Covid-19 has shut 1.2 billion students in 186 countries out of their schools and into online environments, leaving teachers and students grappling with many questions and very few answers.
Mexico has had distance education, in particular telesecundarias, to serve rural populations. But nothing done before could prepare for a complete demobilization of the entire 36-million student population.
In March, the Ministry of Education (SEP) announced the Aprende en Casa (Learn at Home) program, using state-run television stations and online platforms to provide K-12 classes. Private schools and universities were on their own.
The first private university to close was the Tec de Monterrey on March 12. By March 20, all universities were closed. SEP’s official closure date was March 23.
Mexico’s educational system was caught off guard despite the school closures of 2009 due to the H1N1 pandemic. The main reason for this, according to Ken Bauer of Tec de Monterrey, was that schools were only closed for a week in 2009. This time around, what was originally announced by SEP as a month-long contingency for the coronavirus is now indefinite.
Mexico is grappling with the sudden shift like the rest of the world, but its situation is unique in some ways. Like most developing countries, the main issue is the “digital divide,” a lack of access to online resources. According to the national statistics institute Inegi, 39% of Mexican students have no access to the internet for educational purposes.
Basic connectivity is an issue, not only for internet by phone line, but also for cell phone and television signals in rural mountainous areas. Less than half of Mexico’s students needing Aprende en Casa have access to public television signals. The government has distributed traditional school materials for extremely rural areas, but not enough. Schools such as the Escuela de Modelo in Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato, are completely shut down for lack of resources.
Even in areas with internet, bandwidth is a serious issue. Mexico overall has far less than developed countries, limiting the number of students per household that can work and making videoconferencing impossible in many places. The lack of online materials in Spanish, and their absence in indigenous languages is a major issue as well.
Major universities such as the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and Tec de Monterrey are the most prepared, with online classes and experience developing materials and courses, according to Tzinti Ramírez Reyes, a researcher and collaborator on a recently published paper on worldwide response to the Covid-19 pandemic in education.
Smaller and regional universities such as the Technological University of the Mixteca (Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca) in Oaxaca have had to work almost completely from scratch. It is worse at the K-12 level.
All schools suffer from a lack of teachers (and students) with experience in online education, unable to take advantage of the resources they do have. The traditional classroom has dominated, both because of the digital divide as well as the cultural value placed on face-to-face interaction. Past attempts to use digital resources in schools had problems with planning and even corruption.
Schools and teachers have been forced to try and make up for this in just a matter of weeks, even days. This has meant cutting back lessons to the bare bones, not only because teachers are stressed but students, too. Teachers also find themselves making changes midstream as they find what does and does not work.
Rafael Quintero, a science teacher at the American School in Durango, says he had to make his chemistry and physics classes more qualitative and less mathematical and still have students understand the basic concepts. Teachers have also ditched assigned educational platforms in favor of Facebook, WhatsApp and the like. Not only are they already familiar, but they are accessible by cell phone, often free to use in many data plans.
For K-12 teachers, a major concern is keeping students on task and knowing who needs help. Aprende en Casa and other programs assume parents will step in as substitute teachers. This can be very problematic. Parents may not have the technical ability to help access online resources. Even worse, they may still have to work, with grandparents and others pressed into emergency childcare.
Students and teachers in private institutions and higher education fare best, not surprisingly. In the best of cases, there is access to various platforms such as Moodle, Blackboard, Google Classroom and Zoom that have already been used in one way or another. Teachers in these situations were the most upbeat about their online experiences and more likely to consider using online instruction after the emergency is over.
Only the Tec de Monterrey’s Bauer indicated a willingness to teach completely online, but he had already been doing so. Others were willing to consider using more digital resources, but some have become hardened against online education. The main issue for them is the negative effect the lack of their physical presence has had on their students.
K-12 teacher José Rodrigo Guerrero Ruiz stated he feels like a “bad teacher” because of this, and others indicated that students did not find online learning satisfying. Conversely, about half the teachers interviewed for this column stated they had students who did better in the new environment.
None of the teachers interviewed believed that classes will return to normal in the fall. The most optimistic believe that there will be a mix of online and classroom instruction to keep schools at low occupancy. Less-optimistic teachers believe that completely online instruction will continue at least through the end of the calendar year.
Ramírez recommends that when schools reopen there are diagnostics to see what the effect of the emergency has been. She and Bauer agree that serious effort needs to be made to prepare for the next emergency school closure, such as plans to appropriate television and internet service to provide educational resources. More importantly, alternate educational plans need to exist and be proven to work.
Special thanks to Oscar Luis Silva Méndez of Languageland Puerto Escondido, Ana Azuela of the Escuela Modelo Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato, Rafael Quintero of the American School of Durango, Melissa Ferrin of the Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca, and Freddy of Northridge School in Mexico City.
Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico 17 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture. She publishes a blog called Creative Hands of Mexico and her first book, Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta, was published last year. Her culture blog appears weekly on Mexico News Daily.