By Enrique Valencia López
Throughout the pandemic, indigenous communities have emphasised that remote learning strategies should not solely rely on online access to provide educational services. Otherwise, existing inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous students may exacerbate as many indigenous households are in rural areas with limited internet connectivity. Access to effective remote distance learning platforms is not the only concern; countries with strong cultural diversity, as in Mexico, should also aim for these services to be culturally and linguistically pertinent.
Indigenous peoples have limited access and inadequate infrastructure for distance learning
Since the arrival of COVID-19, Mexico’s Ministry of Education (SEP) has launched a comprehensive remote learning platform that integrates TV, radio, internet, and mobile applications—Aprende en Casa. While Aprende en Casa has reached many children and teenagers during the lockdown period, indigenous students may fail to fully benefit from it.
First, there is the question of access. Data from the 2018 National Household Survey (ENIGH) shows that there is a considerable digital divide between indigenous and non-indigenous children, with one in five indigenous children aged 3 to 17 years lacking either access to electricity, television, or internet at home.
Alternatively, online resources are available by mobile connection. But a report from Mexico’s Communication agency (IFT) shows that while 64% of indigenous localities have access to a network (2G, 3G, and 4G), less than 40% of them are in a 4G network area, which is important for downloading large amounts of data, making video calls, and reproducing online videos. IFT also notes disparities within indigenous populations: 65% of Mayan people have access to a 4G network, while that is the case for only 18% of the Huichol people.
More recently, SEP has broadcasted radio programs in an attempt to reach the most isolated indigenous communities, but even then, approximately 10% of school-aged indigenous children have reported that they do not listen to the radio or did not have access to the physical apparatus at home.
Distance education is rarely translated into minority languages or delivered as individualised learning
Beyond access, strategies for distance learning should also look at the pertinence of each medium of instruction for different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In terms of Aprende en Casa, there seems to be an urban-rural divide. While in rural areas the government’s main concern has been to increase access to linguistically appropriate content, in urban areas, where more students can download, watch or tune in to any platform, many of these services are predominantly in Spanish.
Not enough time has passed to know if this strategy is effective. In rural areas, the government has provided limited airtime to lessons in 15 indigenous languages in 18 community radio stations. Classes have also been broadcasted at night. However, it is unclear the extent to which these lessons are used for at-home learning in indigenous households. In semi-urban and urban areas, more indigenous children have reliable access to TV and internet, but their level of fluency in Spanish or that of their parents is unknown.
Whichever way you look at it, benefiting from online services should not be a matter of whether indigenous students speak Spanish or not. Mexico has long ago recognised that indigenous languages are as important as Spanish, which means that all children have the right to be taught in their mother tongue, regardless of where they live.
While it may not be possible to translate all distance learning resources into indigenous languages quickly, the government and civil society must continue ensuring that materials, beyond textbooks, are available in languages other than Spanish, even after children return to school. Otherwise, more indigenous individuals may decide to abandon their tongue in favour of Spanish. They may feel that preserving their language will put them at a disadvantage or increase their cost of accessing fundamental services.
Dropout is another challenge schools may face over this time. Research has shown that perceived irrelevance of curricular contents or boredom may contribute to student disengagement, which has consistently predicted school dropout. Such situation, when combined with the potential loss of income due to the lockdown, may force indigenous parents – many of whom work in sectors economically vulnerable to the pandemic – to send their children to work instead of keeping them at school.
Working with teachers to respond in the short and long term
Besides being accessible and pertinent, remote learning also has to be effective, particularly for indigenous children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Evidence from China and India suggests that it is possible to use computer-assisted and remote learning programs to improve student learning. However, many of these interventions were designed as complementary to in-school instruction and were never meant to substitute traditional teaching and learning methods, as is now happening.
While we do not know yet how effective online distance learning can be as a substitute, we do know that teachers and students can provide valuable input in the design, implementation, and evaluation of Mexico’s remote learning strategy. The government should aim to allow and act upon that input. For example, teachers working with indigenous communities could give feedback on the extent to which each community could work with a specific type of distance learning component and find appropriate ways to conduct follow-up with students. Other teachers can provide feedback to the online platform of Aprende en Casa in terms of accessibility, engagement, and curricular alignment.
To make sure we can maximise distance learning strategies for indigenous students, governments will need to systematically consult and empower indigenous teachers and students and listen to their voices in how these platforms can better work for them.