A Radical Idea in the Rainforest
How one alum is helping to improve education access for students living in difficult-to-reach areas of the Amazon
When Emiliana Vegas, Ed.M.’96, Ed.D.’01, looked out her plane window on a hot morning in March 2013, the village of Tuiuie was almost invisible. Signs of human habitation had been sparse since they had taken off from Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Almost as soon as the city’s skyscrapers disappeared over the horizon, its opera houses, universities, and urban slums seemed a world away. There were few roads, and only the occasional tin-roofed farmhouse dotted the banks of the Rio Purus, an offshoot of the Amazon that winds its way through almost 2,000 miles of rainforest. Boats plied the waters, but most other human activity was hidden under a thick layer of rainforest vegetation.
As the plane descended, Tuiuie came into clearer focus: a few dirt roads, a huddle of houses, and the big blue dome of a hangar-shaped high school gym. As remote as all this was, it struck Vegas that according to her map of the local territory, she had not gone all that far. The Brazilian state of Amazonas is 4.5 times the size of Germany, and contains at least 6,100 communities that, like Tuiuie, are located along the Amazon or one of its 1,100 tributaries and are accessible only by plane or boat. She was at the edge of an immense wilderness, a hinterland, the most remote place she had visited in her six years as chief of the education division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). She was there with the head of the bank’s Brazil field office, Marcelo Perez, a Harvard Kennedy School grad, at the invitation of Amazonas’ Secretary of Education, Roseilli Soares da Silva. He was seeking their help.
Upon landing, Secretary da Silva ushered Vegas and Perez into the high school building they had seen from the air. There, they encountered an unusual scene, but one that da Silva told them was occurring all across the Amazon. Forty students seated at spare wooden desks were watching a computer monitor at the front of the room. Onscreen, a well-dressed woman sat in front of a blue backdrop giving a geography lesson, while at the back of the classroom a school employee operated the computer equipment.
The students were attentive, but it seemed a bit like a substitute showing a video on the teacher’s day off — that is until the onscreen lecturer called on a student by name and asked for the answer to a multiple choice question. The student got up from her seat to answer by webcam. At that moment, the onscreen lecturer was communicating directly with the students in Tuiuie, and with hundreds of others across the state. She was a 21st-century emissary to places that could be in the 19th century, broadcasting live from a teaching facility in Manaus called the Amazonas Media Center for Education. Secretary da Silva called this method of teaching “teacher-present high school with technological mediation,” and he wanted to know: Would the IDB be willing to make an investment that would help the program transform from an experimental pilot into a radically new, statewide model for education?
The disparity in education access between urban and wilderness areas has long been a challenge for Amazonas, Brazil’s largest but most sparsely populated state. The problem has grown increasingly marked in recent years, as the country’s booming technology, manufacturing, and energy sectors have made education an increasingly important requirement for joining the middle class. The state’s rural settlements are often leftovers of past economic booms — rubber in the 19th century and a gold rush in the mid-20th — and their remote locations reflect the demands of those now dilapidated industries.
Today, residents of these remote towns often scrape by on subsistence farming and fishing, and children in the area can find themselves several hours — or days — boat ride from the nearest town with a schoolhouse. Even once students reach those schoolhouses, basic materials like chalk and pencils can be in short supply. There is often only one teacher for all grades, frequently someone without the training necessary to implement the specialized math, science, and social studies curricula required by the federal government. So while Brazilian students are legally required to attend school until the age of 16, for many in Amazonas, this is simply not a workable reality. Only 36 percent of 19-year-olds have completed their secondary education in Amazonas, compared with estimates of around 55 percent nationally, and the problem isn’t likely to be solved by investment in traditional infrastructure. University-trained teachers often don’t want to work in isolated rural outposts, and student populations are too spread out to make increased staffing cost-effective. Hevanna Lima, an English teacher at the Media Center, puts the problem simply. In the past in Amazonas, “it would be very hard for [students] to graduate because there aren’t enough teachers to teach them school subjects,” she says. “There was almost no school before the Media Center.”
The first attempts to use technology to overcome these barriers date back more than a decade. In 2002, Amazonas State University in Manaus launched a long-distance teacher-training program called Proformar, where lessons were broadcast live through TV or Internet, and students relayed questions to the teacher through phone, email, or fax.
“It was caveman technology compared to what we have now,” Perez says, but it helped plant the idea that Internet technology could be the missing piece in the infrastructural puzzle of expanding education access in rural Amazonas.
While Proformar and its cumbersome technology eventually faded away, in 2007 the government of Amazonas founded the Amazonas Media Center in Manaus, with the goal of developing and disseminating middle and high school lessons through digital satellite technology. From the beginning, the program strove for interactivity and accountability. It was essential, the program’s designers thought, that students be able to interact with teachers through the digital platform, otherwise the program was little different from educational television programming or 19th-century correspondence courses. Furthermore, “tutors” — supervising teachers without the specific expertise of the instructors at the Media Center in Manaus — would be placed in every classroom to ensure students paid attention and to help with difficult parts of the curriculum.
The lessons for the first Media Center broadcasts were developed through a multi-step process that is still used today. First, teachers consult with national curriculum experts to figure out what subjects to cover. Then, lesson plans are sent to technology experts who create visuals and videos that help take advantage of the online format. Finally, the lessons are broadcast simultaneously to hundreds of classrooms across the state, where students follow a block schedule, studying a few subjects intensively for two-to-four-week stints.
Lima, who participated in some of the first broadcasts in 2007, says that at first it felt surreal to look down at her video feed while she was teaching and see high school students gathered in bare wooden rooms, sometimes surrounded by hammocks where their own children were sleeping. The video would often blink in and out, and there were occasional language barriers — students in the most remote areas of the state can be more fluent in an indigenous language than they are in Portuguese. But, she says, her students’ thirst for knowledge was palpable. She remembers teaching a class attended by a father, son, and grandfather all seeking the high school education they could not otherwise have received. (The Media Center still offers classes to adults, but courses are now separated by age.) If in-class tutors were sick, students would operate the technology themselves, so they wouldn’t miss a lesson. And the work paid off; in 2010, Lima teleconferenced in on the first graduation ceremonies for Media Center students, held simultaneously in hundreds of classrooms across the state. She says it was one of the most rewarding moments of her career.
When Vegas arrived in Tuiuie in 2013, the Media Center’s programs had already reached more than 30,000 students in 1,500 Amazonian communities. But despite these initial successes, important questions and challenges remained: Could the government of Amazonas meet the infrastructural and staffing challenges to make the program truly statewide? How would the technology fare under long-term exposure to the humid, flood-prone Amazonian environment? And most importantly, would it really work? Could technology actually bridge the gap between rural students and their urban peers?
As chief of the education division at IDB, Vegas has the potential to mobilize tremendous resources. The IDB is the largest source of development funding in Latin America, loaning money — 14 billion dollars in 2013 — at competitive rates to projects in priority areas, including the environment, poverty reduction, and infrastructure. However, unlike a regular bank, they also provide other key resources to developing countries: grants, technical assistance, and research. Many are focused on education. Earlier this year, for example, her team approved funding for a gender equity project in Argentina that supports girls as they transition from school to work. In Ecuador, IDB is overseeing a research project on identifying good teachers and tracking their students over time.
Vegas knew, after her visit to Tuiuie in March 2013, that if she were to recommend the Media Center project to her board of directors for funding, the effect could be transformational. For her, the importance of a project like this and the work she funds is personal. Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, she had parents who believed strongly in education and sent her to high school at a boarding school in Connecticut. When she returned to Venezuela for college, she noticed a marked difference in her skills compared with those of her classmates.
“I had such an advantage over my classmates even though we were all in a selective program,” she says.
With the importance of education fresh in her mind, Vegas went on to pursue a master’s in public policy at Duke and then a doctorate at the Ed School, where her dissertation was an economic and research-based evaluation of “how we could design policies to attract, retain, and motivate better teachers,” she says. After a stint at SABER, the World Bank’s Systems Approach for Better Education Results program, she was recruited for her current position at the IDB in 2007. The education division was new then, and it was an opportunity to lead a team of 40 people in building a program from the ground-up. Plus, “my heart has always been in Latin America,” she says. “It’s where I’m from.”
Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M.’84, Ed.D.’88, director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative, says that Vegas’s leadership at the IDB is critical in supporting social and economic development in the countries of Latin America.
“Too many children, still, are denied the right to a quality education for reasons not of their choosing,” he says. “Functioning democracies require citizens who have all been educated to work with others in improving their communities and with her focus on advancing the educational opportunities of the most disadvantaged, Emiliana is playing a critical role in advancing the work in progress which is democracy, justice, and the rule of law in Latin America.”
And that requires a different approach, he says — one that Vegas is taking.
“The challenges of offering a decent education to children and youth such as those in Amazonia require the kind of out-of-the-box thinking, creativity, and innovation that the partnership between the local and federal government in Brazil, with support from the IDB, is producing,” Reimers says. “Technology offers unprecedented opportunities for meaningful education improvement, and Emiliana is stewarding the kind of innovation that is essential to give each person the right to an education that empowers them to become architects of their own lives.”
On the flight back to Manaus, and then over the coming weeks and months from their respective offices in Washington, D.C., and Brasilia, Vegas and Perez discussed what it would mean for the IDB to support the initiative in Amazonas. As they mulled things over, it became clear that the pros significantly outweighed the cons. While distance education might not be ideal compared with in-person teaching, it seemed the only viable option in such a remote region. And while the results of the Media Center’s six-year-old program had yet to be quantified, this was exactly where the IDB education division’s staff could be of use. Vegas says she was impressed by the government’s existing commitment to the program and saw great latent potential.
“The Media Center has extraordinary resources that had not been fully taken advantage of,” she explains. Media Center lessons are both broadcast live and taped for posterity, so there is an unused backlog of “seven years of recorded classes in all the high and middle school subjects. Part of our project will finance making use of these materials to ensure that they are available to every Amazonian student and teacher.”
In September 2013, six months after the visit to Tuiuie, Vegas made the announcement: IDB would make a $151 million dollar loan to the State Government of Amazonas for a program called PADEAM, a Portuguese acronym that roughly translates to “program to accelerate educational progress in the state of Amazonas.” The money would provide funds to build 12 new schools, renovate 20 existing ones, and provide 500 additional schools with the satellite technology to receive broadcasts from the Media Center in Manaus.
The project would expand through the state, river basin by river basin, eventually covering the Amazon and some of its largest tributaries, including the Rios Negro, Purus, Jurua, and Madeira, an area measuring hundreds of thousands of square miles. Large-scale distance education would be put to the test.
PADEAM has now been in operation for a year, and Vegas and Perez find themselves at a moment of delicate transition — while the program’s implementation is still in full swing, it’s time for them to start making the first quantitative analyses of the success of the endeavor. In 2015, Brazil’s school assessment exams, the National Education Evaluation System (SAEB in Portuguese), will provide the first data on how schools in Amazonas have fared since receiving the IDB loan, and while this will be a useful tool for evaluating the performance of rural students compared to their urban counterparts, Perez says the exam may not be an entirely accurate measurement of the success of PADEAM and the Media Center.
First off, there is the question of whether distance education is ever as effective as traditional classrooms. According to Vegas, “the evidence is still contradictory, but there are some suggestions that nothing can replace human interaction.” If this is true, then how will evaluators differentiate between problems that are inherent in the program’s design and problems that have to do with its implementation? These difficulties are compounded when the demographic and lifestyle differences between rural and urban Amazonas are taken into account. Students in rural areas have to travel farther to reach school than their urban counterparts — a commute of several hours by boat is considered normal — and many of their parents may not have the education level necessary to help with high school homework. Furthermore, there is the inevitable issue of flaws and failures in Media Center technology. Seth Kugel, a Global Post reporter who visited schools in rural Amazonas in 2010, reported that audio and video quality were variable. Perez says that electricity in most rural communities comes from generators, so oil and gas shortages can keep schools offline for months, as can floods, which inundated the region in the spring of 2014. And while he says that the infrastructure team in Manaus is excellent, it can take them up to a month of boat travel to reach the most remote parts of the state.
And finally, beyond all the quantifiable variables, there is a larger question: If the program is successful, how will access to education transform life in rural Amazonas? In a region where subsistence farming has been both the status quo and the limit of the economic horizon for generations, everyone has a different prediction. Some say education is the key to joining the modern prosperity of Brazil’s cities; others that it will create greater prosperity within the rural Amazon — though what that would mean for the region’s fragile ecosystem and unique cultures remains to be seen. For Vegas, PADEAM will be a success if it allows students whose lives might seem to be prescribed by their circumstances a greater choice in their future.
“They can have opportunities to either stay where they’re from and continue living in the same lifestyle, or they can attend university or a technical institute and earn a better living. Maybe not a better lifestyle, one never knows,” she says, but “there is something [essential] about the joy of learning, and the joy of being able to better understand the world in which we live is something education provides.”
Vegas and Perez believe that if PADEAM is a success, the program could go global. UNESCO’s 2013–14 Education for All Global Monitoring report estimates that 57 million children worldwide are currently out of school and that 1.6 million new teachers are needed to educate them. Given that level of demand, the Media Center’s model — expert teachers in an urban center broadcast to a remote catchment area — might be applied to the Andean and Amazonian regions of Bolivia and Peru, and beyond that to hard-to-reach places across the world. That dream may still be a ways off, but Vegas hopes the IDB’s collaboration with the government of Amazonas will one day “demonstrate that no matter where a child or young adult lives, they can access the latest knowledge and can use it for improving their lives in whatever way that might be.”
— Brendan Pelsue is currently a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama. His last piece for Ed., in fall 2013, looked at a school started by an alum in Sikkim, India.