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Uruguay strengthens distance education but bets on presence

Uruguay’s official online educational platform went from 90,000 to 730,000 users during the closure of schools due to coronavirus. But, with the presence already retaken, teachers warn that nothing replaces the face-to-face meeting.

In Uruguay, 100% of public primary and secondary school students have a laptop granted by the Ceibal Plan, a project created in 2007, during the first government of the leftist Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010).

This network placed the country in a privileged situation to face the three months in which schools were closed due to the declaration of a health emergency in mid-March and highlighted the role of technology in education.

Before the pandemic, the infrastructure “was very underutilized: the platforms (loaded on tablets) were used as accessories and their importance was not perceived in the way it is now perceived,” says the president of Plan Ceibal, Leandro Folgar .

With the Ceibal en Casa program, aimed at keeping students active and preventing them from cutting ties with teachers during confinement, distance education numbers skyrocketed.

It went from 90,000 to “more than 730,000 active users in a universe of 800,000 possible students”, with “a jump of up to 2,400% growth in the use of activities and tasks on online platforms”, Folgar graphs.

In addition, 9,000 teachers began to train in different online courses, “something that did not happen before,” he adds.

This posed human and technical challenges – the capacity of the servers had to be quadrupled – and “revealed issues such as the possibility of connecting was much more than simply having an available connection nearby and a device” to access it.

– Challenges –

Although face-to-face classes in educational centers throughout Uruguay were resumed in stages in June, garden No. 315, located in the Colón neighborhood of Montevideo, is currently attended by one third of the 350 children between the ages of 3 and 5 registered.

The scenario is repeated in many schools and high schools, given that due to the health emergency the government determined that the return to the classroom is voluntary.

“Those who entered the most” to the Ceibal platform during the closing of schools “are the ones who are coming now,” says the director of the garden, Valeria Marín.

Some students continue to participate only from the platform and others have almost completely disengaged.

Marín maintains that, during the school closings, the greatest difficulty that arose was “understanding” about how to use the tablet. But also the lack of devices (in Early Childhood Education the coverage of Ceibal is not one by one, but by classrooms) or data to connect.

The cases of families that do not have resources to pay for the Internet connection tried to be considered with free or subsidized plans, or through educational programs on the public television channel.

For Folgar, another great challenge lay in how the role of technology in learning was perceived.

“Before, a parent did not understand why a device affected their children’s academic results. Today that visibility is different ”, he assures.

– Face to face “irreplaceable” –

However, the president of Plan Ceibal clarifies that it is still too early to make evaluations. “Drawing conclusions about how it grew or how it will be used later is totally rushed.”

The challenge from now on, he points out, is to find a model that combines presence with the use of technology, a dynamic that Uruguay did not have despite Plan Ceibal.

“The infrastructure was in place and allowed us to react quickly, but a model in these conditions continues to be emergency and we are going to feel the blow like all countries,” says Folgar.

The massive closure of schools not only changed the perception about the role of technology in learning, but also the vision about the importance of face to face.

“It is not the same to see an image of the beach than to touch the sand”, illustrates Marín about the need for contact of children.

The director says that when the garden reopened in mid-June, she thought that it would be more complex for the little ones to adapt to the new sanitary routines.

“We think they would be worried. But what they want is to come, play. Children are wonderful, they adapt to everything ”, he reflects.

Uruguay, praised for its control of the coronavirus epidemic, is the only country in Latin America that has resumed face-to-face classes at all educational levels.

That face-to-face “fulfills a lot of functions more than simply advancing curriculum content,” says Folgar.

“It is the socialization space for our students, where they can imagine possibilities, where they can think in a different way. I think the UN emphasizes that, “he adds, referring to the international body’s exhortation to resume classes as soon as possible to avoid a” generational catastrophe. “

“The role of the school as a fundamental environment for socialization and a space for growth is irreplaceable.”