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Venezuela-based Open English operates in fifteen Spanish-speaking countries.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Latin America: Online Learning Pioneer

Latin America at the forefront of online learning


There has been a burst of interest in online learning following the news that Harvard and MIT will begin offering free online courses, through a joint program known as EdX. This development marks a turning point in the United States, as online education has until now largely been the realm of vocational schools. But now that the Ivy League is investing in a big way - $60 million for EdX, as well as additional joint ventures by professors at Stanford, Princeton, and Penn - online learning is taking center stage at the most elite levels of the education system.

And not just higher education - a wave of software innovations, social media tools, and web resources is changing the K-12 landscape as well. Writing for Forbes, Larry Magid recently identified some innovative startups in the education field. The Khan Academy, for instance, offers thousands of high quality instructional videos on its website, free to anyone with access to the internet. TapToLearn is a startup that embeds math and grammar lessons in app-based games that are easily available on a range of mobile devices. Others have developed online, interactive test-taking programs that engage students and allow teachers greater creativity.

So what does all this mean for improving education? Will it improve outcomes, or lower standards? Does it augur the end of the traditional school?

As David Brooks has noted in the New York Times, there is fear over the potentially disruptive effects of these non-traditional tools. But there is also opportunity. Online learning dramatically expands student access to quality instruction - now billions can “attend” the lectures of the best teachers, instead of only hundreds. Perhaps more importantly, by streamlining the “information absorption” aspect of education, online learning can free up traditional schools to do more of what they do best – that is, the more complex processes of discussing, reflecting on, and synthesizing information into new ideas, which is best done in person, through conversation and collaboration.


Nor is this trend exclusive to the United States. In fact, Latin America has been at the forefront of the movement towards online learning. Mexico’s Monterrey Institute of Technology has been a world leader, opening its virtual university in 1989 in order to connect its campuses and prepare students for careers in business and industry. Today, Monterrey’s Virtual University enrolls 12,000 out of the Institute’s 90,000 total students. 26,000 additional students are enrolled at Tech Millenium, Monterrey’s low cost online affiliate.

Offering these alternatives to the traditional Latin American university education – which is often either prohibitively expensive, or, where subsidized, too selective for most – is especially crucial. In Brazil, where online learning has also been booming, a traditional undergraduate education costs an average of $250 per month, while the equivalent distance learning degree costs less than $90. There are 614,000 online students in Brazil and 54 schools that offer at least one online course. The Brazilian Association for Distance Education (ABED) foresees a growth rate of 20 percent a year. In 2010, the Faculty for Technology and Science, an institute in the northeast of the country, was authorized to create 43,500 new distance learning openings.

While these developments have been supported and subsidized by regional governments, in Latin America, as in the United States, it is the private sector that is investing the most in advancing education technology. Foreign firms such as Laureate and the Apollo Global are key investors in Latin America, but there are also local companies that are becoming regional players. Eadcon, based in Brazil, is one such, having grown its base to 140,000 distance learning students, with plans to expand throughout the region.

Open English is another success story that reflects on the changing education market. Founded in 2006 in Venezuela, Open English is an online English language school in which virtual classes are taught by native English teachers based around the world. Now operating in fifteen Spanish-speaking countries, Open English has attracted over $10 million in venture capital investments.

Ultimately, it appears that the internet is reshaping the education landscape much as it did the field of journalism. Traditional institutions will persist, but as they face increasing pressure from their virtual competitors, they will need to adapt to make space for new online tools. With luck, and continued innovation, this “blended” approach, as Brooks calls it, will combine the best of both worlds.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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