Future Tense

Distance Learning Exacerbates Inequality in Mexico

The government’s remote learning strategy speaks to a prototype of an urban, nonindigenous, middle-class student.

A young girl slumped over in an arm chair stares at a cellphone.
Julia, 7 years old, watches a class on her mother’s cellphone on Aug. 24 in Ecatepec, Mexico. Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Two instructors, standing behind a desk in what appears to be a colorfully decorated elementary classroom, remove their masks, place them in a plastic bag, and welcome fifth and sixth grade students to another edition of the televised “Aprende en Casa II” program, which is produced by Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education in response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, on the #AprendeEnCasa YouTube channel, a puppet helps preschool teachers give instructions on hand-washing and counting, and fourth graders learn about pastel art.

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The Ministry of Public Education, known as SEP for its initials in Spanish, launched “Aprende en Casa,” or “Learn at Home,” in mid-April, after the massive closure of schools began in the second week of March, and the cancellation of classes for the rest of the school year became official on March 27. The program includes video capsules with educational content for preschool to high school students in the distance learning process, based on standardized national curriculum. The programming and contents to be worked on for each week are available on the SEP’s website, with the educational capsules available on a YouTube channel and broadcast by various public and private television channels.

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For the almost 2 million teachers who serve more than 36 million students in Mexico (84 percent of them students from preschool to high school levels), the transition to distance learning has required innovation and creativity. It has also highlighted the country’s enormous gaps in educational equality, and in technology and internet access.

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“Aprende en Casa” was originally envisioned as a short-term response to the health emergency, expected to be needed only until the end of May or the beginning of June. But when it became evident that students and teachers would not soon be able to return to face-to-face classes, the strategy was placed under a microscope, with many expressing concern that the federal government’s limited response would lead to a learning crisis in years to come, escalating the already significant problem of school dropouts—for the 2015–16 school year, the high school dropout rate was 15.5 percent, which in absolute terms is equivalent to more than 770,000 young people.

Indeed, in August, the Ministry of Public Education estimated that 2,525,330 preschool, primary, and secondary students abandoned their studies during the 2019–20 school year, the equivalent of 10 percent of enrollment. An estimated 800,000 students did not advance from secondary to high school.

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While school desertion in Mexico did not begin with Aprende en Casa, the program certainly contributed to the problem by operating on the false assumption that all students (and teachers) can access the educational capsules. The reality is that not all students have access to the internet or even television signals, and in other households, several family members share one device.

According to data from the National Survey on the Availability and Use of Information Technologies in Homes, by 2018 60.9 percent of students who reported attending school in Mexico had an internet connection. But only 1 in 3 households had access to a high-speed internet connection through a fixed network. Meanwhile, the recent ENCOVID-19 survey, carried out by the Universidad Iberoamericana’s Research Institute for Development with Equity, indicates that 78.6 percent of households had problems continuing their children’s education remotely due to the lack of a computer or internet (48.5 percent), the lack of support from teachers (31.4 percent), student distractions (21.1 percent), or the lack of books and teaching materials (14.9 percent).

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And as we’ve seen not just in Mexico but throughout the world, access alone is not sufficient to effectively carry out distance education. Between May and June, I conducted several interviews with teachers of different educational levels to find out how they were approaching distance learning and what challenges they and their students were facing. Many of them pointed out that the first version of “Aprende en Casa” was insufficient and little-used, in part due to its lack of pedagogical adaptation—it was designed in the SEP offices as a “top down” strategy with little consideration for the diverse contexts and situations in which children learn. The federal program also assumed that parents would be able to guide their children through the programming, which was not the case for many families, because they were unprepared to deal with academic issues, they did not have the time to do so, or, in many cases, both.

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“Aprende en Casa” has been publicized as a comprehensive strategy for distance learning, but some teachers suggest the television and internet capsules should instead be seen as supplementary or optional material.

“I think that the best distance work strategy is that in which each school, each teacher can create, adjusting to the characteristics of the context and the needs of the students,” a secondary school principal told me in a group interview. “I think the biggest difficulty was that not all [the children] have internet; some parents started working with their [mobile] data, but, as it was a long, two-hour program, their data would be depleted very quickly,” a preschool teacher told me, mentioning that one of the only solutions she had to give parents was to try to work with the booklet. “I think that was one of the main [problems], that not everyone had internet access, not everyone had the same conditions.”

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Indeed, most of the teachers I spoke with told me that they have developed their own guides and activities, which they send biweekly or weekly to their students, often through messages, voice notes, or videos on WhatsApp. (WhatsApp is ubiquitous in Mexico, and is helpful in this case because it takes up less bandwidth and is easy and familiar to use.) Students or their parents, in turn, send back proof of their work.

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Though they’ve done their best to adapt, many teachers felt the program and other responses from the SEP and local authorities have been an exercise of intense, unnecessary supervision of their work, rather than supporting them to make decisions and resolve problems according to their circumstances. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, just when everyone was trying to get their footing in distance education, the SEP asked teachers to send reports and evidence weekly or every two weeks to their principals and supervisors—such as photos of the assignments sent by their students to show that they had made contact with them.

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For its part, the SEP has not publicly acknowledged the limits of its strategy, nor conducted any evaluation with hard evidence that reviews its impact. “Aprende en Casa” is now in its second iteration, and it seems most public schools in Mexico won’t return to in-person instruction anytime soon, making it crucial to reflect on necessary improvements to the program. Content, for example, should be tailored to the needs of students with different backgrounds and socioeconomic and cultural contexts. Although there are now more school teachers—working for free, as volunteers—involved in the production of the videos, “Aprende en Casa” still speaks to a prototype of an urban, nonindigenous, middle-class student.

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To improve the use of “Aprende en Casa” it would be useful for the program’s content to be made available on YouTube at least a couple of weeks prior to the lesson, so that teachers could plan its use in their weekly schedule. Currently, we don’t know how many teachers are using the videos in their instruction, or how they’re doing so.

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Distance learning strategies also must include technical or resource support. In response to the pandemic, countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay, for example, either distributed tech devices or established budgets to train teachers to use and manage information and communication technologies.

In Mexico, the government should try to establish agreements with internet providers to offer affordable connectivity and to provide computers and televisions to low-income families with children of study age. It should also develop continuous training programs for teachers (and parents) to learn to better use information technologies and implement adaptive teaching strategies in the new distance format. More modest (but no less effective) measures could include supporting schools and teachers with resources and training to prepare guides and workbooks, using the free textbooks supplied by the SEP, while adjusting material to their students’ needs.

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All of these improvements, however, require commitment, political will, and financial support from the government. Yet in the 2021 expenditure budget approved Nov. 13, there is no specific spending dedicated to deal with the pandemic-caused educational emergency—no budget is allocated for the purchase of laptops or for the training of teachers, for instance. The proposal, in fact, significantly reduces the budget allocated to teacher training and professional development.

To overcome the new challenges of distance education, we need well-planned educational policies that are supported by sufficient budgets, but also, and very importantly, developed with parents and teachers in mind. As one high school teacher I interviewed put it, no one knows the limits and needs of a school like they do.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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