When the pandemic hit a year ago, Isabel Salon went into free fall. Salon is a first grade teacher at a private school in Medellín, Colombia’s second-biggest city. She’s also the mother of two girls, an 8- and an 11-year-old, both of whom attend public school in a high-poverty sector of the city. In response to Covid-19, Salon’s school forced her to teach online. She struggles, sometimes working seven days a week and upward of 15 hours a day. Her daughters’ school, however, did the opposite. The girls barely studied over the course of 2020, receiving homework only once a week via WhatsApp message.
Salon found herself in an impossible position: prioritize her students’ learning or her daughters’. As a single mother, she couldn’t afford to do both, and, ultimately, as the sole provider of a steady income for her family, her job won out. “It’s frustrating and very discouraging, because I want my daughters to have a good education,” she said. Teaching has long been a precarious job in Latin America, and this is especially true in Colombia. Despite years of protests by students and educators, the country’s nearly 320,000 teachers still earn among the lowest starting and maximum salaries in the world for their profession. For people like Salon, this means that, even as a teacher at a private institution, she can’t afford to give her daughters a quality education.
But while Salon struggles, Freddy Vega has a spring in his step. Vega is the founder of Platzi, a Colombian edtech company that offers prerecorded seminars on everything from engineering to journalism by industry experts alongside a Reddit-like platform for chats between students. Following its creation in 2014, Vega’s startup chugged along at a decent pace, but it was when the pandemic shut down the world’s schools and universities that the e-learning sector truly took off.
Tech platforms like Platzi want to offer solutions to endemic problems in education by digitally restructuring traditional classes. Tech leaders boast a bold vision: the digitization of lessons across the board. From posh private university hallways to packed public school classrooms to the choppy video calls Salon struggles to give from her home in Medellín — no form of education is safe from edtech’s disruptive vision.
But, in Latin America, edtech can only go so far before coming up against the region’s stark inequality. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened disparities in education, widening the gap between successful edtech lecturers and YouTube celebrities on one end and traditional educators struggling to make ends meet on the other. And, while edtech offers new solutions to students across Latin America, teachers are being left in the lurch.
E-learning platforms like Platzi have struck it rich across Latin America. While Vega declined to share what his company earned in 2020, the numbers surrounding the industry speak for themselves. Peru’s Crehana, which is very similar to Platzi but with a focus on “creative learners,” grew at a monthly rate of 40% from early 2020. Mexico’s Collective Academy, an express MBA-style neo-university, moved online and launched an aggressive marketing campaign urging recent high school graduates “not to go to college.” By February 2021, Brazil’s Descomplica raised just shy of $83 million from titan investor SoftBank — Latin America’s largest-ever edtech investment round.
Vega has gone on to become something of a celebrity in his sector. He makes bold claims that his platform will change the way education works in Latin America, going so far as to say that Platzi can and will eliminate endemic poverty by providing poorer populations with better, more affordable education. He also thinks traditional schools are doing education all wrong. “During the pandemic, we’re on Zoom cloning the same educational model that we’ve been using for 200 years, only now we’re on video llamadas. That’s the real problem,” Vega said in an interview with Rest of World.
Latin American edtech founders seem to have a savior complex, and perhaps for good reason: When it comes to education, the region is in need of saving. In the 2018 PISA test results, a snapshot of global student performance, every country in Latin America listed scored below average. Poor results are not exclusive to poor schools either; this was also true for the expensive private sector. “The only way to fix it is through technological disruption,” said Vega.
His is a broad-ranging sort of disruption, looking to upend every facet of schooling, from early education to advanced vocational training. On one end, startups like Collective Academy provide higher education to entrepreneurs that can be completed in three months and at a fraction of the cost of an MBA. Like Vega’s Platzi, Collective Academy’s strategy is to have lecturers come directly from the industry, including founders, corporate executives, and investment gurus. Crehana specifically wants to hone students’ digital skills by teaching them to program. Laboratoria, also originally from Peru, takes this specialization a step further; it is teaching low-income, young women to code, preparing “our students to build the technical and life skills to succeed in competitive jobs,” said Karen Kelly, Regional Partnerships Manager at Laboratoria.
Edtechs’ focus on technology, disruption, and on preparing “students for 21st-century jobs,” in Kelly’s words, seems to have paid off. Graduate employment stats feature heavily on edtech websites. Laboratoria boasts a 78% employment rate among graduates, while Platzi promises 80% of students have either higher salaries or better jobs. There just seems to be one factor missing from this education equation: teachers.
Pato Bichara, co-founder and CEO of Collective Academy, says he spent the better part of two years coming up with a new terminology to reflect his overhaul of education. He’s proud that roles traditionally filled by “teachers” are being replaced by “mentors,” “coaches,” and “experts” — not only in other edtechs, but in old-school educational institutions. He noted how Mexico’s leading private university, el Tecnológico de Monterrey, now refers to its students as “learners.” But the shift away from traditional educators began long before the pandemic struck. Bichara cited regulatory issues as the reason. “At first, we wanted to get teachers certified by the government, but they didn’t let us,” he told Rest of World.
Edtech companies also share a pragmatic view of education, reflecting a job market that was struggling even before Latin America’s worst economic slump in recorded history. These startups seek to replace the slow education favored by schools and universities with “real world” skills that are competitive in the labor market. By relying on industry experts, they are also banking on the added benefit of leveraging mentors to get students jobs, instead of leaving them to their fate on graduation.
A side effect of this line of thinking has been the transformation of students into customers and teachers into corporate pain points. After all, conventional teachers aren’t as close to the action as industry experts, nor are they as cost-effective as automated apps or online courses. Covid-19 did not create this trend, but it did exacerbate it. Every edtech that responded to Rest of World made it clear that teachers who stick to their old ways will go the way of the chalkboard. The problem is that many educators, including the ones teaching Salon’s daughters, can’t afford anything but chalk.
The question is whether there’s a market for this new model. At a time when the region’s economy is in crisis, access to a yearly Platzi subscription costs at least a month’s earnings on the Colombian minimum wage. More than half of the country still doesn’t have access to the internet, according to Colombia’s Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications. It leaves both teachers and millions of poorer students out of Vega’s reach. But although better connectivity is not a subject of debate in Latin America — the region has signed on to the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, declaring its commitment to universal internet access — the role of teachers in an increasingly digital environment is.
Growing connectivity in Colombia is already giving educators and students a taste of things to come. Julio Alberto Ríos Gallego, also known as “Julioprofe,” started his YouTube channel 12 years ago in Cali, a city in western Colombia, as a resource for university students in his advanced mathematics classes. As he continued to post videos, he began to gain viewers across Latin America, as well as non-Spanish speakers from around the world. Three years and 4.5 million subscribers later, Ríos Gallego has successfully monetized his channel and transitioned from university professor to professional YouTuber. Over the course of the pandemic, views have ticked up, and Ríos Gallego often sees comments under his videos saying “now these are virtual classes, not like what our teacher gives us.” “It’s conventional content; we’re not doing anything extravagant or anything crazy,” he said. At the same time, Ríos Gallego argues that channels like his push educators to deliver a better “product,” mirroring the language used by edtech startups. It is free and personable (if not personalized) mass education.
While edtech platforms and educational influencers like Julioprofe have been useful during the pandemic, Martha Rocío Alfonso, vice president of the Colombian Federation of Educators, the country’s biggest teachers’ union, warns that they’re not a permanent solution. “I have used many of these tools,” she told Rest of World. “But they can never replace in-person schooling. Not just classes, but recreation, projects, activities, and the interaction between teacher and student.” Additionally, she believes that forcing each student to learn in isolation can create a learning environment more focused on individualism than collective growth. “It creates real damage,” she said. Salon, the private school teacher in Medellín, agrees. “I can’t teach a student how to hold a pencil through the internet,” she said. “I need to be there, putting the pencil in the kid’s hand.”
Bichara’s post-pandemic vision is rather different. He wants to break the teacher’s role down into its constituent parts — some of which he thinks can be automated. He mused about a near future in which face-recognition software would take attendance, AI would grade papers, and a student would learn to hold a pencil correctly via a video sent to the responsible adult. If something was off, the student would receive “a guide on how to hold a pencil in five Instagram stories.” By saving time on menial tasks like this, Bichara’s goal is to elevate education to its most idealized, creative form.
This edtech/teacher divide reveals a fundamental rift in how each party understands what the role of the educator is. While edtech advocates believe the end goal is employability, they mean it specifically for learners, not teachers. Bichara is confident that more automation and quality will more than replace the jobs lost. “If there is ever a day, and I don’t think it will be the case, when we reach a point where we only need one teacher per subject in Mexico, and the 10 to 15 million Mexicans who currently work in education lose their jobs, then surely, with the abilities we’ll be developing, we’ll be able to build something interesting.”
This emerging logic makes teachers now look a lot like the new factory workers. Those who remain in the sector will be the few; the rest will have to find new lines of employment. Many will not have the same transferable skills that edtech sells today. Though that future still seems far off, the dismantling of traditional education is already happening, and, sensing a market, actors from unrelated fields are now venturing into the education sector. Brazil’s video game unicorn, Wildlife Studios, is now sponsoring an online women-only programming course, Programaria.
It is a pandemic-era bonanza that not only skipped Isabel Salon but is threatening her livelihood. When asked what she would do in a world where she could no longer be a teacher — replaced by YouTube stars or mechanical mentors — she replied, social work, helping children in communities like hers that have been left behind by the pandemic.