IGUAL Innovation for Equality in Latin American Universities
The objective of this project aligns itself with one of the specific objectives of the ALFA III program, namely, to improve the quality, relevance and accessibility of Higher Education in LA, particularly for the most vulnerable groups. If more low-income students successfully finish their studies despite the deficiencies in their basic education, the project will have a direct, positive impact in the accessibility of higher education for a segment of the population (public schooled students) that is usually in a disadvantaged position compared with students that could afford private schools.
The low quality of primary and secondary education in most Latin America countries is a well-known problem. As a response to this reality, the private educational market has been steadily growing in those countries. These private schools, in general, offer a higher quality and personalized education for the students that can afford it. The main selling point of these institutions is access to better resources: better teachers, technologies, materials and pedagogical methods. This difference in education quality creates a problem once students from public schools reach university. The public schooled students have a strong handicap in their performance in a demanding and fast pace environment where professors are more concerned with the delivery of knowledge to large audiences than with catering to the specific needs of each student. This problem is aggravated by the fact that the great majority of public schooled students belong to low-income families. All the problems that arise from this social status in Latin America (need to work at an early age, economical difficulties, etc) also conspire to reduce the probabilities of success of these students. In this light, it is not just understandable, but to be expected, that the private schooled students out-performed their public schooled peers and gain better opportunities at the labour market.
The unequal primary and secondary education system in Latin America contribute to the inflexibility of the social mobility. Students that could afford private primary and secondary education have much better opportunities to have access to high quality universities and to complete successfully their studies. On the other hand, students that due to their socio-economical status only had access to public education have, statistically, a lower chance to enter universities and to obtain a professional degree. This has a negative impact on the competitiveness of Latin American countries, as only the middle- and high-income segments are fully contributing to the pool of specialized workforce while the talent and potential is uniformly distributed among the whole population. While scholarships and subsidized or free higher education could help to overcome the economic problems of low-income students, the lack of an adequate primary and secondary education has not been directly addressed in the region. While improving public basic education is the ideal solution to the problem, changing current educational structures have proved to be a long-term and difficult project for any country.
The main problem to be addressed during this project is the increased level of difficulty that public schooled students confront during their university studies, compared with their private schooled counterparts. This difficulty results in lower performance and a higher level of dropout. The only way to deal with such great individual differences in the students will be to personalize the learning process for each student according to their current status and capabilities. A feasible and scalable alternative to personalize the learning experience of the students is to use learning technologies to create automated solutions to follow the students during their learning process, identify areas or skills that they require but are lacking, recommend them appropriate content from learning material repositories and guide them trough learning paths adapted to their individual needs. This project will generate learning solutions (combination of e-learning software, pedagogical methodologies and learning materials) to facilitate the assimilation of new knowledge and the development of new skills even when the student has deficient background knowledge and/or under-developed required skills. These learning technologies, initially developed in Europe, could be adapted to provide several “helpers” or “automated tutors” for each learner. Even if not perfect when compared with human tutors, these technologies could help disadvantaged students to receive the extra support needed to overcome the gap with their peers.