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Interactive Educational Television in the Amazon

Michael Trucano's picture
a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?
a road map -- er, river map --
for the expansion of educational opertunities
in rural Brazil?

According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, "Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030". The 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report provides a useful discussion of the consequences of this deficit, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.  There are, unfortunately, no 'quick fix' solutions here. We didn't get ourselves into this mess overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight either. While longer term efforts tackle this challenge in multiple ways over time, recruiting new teachers and upgrading the skills of others, it is probably also useful to ask:

How do you teach children in places where there are no teachers?

Many proposed answers to this include some consideration of the use of information and communication technologies. Some groups have offered that it may be most efficacious to simply introduce technologies that help enable students to teach themselves, bypassing teachers altogether. That is certainly one approach, but one with, to date, a rather checkered history of success in many instances (although not all), and one that is consistent with a worry that teacher union officials have expressed to me many times over the years: that many of their members fear that they are being, or will be, replaced by new technologies. Rhetoric from certain politicians (I'll refrain from adding a link or three here, but a few minutes with your favorite search engine should help you locate a number of them yourself) and projections from some ministry of finance officials (informed, one suspects, in some cases by data from the marketing departments of certain technology firms) do little to alleviate such concerns. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies undeniably *does* replace certain specific functions or roles that teachers currently perform, or have performed in the past (especially related to what are essentially clerical or administrative functions -- this replacement is presumably not always such a bad thing). In my experience, introducing new technologies in schools actually makes the role and function of teachers more central and critical, but that is perhaps a topic for another blog post.

Faced with severe, in some cases quite extreme, deficits of qualified teachers, especially in remote communities and in subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages, many countries are in engaged in long term efforts to recruit and train more teachers and upgrade the skills and content masteries of 'low-skilled' teachers already in their system.  They are exploring how ICTs can be leveraged to help in these efforts. Where there are pressing needs *now* for teachers that can not be met through conventional approaches or according to the traditional timelines dictated by the capacity and effectiveness of their teacher training institutes, there are looking to see how technologies can help reach students today in schools without qualified teachers -- or in some cases, without any teachers at all.

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Amazonas is the largest state in Brazil by area (approximately 4.5 times bigger than Germany). It is characterized by huge logistical challenges -- the state takes its name from the rather large and famous river which dominates its geography. There are 6100 rural/riverside communities across Amazonas, and outside the capital city of Manaus, which is home to about half of the state's 3.8m residents, transport is mainly by air or river. International audiences may know Manaus best as the site of the famous Teatro Manaus opera house and as one of the host cities for the 2014 World Cup. Many education folks perhaps know the region best for its innovative approaches to trying to provide quality education to students despite these great logistical challenges.

While Amazonas does fairly well by Brazilian standards on common measures of educational performance (as measured by a PISA-like test that is administered regularly to students across the country), its education system is characterized by low completion rates (50% at age 16, compared with Brazilian average of 69%) and high numbers of overage students in a total student population of 864,000.  While in aggregate there are equal numbers of students in state and municipal (i.e. local) schools across Amazonas, this varies considerably by age cohort: about 75% of the state's 400,000 elementary school students are in municipal schools, while 100% of its high schools are state-run. 39,000 students live in rural areas. Last week a presentation and discussion at the the Inter-american Development Bank (from which the facts and figures related in this blog post are largely drawn; the full video is available online) on Using Interactive Technology in Amazonas focused on a US$150m IDB project that is exploring answers to the following challenges in Amazonas as part of the Program to Accelerate Educational Progress in Amazonas State (PADEAM) project:

 [-] How to provide quality education services to rural communities?
 [-] How to build better bridges from middle school (with a student population of almost 300,000) to high school (where currently only 166,000 students are being educated)?
 [-] How to deploy teachers to remote areas?
 (A traditional approach in rural communities in Brazil has been to deploy so-called 'itinerant teachers', who move from school to school.)

For a very comprehensive look at these issues, I would recommend that you watch the comprehensive presentation from the IDB's Marcelo Pérez Alfaro, which is available in full on the IDB web site. For those in a hurry, I'll attempt to summarize the main points here (and offer some quick comments along the way).

The Amazonas Media Center model

Through the Amazonas Media Center (or Centro de Mídias do Amazonas), education officials in the state are promoting the widespread use of interactive educational television as they seek to provide answers to these questions. Under this program -- which utilizes satellite television in the service of what is essentially multi-point videoconferencing (and thus 'interactive') -- classes are taught remotely by teachers in Manaus and beamed to students in schools in rural communities, who are supported by a professional face-to-face tutor in their classrooms. One lesson is typically shared by multiple municipal schools simultaneously. These municipal schools serve as elementary schools in the morning, and then older students come to school in the afternoon for the educational TV offerings. Each class is mediated by an onsite tutor, who coordinates the questions and answers, provides further explanations and directions, and helps support the equipment to ensure that the experience is as 'interactive' as possible. Students have access to textbooks and other educational resources (both paper-based and via the Internet). Students in these settings follow the same curriculum as other schools across the state, but on a block schedule, whereby (e.g.)  students have three consecutive weeks of mathematics, then four weeks of biology, followed by three weeks of English, etc. instead of studying multiple subjects simultaneously as in a 'typical' school. The goal, as much as possible, is to replicate the traditional classroom experience and not to provide poor, rural communities with what many people there (rightly or wrongly) consider to be the 'inferior' form of education represented by 'distance education', a term explicitly not used with regard to this project in Amazonas.  (Side note: In many places around the world, the term 'distance education' is very specifically and narrowly defined, both legally and within educational bureaucracies, and programs associated with this term, many of which evolved out of correspondence school models, operate within specific processes related to things like licensing, credentialing, qualifications, etc. In other places with broader definitions of 'distance education', what is being done in Amazonas would probably be labelled as such.)

Some quick history

This initiative was born out of an effort that began in 2002 in Amazonas to train unqualified teachers (Proformar) in rural areas that led to a teaching certificate. Based on the success of that initiative, and its model, planning for this project began in earnest in 2004. In 2007 it started in high school classrooms, and in 2009 it was expanded to middle schools. Here are some quick figures related to the reach of the project:
 2007: 10k students, 260 classrooms, 200 schools, serving 334 communities
 2013: 38k students, 1809 classrooms, 400 schools, serving 2400 communities

All of this has been done using existing municipal facilities (schools), which underwent minor refurbishment.

Educational television in Brazil

There are quite similar interactive education television initiatives in the states of Bahia, Pará, Sao Paulo and Ceará which focus only on teacher training. In many ways, circumstances in Amazonas are similar in many ways with those in Pará, which has largely decided, in contrast to the Amazonas approach, to deploy itinerant teachers. Bahia and Sao Paulo are more developed states and, generally speaking, don't have the same teacher-related challenges as those found in either Amazonas or Pará.) The World Bank also supports somewhat similar educational television initiatives in the Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul and Piauí.

According to a recent story in the Washington Post, "When asked what they most like to do in their spare time, 85 percent of Brazilians answered “watch television.” Not everyone is watching telenovelas and futebol all the time, however. Brazil has a long and rich traditional in using educational television going back almost five decades and utilizes TV to provide access to government information and services across a number of social sectors, especially to benefit the poor (here's a related World Bank study, [pdf]). A number of efforts related to education are affiliated with universities; others are maintained by state governments like São Paulo. Many international observers may be familiar with Telecurso, a distance basic education program launched by the Roberto Marinho Foundation (a group closely linked with Brazil’s Globo media conglomerate) which is essentially a television program which targets Brazil’s school-age population, as well as young people and adults who did not finish school at the standard age. Telecurso utilizes what it calls the Telessala Methodology, which enables companies, foundations, ministries of education, and other institutions to use this program in place of traditional supplementary courses.  According to a related presentation at the World Bank last fall, Telecurso has to date been implemented in approximately 32 thousand classrooms, trained 40 thousand teachers, and reached 1.5 million students across the country, notably as part of massive projects in the states of Acre, Pernambuco, and Rio de Janeiro.

Educational television in other countries

There are many other examples around the world of the wide scale use of education television, of course. The technical sophistication and infrastructure of the educational television efforts in Brazil recall for me what I have observed, for example, in Korea, but it is not only in 'highly developed' countries where educational television has taken hold.  In the Western hemisphere, there are educational television efforts in places like Uruguay (Canal Ceibal) and, most notably, Mexico's long-standing Telesecundaria project (which has been much studied and which has been exported to other countries in the region) are perhaps worth mentioning. China has a long history of using educational television for a variety of purposes, including teacher training [pdf], as does India (EduTech blog readers with a long memory may well recall India's pioneering Satellite Instructional Television Experiment in the 1970s).

Going forward

Under the IDB project, there are plans to expand coverage to 1500 additional communities and 560 more schools, eventually reaching 15,000 more students. It is not easy to deploy satellite antennas in these rural, riverine, remote communities in the Amazon -- this is a big challenge for expansion (the deployment model, for what it's worth, is to expand river basin by river basin, all communities in a row, down the river in turn). There are currently about 10,000 video hours of instructional classes covering seven years of instruction that the project will also help better assess, tag and archive in a more systematic manner. A rigorous evaluation agenda has been proposed, looking at both project impact (on academic performance, on things like drop out and repetition rates, at a variety of socioeconomic measures) and process (the 'how to', the documentation and analysis of which, I find, is often neglected in efforts of this sort). There is very little substantive, rigorous research about this stuff in environments and contexts like those found in Amazonas, and the IDB can (hopefully!) make a huge contribution to our collective global knowledgebase -- while of course helping education officials in Amazonas educate thousands of children along the way.

In the future, there are plans being considered to use the facilities to offer supplemental tutoring and to expand into 'regular' urban schools, especially where there are insufficient teachers for 'difficult' subjects (e.g. chemistry, foreign languages). In a nod to the origins of the effort in Amazonas, the infrastructure may once again be used to support teacher training activities as well. These (and other) activities may help to make better use of the large sunk costs of the existing technical and physical infrastructure that makes the project possible.

Concluding comments

Given the (natural, and appropriate) desire to make better use of the large sunk costs in technical and physical infrastructure that have enabled interactive education television in Amazonas, there is, one presumes, great potential for the municipal schools to evolve into after-hours, multi-purpose media centers, points of presence for outreach on community health issues, for example, or as part of other civic outreach activities (e.g. a gathering point to watch election debates) or even, potentially, used to show movies in the evening (and perhaps the occasional futebol match as well) as a mechanism for partial cost recovery.  Listening to Marcelo's excellent presentation on the Amazonas model going forward, I was struck by potential comparisons with the Learning Hub models being explored by groups like Coursera and other partners, which aim to provide physical spaces where those interested in learning can access the Internet and online courses (like MOOCs), aided by local in-person facilitators. In Amazonas (and other Brazilian states) the physical infrastructure is there, the connectivity is there, the public spaces are available, and there are already trained tutors who can facilitate learning activities utilizing a variety of technologies. This might be another potential application model of relevance when considering after hours use of the school facilities being utilized by the interactive television project in the afternoons.

In an age where discussions of educational technology use increasing revolve around which tablets to buy, and which apps to utilize, the interactive educational television project in Amazonas is a reminder of the continued relevance of a variety of 'old' technologies as well, and the pedagogical models that accompany them. The teacher-at-a-distance, tutor in the classroom model at the heart of the interactive television model in use in Amazonas for me recalls certain characteristics of interactive radio instruction. The Amazonas project is explicitly meant to replicate the traditional classroom experience in the state, but, in Brazil and around the world, it is perhaps worth noting that many folks are not terribly happy with the 'traditional' classroom experience, and are, among other things, looking to utilize new technologies to help mold, shape and determine this experience in new (sometimes radically new) ways. No matter what one's opinions on such things may be, it is hard to imagine that many 'traditional' classroom experiences won't be changing in the coming years as a result of the continued diffusion of new (and old) technologies. The Amazonas project is occurring alongside national and state efforts across Brazil to improve Internet connectivity to schools and to introduce more and more technology devices into classrooms. How might the Amazonas project, and similar projects in other Brazilian states, as more connectivity of various sorts is available on the desks and tablets in classrooms and more and more digital learning resources are made available (Khan Academy content, for example, has now been translated by a Brazilian foundation to enable use by students across the country)? Only time will tell. But something also tells me that the answers to this question may resonate far beyond the rural communities that line the shores of the Amazon.
 

Note: The presentation on Using Interactive Technology in Amazonas at the Inter-American Development Bank was part of a regular speaker series supported by members of the mEducation Alliance (in which the World Bank participates, as part of its efforts exploring new directions in 'mobile learning'). Those interested in future events in this series which take place both in person and online, may wish to consult the mEducation Alliance web site.  (As in this case -- school-based satellite television, which some people may consider the very definition of 'immobile education' -- discussion topics are not restricted to those only related directly to 'mobile education' or 'mobile learning'.)
 

You may also be interested in the following EduTech blog posts:
 [-] Surveying ICT use in education in Brazil
 [-] 10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments
 [-] What Sesame Street Can Teach the World Bank
 [-] Bollywood Karaoke and Same Language Subtitling to Promote Literacy
 [-] Searching for India's Hole in the Wall
 [-] Interactive Radio Instruction : A Successful Permanent Pilot Project?
 [-] Education and Technology in an Age of Pandemics
 [-] Television for a change (revolution in a box)

 
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of an aerial view of the Amazon rainforest not far from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state ("a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?") comes from Neil Palmer of the CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. It is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Comments

You may also like to have a look at the efforts done by the King of Thailand
as well as the efforts done by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education in collaboration with Dialog TV.

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