President Santos’ administration looks to build a fully fuctional digital ecosystem while improving access to and quality of education from primary to tertiary
Any broadly inclusive definition of the word “education” implies the transfer of knowledge from which a skill set can be generated when it passes from teacher to pupil, master to apprentice.In Colombia, the challenge lies in making sure the knowledge required to achieve a decent standard of living, enhanced productivity and social progress gets to where it’s needed in a country where, by way of example, just 3% of its nearly 50 million people inhabit the tropical lowlands that account for over half the country’s sovereign territory. Regional income disparities and an ongoing exodus to the cities are also problems that resist easy fixes.
The importance of a delivery system for skill-building knowledge explains why the government of President Juan Manuel Santos is going all out to create a digital network that relies on massive Internet connectivity to support the educational reforms that should begin to take effect around the same time as net-based learning initiatives are fully up and running.
Is that just a politician’s wish list? You have only to look at the president’s record since taking office in 2010. In that year, the country had only 200 connected towns and cities and 20% of households connected to the Internet. A recent tally shows 1,078 connected towns and cities and just less than 50% of households connected.
But it will not be easy going. Broadband penetration is relatively low and the number of homes with computers is small when compared to countries with comparable demographics, a situation the government has sought to remedy by eliminating sales tax on home computers in the lower price ranges. The outlook is even more dire for the microbusinesses that account for 96% of the country’s commercial enterprises – barely 7% have Internet access at the present time.
By the same token, the digital revolution President Santos is committed to should help restore the competitive edge to exports after the country slipped from third to seventh place among Latin American nations by global competitiveness metrics. Surprisingly, though, regionally Colombia is surpassed only by Brazil in terms of social media usage, with 17 million (out of an estimated 23 million internet users) possessing at least one Twitter account.
Colombia’s new ICT (Information and Communications Technology) infrastructure is integrated into Vive Digital, the government’s master plan for creating the multi-functional digital ecosystem proposed by President Santos at the beginning of his first term in office in 2010. Its first phase concluded four years later when the president made an appearance at the Andecom regional ICT trade fair – or rather, when his hologram made an appearance – to take stock of what has been accomplished.
“We are focused on taking a leading role in the design of applications aimed at overcoming poverty and creating jobs,” he said. “We have a more efficient and more transparent government thanks to ICT. We want to spur development of applications that can be exported to the four billion people in the world at the base of the poverty pyramid. As far as modernizing the government is concerned, we are prioritizing four sectors: agriculture, health care, justice and education.”
Studies have shown that in countries like India that have gone digital in a big way, for every new job credited to ICT, another 2 to 3.5 indirect jobs are created. And a recent analysis by Columbia University experts suggests that by ratcheting up internet penetration by an additional 10%, neighboring Chile could trim 2 percentage points from its unemployment stats.
Creation of this ecosystem requires a favorable climate for foreign investment and a regulatory framework under which returns on that investment will be generated. In that regard, the executive director of the telecom regulatory agency CRC, Mr Juan Manuel Wilches, pledges that “All our decisions are based on three sustaining pillars: promoting competition, promoting investment and protecting consumers.”
Last year, former congressman David Luna was named to head Colombia’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies. “Thanks to the state’s forward-looking policy on ICT, we are able to concentrate on improving the life of every single Colombian,” he says. “Creating jobs, supporting entrepreneurs, transforming the relationship between our cities and regions, all will be made possible by ICT.”
Among the measures to be implemented is the “Bill of Digital Rights” guaranteeing every Colombian the right to a password, an email address, secure access to the cloud as well as on-line interfaces designed to bring government and governed closer together.
“To transform ideas into sustainable and profitable business opportunities” is the motto of App.co 2.0, perhaps the most ambitious project on the Vive Digital do-list. It is a platform for developers of applications, digital tools and web pages, with special emphasis on those that can be marketed outside the country or tooled for different types of domestic niche users. That is an important consideration given the scant number of businesses with Internet access. Why pay for what we don’t need, they argue. But if, let’s say, coffee growers had a custom cellphone app that could monitor real time price fluctuations on distant commodity exchanges, or keep track of ominous weather patterns, it could be quite another story.
This is the territory that Apps.co 2.0 has staked out, says Mr. Luna. “We are convinced that start-ups have a fundamental role to play in the development of ICT as an engine of progress for different social actors. We aren’t looking for technological geniuses. We need bright, upbeat individuals who are used to teamwork and pooling their strengths for the common good.”
While Apps.co 2.0’s main mission is to assist developers of digital products and services, many opportunities that do not require high levels of technical competence also exist. For example: someone planning to go online with a retail sales venture would do well to become familiar with email marketing techniques, pay per click advertising or search engine optimization (SEO).
The government is reaching out to this latter group with a series of online “boot camps” – intensive courses focused on acquiring essential skills.
On completion, the entrepreneur moves to the next stage where he or she will receive an assist with permissions and assorted paperwork (environmental impact studies, market surveys, financing, etc.).
A massive digital ecosystem, says President Santos, is essential because the boy or girl now sitting in a classroom in Antioquia is someday going to be competing for a job with candidates from Hong Kong or Holland. But it is not intended as a magical cure-all, but an integral part of the effort to update, reform and reboot the county’s education system from pre-school to post-doc level.
“Our goal is to become the best educated country in Latin America by 2025,” the president said recently. “That means that every father and mother regardless of their social status, should commit to instilling in their children the character traits that will allow them to be successful in their lives, better citizens who assume the ethical values of honesty and hard work.”
The government has been doing all it can to support those outcomes. Over $2 billion was spent on upgrading school buildings, connecting them to the Internet, with additional funds earmarked for subsidized lunches, textbooks, computers and scholarships for pupils from economically disadvantaged families. A series of metrics for evaluating teacher performance was introduced, and outstanding performers are eligible for extra vacation time or up to a year’s salary as a cash bonus.
“We can’t allow another generation to fail,” says Education Minister Gina Parody. With 7.8 million students enrolled, 2 million of them at the high school level, free quality education is guaranteed to the 11th grade. “Today, education is the priority item on our country’s political agenda and we need to step on the gas to make even greater progress with improving our education system,” the minister affirmed.
Since its founding in 1957, over 7 million young and not-so-young Colombians have taken advantage of the array of vocational programs known as SENA (National Apprenticeship Service) providing internationally recognized hands-on technical training in areas ranging from furniture design to nanotechnology. With 1.2 million students enrolled (and a dropout rate under 3%) SENA is by far the country’s leading institution of post-secondary education, and over 60% of those who obtain qualifications or certification find employment in their chosen field.
”We used to count the number of people who completed their training” recalls SENA’s director general, Alfonso Prada. “Now the key question is: how many of them are employed? How many have started their own business? With an enrollment equivalent to one in every four students of higher education, and our presence in virtually every part of the country (1031 of 1100 municipalities) what we do can’t help but impact on the larger economy.”