave the way for such forms of education, from which Colombian children—and also adults—can benefit in the future. The final fruit of this effort may be the democratization of education across Colombia in the years to come and, consequently, greater social mobility for those who are living in remote rural parts of Colombia.
There are businesses in the country which have been investing in online education for some years. Given the closure of schools and universities, the benefits of services provided by such enterprises will be more understood. Jaime Leal, rector of Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia (UNAD), told TBY in a recent interview that “A concerted use of technology is the best way to expand access to higher education and democratize learning.”