Tackling School Dropouts and Talent Shortage with Blended Learning

Special Focus : Solving Latin America’s Education Woes With Technology
Life Skills September 29, 2014

Bringing technology into the classroom can mean many different things: expanding teacher access to students in remote areas via video links, training teachers to use online resources to upgrade their lesson plans, or providing students with their own low-cost computers. ICTs can also open new horizons for small multi-grade rural schools, help reverse teacher absenteeism, and provide an alternative in the war against student dropout – a major crisis in its own right.

Between 2014 and 2040, nearly 40 percent of the Latin American workforce will lack a high-school degree, compromising productivity, the economic growth achieved during the last decade, and the innovative and entrepreneurial capacity to jump to the next level of economic development.

Latin America has made remarkable progress in terms of access to primary education and early high school but, based on World Bank data, far too few are graduating from high school, and even fewer going on to advanced education. While Chile, with the region’s best education system, sees almost 70 percent graduate, that number is as low as 55 percent in Mexico and 35 percent in Argentina. And for those who do complete school, the quality of education is poor – at the bottom of international rankings like the OECD’s PISA evaluations. 

It is important to realize that while the millions of students that quit school every year are heading towards individual crisis, by constraining their personal ability to get ahead in their careers, their experiences writ large have the potential to impact the economy as a whole. 

And there are many different causes for such dropouts. The most evident is the economic necessity of kids who need to work to support their families. Up to 23 percent of student dropouts fit into this scenario, according to a report by SITEAL (Sistema de Información de Tendencias Educativas en América Latina / Information System on Educational Trends in Latin America), an organization linked to the OEI and UNESCO. 

Another 40 percent of students, according to the same source, leave school because they find it boring or unnecessary to have a high-school diploma. While the economic pressures generally impact students of lower income, general disinterest is a malaise that strikes equally across socioeconomic levels. In addition, more than 5 percent of students surveyed by SITEAL claim to have quit school based on a lack of information about alternative options. 

In this sense, technology can be a good option for making pedagogy more relevant to the lives of students and reaching those dropouts who want to go back and finish the high-school education that they previously abandoned. That is why some countries have begun to implement remedial programs that offer fast-track high-school prep, such as the ICFES-Saber program in Colombia, Ceneval in Mexico, or Adultos2000 in Buenos Aires.

Such ICT-based programs offer flexible alternatives for adults with full-time day jobs, or families to take care of, and who cannot for any number of reasons sit in school throughout the day. Distance and blended learning can deliver a range of options, from traditional higher education for those Latino adults without a Bachelor’s degree to more targeted areas such as language acquisition or technical education. 

And blended learning can also deliver many of the benefits of “traditional” teacher skills at lower cost. Blended learning relies on an innovative combination of technology in “brick-and-mortar” classrooms, in which face-to-face learning methods are combined with computer-mediated activities supervised by teachers, allowing for customization of the learning process to the children’s pace and pedagogical needs. The classroom experience is flipped, with students doing “homework” in the classroom and allowing teachers to become coaches, guiding the students through personalized, web-based education content. What’s more, teachers now have the ability to become online tutors, provide after-school programming, or prepare lesson content for any school, anywhere in the world, in any language. 

Kuepa was founded a few years ago under the inspiration of this model, soon becoming the first blended learning initiative in the region and expanding to Mexico, Peru and Colombia. The high dropout rates and a rising awareness of the need to improve educational quality, together with a flourishing entrepreneurial environment and a solid and rapid expansion of ICT use and digital inclusion in the region (among the highest in the world), provided the context for the birth of Kuepa. The initiative seeks to serve a population of adults that do not have the required skills to work in the competitive 21st-century labor market. Kuepa wants to contribute, through the introduction of blended learning, to improve performance, leverage teacher capacities and boost productivity and competitiveness among young workers in Latin America.  

Kuepa is only one example of how schools of the future may look. It seems likely that high schools of the future, especially in the realm of adult remedial education, will increasingly offer formal studies with some combination of ICT-based vocational and technical training. Given the disconnect between school and the nature of the labor force, this could be key to expanding employment options across the region.

“Improving educational quality, which is already low in Latin America, will not be enough if we don’t work on incorporating half of the young population into formal education,” concludes the IDB’s Gador Manzano, head of the Graduate XXI program. “That is our biggest challenge.”