Mapping the promises and perils of distance education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Peru’s case.

by Gabriela Martinez and Keya Saxena

Education under the pandemic

On March 16th 2020, the government of Peru ordered its borders closed due to COVID-19, along with a series of other decrees, such as instructing people to stay at home, impositing curfews, and requiring the use of masks or protective face shields. These decrees brought the country to a grinding halt. The government deployed the army and police to patrol streets, making sure people complied with the orders. The pandemic reached Peru as summer was winding down and students getting ready to return to school. However, as COVID-19 raged like wildfire across the world in the early months of 2020, schools in the northern hemisphere shut down to discourage the spread of the infection. In the southern hemisphere most governments, including Peru’s, ordered that schools, about to open, remain closed.

Above: Closed elementary school San Martin de Porres, Yucay. Photo Gabriela Martínez.

Right: Empty grounds across of the elementary school. Yucay, Peru. ....

.... During a normal school year, students use these grounds during class breaks and for sports. Under the pandemic the municipality has closed off the grounds and restricted all types of congregation at this public space. Photo Gabriela Martinez.

In less than a year, education and how students learn have been drastically transformed. Due to the pandemic, over 1.2 billion children have been out of classrooms worldwide (Li & Lalani, 2020). In Latin America over 150 million primary, secondary, and college students have been attending school remotely from home (Garcia Jaramillo, 2020; di Gropello, 2020). To continue education during these unprecedented times, Peru as well as other Latin American countries have incorporated more e-learning platforms for distance education[1][open endnotes and references in new window] in. And this use of the e-learning platforms in the region is often combined with that of legacy media—radio and television.

Prior to the pandemic, many educational technology (EdTech) firms were delivering educational content through digital technology, but the pandemic accelerated these platforms’ adoption around the world. In 2019, global investment in EdTech was around 18.66 billion USD which is now projected to reach 350 billion USD by 2025 (Li & Alani, 2020). Peru’s 2020 fiscal budget for education was about 4% of its GDP, including monies for improving physical infrastructures and expanding the acquisition of digital technologies (ChannelNewsPeru.com, January 20, 2020), leading the government to increase its education budget by 2.83 % for 2021, especially due to the pandemic (Minedu, 2021). 

COVID-19 has propelled active adoption of e-learning platforms, applications, and legacy media for education, and it has forced governments to pay close attention not only to the health crisis in their countries but the educational crisis as well. One of the biggest questions facing governments, students, teachers and parents is what the consequences of the pandemic will be in terms of education in many countries, particularly those already suffering from learning poverty.[2]  In this article we will discuss various efforts in the education sector for coping with the pandemic through digital platforms combined with legacy media. Emphasizing trends, insights and lessons in Latin America, we deliberate on Peru as a case study.

With Peru’s schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, students like Delia Huamani, 10, learn at home by watching educational broadcasts. (Marco Garro for The New York Times).

We based the article primarily on our observations on the ground in Peru from March 2020 to January 2021. There’s little literature about the new use of digital platforms and technologies combined with legacy media for mass education, although some datae is beginning to emerge. Reports from world organizations like UNESCO, World Bank, UNICEF, CEPAL, and a few other groups are surfacing. Thus we hope to contribute to an emerging body of information by analyzing trends and patterns in how Latin American countries, especially Peru, are now using technologies for educational praxis. We want to develop concepts to can help us better understand the gains and challenges of distance education during this health crises and into the future.

Global overview of education technologies
under the pandemic

As educational institutions prepared to meet the increasing demand of distance education, numerous learning platforms began to offer free access to their content, such as BYJU’s—an educational technology firm based out of Bangalore, which is now the world’s most highly valued EdTech company in the world (Warrier, 2019). As soon as it announced free live sessions on its Think and Learn app, its number of new students shot up by 200%.

Website screenshot of BYJU’s Learning App- now the world’s most highly valued EdTech company.

In China, after the government ordered a lockdown in early February, around 81% of K-12 students were attending classes via Tencent classroom in Wuhan, another e-learning platform that offers online courses in coding, languages and various hobbies (Li & Lalani, 2020). To support the online expansion, DingTalk, Alibaba’s distance learning enterprise, used Alibaba Cloud in March 2020 to deploy around 100,000 cloud servers in only two hours (Chou, 2020). And as online companies bolstered their digital capacities, Singapore- based collaboration Lark, originally developed by ByteDance as an internal platform, started to offer its services of unlimited video conferencing, translation and co-editing projects to students and teachers, and rapidly propped up its global servers and infrastructural engineering to bolster reliable connectivity (Li & Lalani, 2020).

Since April 2020 in the United States, Latin America and some European countries, Zoom, an application designed for videocalls, has become one of the most used communication platforms for distance teaching, working, and socializing. According to the BBC (2 June 2020), at its peak Zoom had 300 million customers utilizing the app. Many educational institutions have accounts with Zoom to facilitate class meetings and interactions between colleagues. Zoom provides the “host” the ability for screen sharing, creating breakout rooms, controlling microphones, admitting people into the virtual space and removing unwanted visitors, thus constituting a seemingly ideal video-conference platform for education. However, issues of security breaches and data privacy riddled Zoom for a while as people were grappling to find the most suitable online platform to communicate. Despite the controversy, Zoom remains one of the most used videoconferencing tools used for education.


Educators did not restrict themselves to professional education platforms but turned to social media and creatively used it to share short videos of their lessons. For instance, TikTok was used as an informal source of learning content where teachers shared bite-size snippets of teaching, feedback on assignments, motivational speeches, and simply showed the students their coping mechanisms (Ketchell, 2020). WhatsApp turned out to be a useful platform for education in countries like Peru, India and Ghana where it was easily accessible and did not need extensive digital training. It was already  used by masses.

In fact, even prior to the pandemic, WhatsApp was incorporated into education, although experimentally, in some of Peru’s public schools where teachers were using it for improving oral and writing competencies (Escobar-Mamani and Gómez-Arteta, 2020). Then, after its extensive proliferation as an education tool, this Facebook subsidiary rolled out resources for educators that included tips on engagement strategies, assignment feedback, and group activities among many other features (WhatsApp, 2020).

Additionally, to facilitate educating ongoing classes via an interesting and personalized pedagogical method, school districts established partnerships for broadcasting local educational segments; they teamed up with different media channels catering to different ages, classes and digital platforms. For instance, BBC launched Bitesize Daily that collaborated with subject specialists, teachers and celebrities to teach students in the UK. David Attenborough was roped in to teach about oceans and the natural world, Manchester city footballer Sergio Aguero used football to teach counting in Spanish and award winning musicians Mabel and Liam Payne tried out combinations of music and reading for students in secondary school (BBC, 20 April 2020). Peru’s Ministry of Education hired actress Patricia Barreto to help hosting the televised programs developed for secondary school as part of the Aprendo en Casa (I Learn at Home) team (Aguilar, 7 de Abril, 2020). Other less resource-intensive solutions, yet no less creative, were abundant as schools and governments scrambled to switch from in-person to distance mode of education. For instance, a school in Nigeria deployed plain asynchronous learning tools such as reading material and supplemented it with synchronous face-to-face video teaching (Tam & Al-Azar, 2020).

Education trends in Latin America in the pandemic

Since the countries of Latin America are heterogenous, we cannot generalize their diverse educational landscapes, technological adoptions, or learning challenges that span throughout the region. Adopting information and communication technologies (ICTs) for education, especially online platforms, has been uneven, but several countries in the region have striven to improve and expand its access, such as Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, Plan Huascarán in Peru,[3] Conectar Igualdad in Argentina, Enlace in Chile and Fundación Omar Dengo in Costa Rica (Tedesco, 2016). However, those initiatives obviously did not consider planning for a pandemic situation in which over 150 million primary, secondary, and college students would be attending school remotely from home (Garcia Jaramillo, 2020; di Gropello, 2020).

In the time since the pandemic reached the region back in March 2020, most countries in the region have implemented various types of measures to meet students’ learning needs—while most schools remained closed throughout the school year. Countries swiftly implemented a variety of strategies, some based on their own previous models that included use of radio and television; others incorporated online platforms and cellular phones (García Jaramillo, 2020; Pais, 24 April 2020; di Gropello, 01 June, 2020). Although most teachers are familiar with using the Internet and some ICTs in the classroom, teaching long distance through online platforms, ICTs, and cell phones was new to most. That situation forced teachers across the region to enhance their technological knowledge overnight, and to learn how to creatively deliver educational content through digital platforms. Based on individual countries’ long standing and pre-pandemic initiatives, some countries outperformed others. For instance, the World Bank lauded Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia in tackling distance education efficiently (Pais, 24 de Abril 2020).

In 2007, Uruguay created Plan Ceibal to promote inclusion and equity in education through new technologies across the country. Plan Ceibal offers access to a computer and free Internet to every student at elementary and secondary levels in all public schools. In addition, it offers educators a variety of improvement programs and professional development opportunities for enhancing their teaching using virtual platforms (Plan Ceibal). The program has various platforms for in-class instruction and long-distance learning. For instance, one of its platforms, CREA, acts as an education social network that aids course management, distribution, collaborating materials with students and teachers, grading homework, and connecting with students for school-related conversations. The other platforms of Ceibal, PAM and Matific assist in teaching math, with the latter using gamification for math learning and teaching, especially for early learners ranging from kindergarten to 6th grade (Plan Ceibal).

Website screenshot of Plan Ceibal, an online educational platform for students in Uruguay.

Similarly, a decade ago Chile implemented access to digital platforms for enhancing the educational experience. The country’s government offers two digital platforms for distance learning— Aprendo en linea and Aptus. The first platform is designed with materials for students, teachers and parents/guardians and includes digital files of textbooks for all grades, a digital library with access to more than 10,000 books, and materials for the teachers to be able to guide their students. Aptus, the second platform, provides resources for educators to enhance their ability to deliver content and sustain engagement with their students (Aptus). According to Emanuela di Gropello (Pais, 01 Junio, 2020) Chile is also sharing some of the resources and model created for the Aprendo en linea with some other countries in the region.