“Technology can help us break down educational barriers and ensure a level playing field”
In Mexico, 8 out of 10 Indigenous children don’t have access to adequate learning opportunities and with schools closed across the country, COVID-19 has exacerbated this inequality. César Alberto Loeza Altamirano, Director of Education at UNETE, a nonprofit organization working to improve the quality and equity of education in Mexico, talks about their latest work in training teachers to integrate technology into their classes so that they can meet the needs of distance learning and ensure students don’t get left behind.
What’s been the hardest part of shifting to respond to COVID-19 and how are you seeing the needs of teachers and students evolve during this period?
CA: Connectivity in Mexico is a barrier that we have to reduce. Over the past twenty years that gap has closed significantly however, there is still a lot to do. Access to reliable internet service is one of the biggest challenges at the national level. Connectivity unlocks access to new information, digital job skills training, and distance learning. Our work is about helping support teachers and students with digital skills and resources both when connectivity is available and when it is not. A large part of our pre and post COVID-19 initiatives continue to be oriented to managing online and offline resources simultaneously to make resources inclusive even in the least favorable conditions. We also know that teachers require additional support and mentorship to develop the digital skills necessary to teach during this prolonged period of distance instruction.
Has COVID-19 changed your perspective on the role of technology in education?
CA: The guiding axis of UNETE as an organization has always been the use of technology in teaching-learning processes. For twenty years, we’ve focused on training teachers and students in the digital skills required to maximize learning opportunities in classrooms, from computers and ICT equipment to learning resources.
The pandemic has shown us all just how vital technology can be in an educational environment. Today, more than ever, technology can help us break down educational barriers and ensure a level playing field — but making sure the equipment provided is being used to its maximum potential, that teachers are confident in their use of technology and that no student gets behind because of poor connectivity are more important than ever when teachers and students are not together in the same room.
“Readily accessible resources, as well as mentoring, are also necessary to meet these challenges of distance learning and to ensure students aren’t left behind.”
— César Alberto Loeza Altamirano
In 2016, a Google.org grant enabled you to provide students with limited connectivity a high quality education. Can you tell us more about that project?
CA: In 2016, Google.org gave us a $2.1M USD grant to increase access to digital educational content for students in Mexico with limited internet connectivity, through implementation of a new software platform, training and teacher support, and devices. We worked with various partners to provide access to an app called Kolibri which makes digital educational resources available anywhere. The program followed a mentoring model that is unique to UNETE where we spend a full school year training and following up regularly with teachers to ensure they feel capable and comfortable leveraging digital tools.
Offline resources sound like a powerful way to address the gap in connectivity in Mexico. How many students and teachers were you able to reach through that model?
CA: This work reached almost 35,000 students and 1,000 teachers across 17 different states within Mexico, enhancing access to technology but also equipping teachers with the skills they need to feel confident in teaching ICT skills. It proves that our model of continuous training, mentoring and guidance for teachers who, despite not having prior technology in their schools and many having low levels of digital skills, is successful. Teachers are now able to interact in a digital environment, design strategies, implement class plans with digital resources and guide learning sessions in an innovative way. The majority of teachers reported that if they hadn’t participated in the mentoring or training, they would have hardly used technology.
“COVID-19 has challenged us to accelerate support for the development of digital skills in teachers, parents and students.”
— César Alberto Loeza Altamirano
What is keeping you hopeful during this uncertain time?
CA: Our mission has never been more important. COVID-19 has challenged us to accelerate support for the development of digital skills in teachers, parents and students. We are focused on continuing to be there for Mexican teachers and students and work towards a future where technology is used to its full potential in educational environments across Mexico and where connectivity is not a barrier to educational success.
This series on distance learning is brought to you by Google.org, a proud supporter of UNETE since 2016. In May 2020, as part of our broader $100M COVID-19 response, we provided additional grant support of UNETE’s work in training Mexican teachers, particularly those in rural communities, to be able to offer distance instruction. This grant builds on our 2016 Global Education Portfolio which focused on nonprofits using technology to address education gaps.