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Beyond the classroom

School and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic spark debate on distance learning

Photo from March 17, of a lone student on campus at the University of São Paulo. The institution offers 183 undergraduate courses to more than 58,000 students

 Amanda Perobelli / Reuters / Fotoarena

When the first social-distancing measures were introduced in an attempt to delay the spread of COVID-19, including the closure of schools and universities, a new chapter in the history of education began. More than 1.2 billion students, from kindergarten to college, have altered their school routines, according to a survey by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is estimated that 52 million Brazilian students of all ages have been affected. The urgent nature of the change has led to the development of remote education strategies in many countries, in efforts to mitigate immediate impacts on the learning process. In Brazil, the Ministry of Education (MEC) authorized the use of online lessons in place of face-to-face classes for the duration of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Students from public and private schools nationwide have been asked to study online, but not everyone has been able to do so. Many of the most socially vulnerable do not have a computer at home or access to broadband internet. Among the poorest groups who can get online, 85% can only access the internet via cell phones with limited data packages, according to a recent report by the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee.

Due to the inequality of access to computers and high-speed internet, which has been exacerbated by social distancing, discussions on the benefits and drawbacks of distance education (DE) have taken center stage in the public debate on teaching and learning. Experts cited by the report, however, state that using digital tools on an emergency basis to avoid completely suspending teaching activities is a palliative response, rather than a true implementation of DE in the country. “Many of the initiatives implemented at the last minute do not bear the key characteristics that define the concept of distance education,” observes Eduardo Santos Junqueira, who teaches the Brazilian education graduate program at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) and leads the LER languages and network education group. “There is confusion about what studying a distance course really means.”

Distance education courses and processes are not only characterized by the physical distance between teachers and students. “The approach relies on heavy pedagogical use of information and communication technologies,” emphasizes Junqueira. According to the researcher, in recent years, the development of real-time data transmission and sharing systems has made it easier to interact during distance education. “Using virtual learning environments like Moodle, teachers and students can interact via video and audio, improving the dialogue,” says Junqueira, referring to the free software created by the Australian programmer Martin Dougiamas in 2001. The platform is used as a distance education tool in more than 150 countries, functioning as an online university where teachers can provide educational material and propose interactive activities, such as tests and discussions. It also enables students to exchange knowledge and multimedia files. Institutions such as the University of São Paulo (USP), the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), and the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) have adapted this system to create their own distance-learning environments.


Distance Education (DE):
Educational model characterized by physical separation between teachers and students.
Teaching activities are carried out via different means of communication, from printed handouts to computers.

Education and learning programs provided digitally, using software and interactive platforms. Initially, the courses were taught using CDs. With the rise of the internet, online courses emerged.

Learning at home. Students are usually taught by their parents. In this model, DE materials are often used to support their learning. The approach is legal and regulated in countries such as the USA, Austria, Canada, France, and Portugal, but it is not covered by any legislation in Brazil.

Junqueira points out that to reduce the feeling of detachment that has characterized much of the history of distance education around the world (see timeline), months of planning are needed when creating an online course. It is not simply a case of “uploading content onto a digital platform and expecting students to learn on their own,” he says. Preparing a DE course often involves a multidisciplinary team composed of educators, web designers, programmers, and specialists in digital communication. “Teachers cannot be expected to have all the technical skills necessary to create a distance-learning course. It is essential that they work together with other professionals so that they and their students can make the best use of the technology available.”

The bottom line is that teachers who venture into distance education need specific training. In the midst of global pandemic, it has become even more evident that many are not qualified to work in the area, as shown by an Instituto Península survey of 7,734 teachers from across Brazil who work in public and private elementary and high schools. Of this total, 83% said they feel unprepared for distance education and 88% said that they had never taught online before the quarantine. Data from the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee also suggest that in Brazil, only 22% of teachers have had any training on the use of computers and the internet for teaching.

In general, teacher training in Brazil does not prepare them to use digital technologies, whether from a distance or inside the classroom, says mathematician Klaus Schlünzen Junior, from the School of Science and Technology (FCT) at São Paulo State University (UNESP), Presidente Prudente campus. Schlünzen heads UNESP’s Center for the Promotion of Digital, School, and Social Inclusion (CPIDES), which trains teachers in digital and inclusive education, including the use of technology and accessible devices in the classroom, especially for students with disabilities. Since it was founded in 2010, the center has certified around 6,000 teachers from all over the country.

“Technology is utilized everywhere, in hospitals and banks, for example, but in teaching it has become taboo,” says Schlünzen. He believes the proper methodologies for adopting technological resources is fundamental to the success of distance education. “Online platforms can stimulate a more active attitude among students, breaking free of the traditional model, which is centered around the teacher,” Schlünzen notes. With the abundance of information available on the internet, he says,  the teacher’s role is no longer only to deliver content.

“Teachers can play a more integrated role, mediating student actions on digital platforms and proposing collaborative projects,” suggests Schlünzen, who teaches an online course on technology in the health field for undergraduate physiotherapy students at UNESP. He recently asked his class to search online for examples of innovations that could potentially help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The students found several possibilities, such as sensors for monitoring patients’ vital signs during online consultations and games used to help rehabilitate the motor skills of hospitalized children. They then discussed the advantages and disadvantages of these technologies, and I gave feedback.”

Strengthening their relationship with students, however, is not a major part of the job for many teachers who work in distance education. In the private sector particularly, teachers commonly take on several classes and resort to merely providing expository lessons, available in recorded videos. “This dynamic is the result of rapid growth of the distance-education market worldwide, and it is no different in Brazil,” says economist Gabriel Corrêa, manager of educational policy at the nongovernmental organization Todos Pela Educação. “Technological innovations have helped to democratize education, expanding access to formal education. At the same time, online courses have proliferated with little concern for the quality of the teaching.”

The situation is concerning, especially given that the majority of students enrolled in courses related to education—such as pedagogy and teaching—are studying via distance education. Of the 638,000 people studying teaching in 2017, about 61% were enrolled in DE courses, according to a study carried out by the NGO. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of new students enrolled in distance learning courses increased by 44%. “If we look only at those studying via distance learning in the private system, the increase was 162%,” says Corrêa. The Todos Pela Educação survey also shows that private distance education already accounts for 53% of university degrees focused on teaching in Brazil. The same figure was 29% in 2010.

Unlike core countries, where DE is committed to social actions, in Brazil the approach has grown in response to market demands, says Lucila Pesce, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), where she runs the Language, Education, and Cyberculture (LEC) research group. “Undergraduate courses in the humanities  require less laboratory infrastructure than other areas, such as biological sciences and engineering,” she says. “Education entrepreneurs, for whom distance education is a cost-reduction strategy, see it as a business opportunity. Many distance courses, she explains, charge less per month than studying in person. According to the professor, the number of online courses has grown to serve specific audiences. “Graduates who study teaching generally have full-time jobs and families to support, so DE is an opportunity for them to improve their lives.”

The Brazilian distance-education market has been growing rapidly in recent years. From 2017 to 2018, the number of DE undergraduate courses rose from 2,108 to 3,177, according to the latest Higher Education Census, released last year by the MEC’s National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP). The number of people enrolled in face-to-face undergraduate courses, meanwhile, has fallen by 13% in the last five years. It is estimated that large corporations operating in Brazil—including Kroton, Estácio, and Ser—account for roughly 75% of all students enrolled in online courses.

“Brazilian legislation and the changing profile of students, who are part of the internet generation, paved the way for distance education to increase in scale,” emphasizes Luciano Sathler, a member of the basic education committee at the Brazilian Distance Education Association (ABED). The Brazilian Guidelines and Bases for Education (LDB), 1996, establish incentives for distance education at all educational levels and formats, including in continuing education. A 2017 decree updated the legislation of DE in higher education in Brazil, allowing institutions to expand the number of in-person support centers and to offer exclusively remote courses, subject to certain requirements. “Another measure regulated by the MEC and aligned with the national curriculum allows high schools to offer certain disciplines via distance-learning, to a maximum of 20% of the total workload for day courses and 30% for night courses, including technical and vocational education,” says Sathler. In December 2019, the ministry published an ordinance allowing up to 40% of on-campus higher education courses to be offered as distance education in the federal education system. The limit had previously been 20%.

The expansion of distance education, however, has not been accompanied by the creation of new policies to regulate the market and assess the quality of the courses. Resources such as YouTube and podcasts can be beneficial to the dissemination of knowledge, but their use in education should be viewed with reservation, Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at Canada’s National Research Council and a scholar of educational technology, told Pesquisa FAPESP. According to the researcher, colleges around the world are turning to so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs), inspired by systems launched in recent years. “This model has gained momentum with the emergence of platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity,” says Downes. These websites are based on self-guided learning, where the student alone leads the learning process by watching videos. “In some cases, the student has access to support from an instructor, but most of the time the material is ‘abandoned’ on these websites. Users often end up paying for low-quality courses.”

For Downes, DE still has a way to go before it reaches its pedagogical potential. This is because the traditional educational model, in which the student takes a passive role, merely receiving information, continues to be emulated. But Downes does not label himself a pessimist. “With the growth of digital two-way communication software, new interactive elements need to be incorporated by distance education,” says the researcher, referring to technologies that allow information to be exchanged in real time, such as Zoom.

Downes also argues that the DE sector needs to be better regulated by public bodies and agencies. In the USA and Canada, for example, regional councils monitor the quality of DE initiatives. “Even so, they are singular instances. Ensuring that regulatory oversight remains in place is a constant challenge.” As a result, some of the companies that provide DE technology have developed their own quality certifications. This is true of Microsoft, which offers training and validation programs for teachers working online.

Amanda Perobelli / Reuters / Fotoarena Studying during a pandemic: children at home in Santo André, Greater São Paulo, are supervised by an adult as they watch a video sent by their schoolAmanda Perobelli / Reuters / Fotoarena

Along with the need to regulate the sector, another challenge is defining criteria to measure how technologies impact students. There is no single way to evaluate how well students learn through DE in higher education, emphasizes Renata Kelly de Souza Araújo, a researcher at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE) who specializes in education and pedagogy. “There are multiple possibilities for qualitatively assessing student performance using interactive mechanisms.” Teachers can ask them to produce video or audio comments on a topic discussed in class, for example. “They can also hold online seminars, host thematic chats, conduct surveys, and create concept maps, which help to place the student as the protagonist of the knowledge-building process,” says Araújo. “Educators, institutions, and the MEC need to reflect on this subject, so that in the near future we can begin to implement learning-assessment practices, considering how the online environment affects face-to-face assessment.”

For Abed, the concept of quality in DE is linked to a number of factors, including the qualification of the teachers. The Brazilian DE Census, published by last year, indicates that federal, state, and municipal public institutions allocate more teachers with doctorates to their online education programs than both for-profit and non-profit private institutions. At federal universities, around 50% of DE teachers are doctors, with 32% and 22% at state and municipal institutions, respectively.

The methodologies and teaching tools available to students also need to be evaluated. Today, the main approach used in DE is teleclasses, both in fully remote courses (92.6%) and semi-remote courses (81.8%). The use of books in distance education has fallen by approximately 10% in recent years. However, the digital divide in Brazilian society, demonstrated during the current pandemic, suggests that printed material could be an important alternative for vulnerable students with little or no internet access.

In Portugal, for example, the government has partnered with the postal service, regularly sending printed content to students who struggle to connect to online teaching platforms. According to UNESCO, similar measures have been adopted in countries such as France, where efforts are being made to lend equipment and provide printed material to the 5% of students who do not have access to the internet or computers. In the US state of Washington, only schools that are able to ensure equal access to the internet are being encouraged to provide online classes to their students.

Scientific article
ALVES, L. Educação a distância: Conceitos e história no Brasil e no mundo. Revista Brasileira de Aprendizagem Aberta e a Distância. Vol. 10. 2011.

JUNQUEIRA, E. Tutores em EaD: Teorias e práticas. Fortaleza: Editora Dummar, 2018.