One of the Internet community’s most pressing collaborative goals is to “connect the next billion”. In order to ensure that expanded access remains sustainable and relevant to local communities, skills such as digital media literacy must be a central component of any project. This is especially pertinent in Latin America and the Caribbean, where individuals across the region are working to connect schools and communities to the net, expand the digital economy, and empower individuals with access to information.
One such program, ESCUELA+, uses satellite technology and solar-power to connect rural schools in Latin America that do not have reliable Internet access to high-quality educational content online. Since 2007, this community-driven program has reached more than 2 million students, 65,000 teachers, and 8,500 schools in eight countries in Latin America, including Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Peru and Argentina. The initiative is supported by a broad coalition of organizations, including AT&T, DirecTV, National Geographic, Discovery, and Fundacion Torneos.
The challenges ESCUELA+ must overcome are numerous. The first includes geographic barriers and the difficulties associated with connecting remote areas. Rural areas frequently lack affordable Internet access, and people who want to connect to the Internet often have to travel long distances and incur large expenses to get reliable access. Additionally, the education system in many rural areas in Latin America suffers from incomplete or inconsistent access to quality teaching. This leads to high repetition and dropout rates. Rural schools tend to be a low priority for resource allocation because they are in areas with low population density. Furthermore, the unavailability of educational content in local languages is particularly acute for schools in rural areas.
The ESCUELA+ solution
ESCUELA+ uses last-mile satellite connectivity (LMSC) to provide educational content from high-quality sources such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic to students in rural schools. The satellite connectivity provides access to this programing in any school with a television and electrical power. Where electrical power is not easily accessible, ESCUELA+’s Solar Initiative is deploying solar-powered alternatives to make streaming educational content possible. DirecTV’s digital video recorder (DVR) facility allows teachers to manage content and record more than 100 hours of programing to integrate into their curriculum. Teachers are also trained to use ESCUELA+ audio/visual technology, as well as the Discovery en la ESCUELA pedagogy. In addition, the ESCUELA+ channel launched in 2016 contains collaborative and locally tailored content from participating Ministries of Education from Colombia, Ecuador and Chile, as well as teacher training content.
Using media, technology and digital satellite television, rural schools are incorporating innovative teaching methodologies that are making a tangible difference. Besides the numbers mentioned above, ESCUELA+ has had a significant impact on educational achievement primarily in underserved areas. Independent surveys conducted by the University of Chile found that students in schools with ESCUELA+ performed consistently better than control groups across all grade levels and subjects.
Considering how central education is to alleviating poverty, community initiatives such as ESCUELA+ are on the forefront of our work to improve lives around the world. ESCUELA+’s success serves as an example for similar initiatives around the world as it demonstrates that satellite broadband can be an enabler of last mile connectivity in underserved regions. Moreover, it teaches us that streaming educational videos can help improve educational outcomes in rural communities.