Brazil's Way Out of Poverty
The Internet as an Educational Tool

Illustration of Kwang Sun Joo (left) and Rosana Paulino (right)
Illustration of Kwang Sun Joo (left) and Rosana Paulino (right) | Illustration (detail): © Nik Neves

Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino answers the question posed by Indian author Paromita Vohra: "Which questions regarding Brazil's education system arise as a result of the pandemic?" Here, the issue of social inequality in the education system becomes particular apparent. However, the internet also creates new opportunities.

By Rosana Paulino

One of the foremost questions has to do with new ways of learning, in other words: How to educate a generation, whose parents were not taught to be autonomous in the digital environment? Brazil has always been a society for whom education has been used as a tool to keep rights out of reach of the poorest communities. Receiving a formal education often means the possibility of breaking out of an unbearable cycle of poverty.

The current law which rules the country, the 1988 Constitution, guaranteed education as a duty of the State. That has made an impact on an enormous mass of people who previously did not have access to education. What is called “primary education” includes a total of nine years for students six years old and up. It has resulted in a significant reduction of illiteracy, even though we still face a variety of serious problems ranging from precarious teacher training to the use of technology in classrooms. 

The Impacts of Digital Learning

With the pandemic, additional challenges were added to those which already existed and, among them, the precarious access to the internet is one of the most serious. Quite often we saw students up in trees or on top of concrete slabs trying to get a better network signal. Other issues, like parents’ proficiency regarding navigation on the networks and problems related to the decline in students’ social development must also be considered. In the case of low-income students, we still need to think about access to food and children’s and adolescents’ physical and mental security, since school also plays a major role in those two areas. 

In my opinion, perhaps the most important question regarding models of hybrid teaching that have been adopted as a solution to the pandemic is about how to educate a generation whose parents have not been taught to be autonomous digital learners. Migrating to a hybrid model, where the internet plays a fundamental role, is only repeating an old problem that is well known to Brazilians. Families of the middle or upper class, who can read and discuss facts and critical meaning tend to pass this onto their children. We know the obstacles that this presents for low-income families regarding academic development. For most families among these users, the internet is synonymous with social networks. In a study in the country carried out in 2013, 77 percent of mobile network users, mostly from low-income groups, believe that the internet consists only of social media such as Facebook and Youtube, and this view does not appear to have changed much since then.

Systemic Problems

People simply do not know how to use the network to research relevant information, and this ranges from mapping out a simple bus route to conducting school research. Facing this scenario, how do we not fear deepening inequality with respect to educating the poorest? If we add the costs of the Internet to this, the possibility of having a real educational apartheid is enormous. How do we change this situation? How can we reduce the losses incurred by this generation of schoolchildren who are enduring or have endured COVID-19?

The issues raised by the pandemic are not exactly new. Only the setting has changed: from a real place to virtual space. The concerns are the same, aggravated by the risks of contracting a mortal disease. I think that we can only have some success if we attack the historical problems related to education in Brazil. In the end, the only way we will be able to efficiently address current and future challenges is to resolve structural problems.

Looking at the situation in other countries, I wonder if South Korea has similar problems with digital access to education. How do parents react to the new role as digital educators alongside teachers? How are families supporting students in regard to an educational setting that places strong emphasis on digital content?