Strengthening Teaching and Learning in Latin America

Preliminary Lessons

by and | Oct 13, 2012

Professors of Education from the Dominican Republic at a LASPAU Program. Photo courtesy of LASPAU.

In April 2006, Chilean high school students took to the streets demonstrating against the cost and quality of public education, startling the newly-elected government of President Michele Bachelet. A further wave of protests by both high school and university students in 2011 and 2012, aimed now at the government of Sebastián Piñera, focused on similar complaints. With Chile among the highest-ranking countries in Latin America in terms of primary and secondary school enrollment, these protests were unexpected in some circles.

In hindsight, however, the Chilean protests underscore the deep and growing dissatisfaction with the quality of education available to many Latin Americans. Great disparities exist between the often high-quality teaching and learning opportunities afforded to elite groups in Latin America and what is accessible to less privileged sectors of society. This reality spans the academic network, from pre-school to university graduate education. Students from elite, mostly private, and often expensive secondary schools are best positioned to gain admission to top universities in the region, where their education is often free of charge. Less advantaged students have limited opportunities. The result is a perpetuation of the deep socio-economic inequalities that mark most Latin American societies.

Access to secondary education, until recently a privilege of the upper and middle classes in Latin America, is now widespread. Primary school attendance is nearly universal, and more and more students are now attending high school. Although significant numbers of students in the region still fail to complete secondary school, the pool of graduates seeking higher education has grown significantly.

This has led to what some observers call the “massification” of higher education in Latin America. Enrollments in universities and other centers of higher education have risen substantially from the mid-1970s to the present, accompanied by a proliferation of new centers of higher education in the region, many of them private universities. Students from non-elite backgrounds have broader access to higher education than ever before, but university education in Latin America is not yet a prime vehicle for reducing inequality and harnessing more broad-based opportunity for economic advancement. The human resource base in terms of teaching and research staff available at the higher education level has not kept pace with the proliferation of centers of higher education. While top-tier universities in several countries in the region provide very high quality instruction, many others do not have access to well-prepared faculty. The result is often the confluence of students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds with modest secondary school preparation and higher education programs unable to offer them relevant and high-quality instruction.

Increasingly, however, a movement toward academic reform is taking hold in the region, driven by the awareness that simple access to primary and secondary education will no longer serve the human resource needs of the Americas. Regional economies require more highly-qualified persons across a broad band of activities, especially in areas related to science and technology. Brazil’s recent initiative to provide more than 100,000 students and researchers with opportunity for international study under the ambitious “Science without Borders” program is a dynamic response to this challenge. Across the region, governments, universities, and increasingly private sector organizations are examining how the quality of education can be enhanced at all levels. There is more focus on the need to strengthen the region’s low rates of investment in research and development and to promote technological and academic innovation.

LASPAU: Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, affiliated with Harvard University, has been dedicated to the mission of strengthening higher education in the Western Hemisphere since the organization’s founding in 1964. Much of LASPAU’s work has been concentrated in the area of scholarship administration, providing a full array of services to organizations throughout the Americas in support of mainly graduate-level study by Latin American and Caribbean students in the United States and other countries. The scholarship programs administered by LASPAU over the years include the Fulbright Program for the U.S. Department of State, USAID scholarships, and scholarships funded by the Organization of American States (OAS) and by governments of many countries in the region. More than 20,000 students, researchers, scholars, and professionals from the Americas have participated in programs designed or administered by LASPAU. Most recently, in 2012, LASPAU signed agreements with entities of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation of Brazil—the Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), respectively—to administer 1,500 Ph.D. scholarships at U.S. universities under the “Science without Borders” initiative.

LASPAU has most recently focused on the need to promote academic innovation and strengthen teaching and learning capability in the region. In 2006 the organization launched the Initiative for the Development of Academic Innovation (IDIA, by its Spanish acronym), as the focal point for this effort. IDIA helps universities in assisting students to learn more effectively by designing multi-phased programs. It also fosters academic innovation at universities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through tailored programs and initiatives in support of higher quality education, IDIA promotes outcomes-based curriculum design, new approaches to student learning assessment, effective teaching and learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, and greater synergy between the academic, business, and public sectors in the region. IDIA also contributes to improving the education of future teachers by strengthening pedagogical skills of faculty of schools of education. IDIA’s goal is to promote practical, sustainable strategies and initiatives with measurable results.

IDIA has worked with individuals from more than 170 organizations including government entities, universities, and foundations from 21 Latin American and Caribbean countries on efforts to promote improvements in teaching and learning and academic innovation. Thousands of professors from public and private universities have benefited from IDIA programs—often carried out in Cambridge, Massachusetts—linking them with Harvard University and with many other top universities in the United States. Through its six years of experience in creating a regional network of experts in university teaching and learning, IDIA has learned some preliminary lessons regarding the key variables linked to more effective teaching and learning and the mechanisms for sustaining such improvements.

Preliminary Lessons

1. Focus on aligning faculty development with broader institutional goals. Strengthening the quality of university teaching and learning implies a change in institutional culture. Thus, it requires a strategy that maximizes likelihood for support from all actors within the organization. Some common strategic elements we have observed from successful faculty development efforts include:

  • Consideration of the institution’s unique needs and characteristics
  • A designated agent of change within the institution who is empowered to undertake needed changes, including creating a formal structure (i.e. a named program, entity, or academic area) responsible for the process and holding accountable other entities within the institution
  • The development of a small but successful pilot program during the early stages of implementation that shows early success through measurable outcomes

2. Build faculty support for change. It is essential that there be faculty support for academic innovation and change related to teaching methods. Experience demonstrates that most faculty members will welcome opportunities to improve their teaching if changes are not perceived as imposed or threatening to their professional standing. Successful efforts at innovation offer opportunities for professors to reflect on their conceptions and practices related to teaching and learning and then provide the needed training and support. This is an essential challenge for university leadership—to develop an environment of teaching innovation that is seen as an integral part of academic life.

3. Use a multi-dimensional approach. An understanding of what pedagogical improvement entails is necessary in order to develop a culture of effective teaching and learning. This approach consists of an integrated instructional design that includes an established conceptual framework for teaching and learning—one that examines course design, learning assessment, teaching approaches, and the development of student competencies. The overall goal of the training program should be to strengthen the institution’s capacity to improve teaching and learning along several dimensions, not merely to provide training in teaching methodology or use of technology.

4. Collect useful data. The importance of data collection is directly linked to the implementation of teaching improvements and the assessment of its impact on student learning. Data collection is essential not only for professors to be informed about their teaching practices, but also for institutions to make evidence-based decisions about strategies to improve teaching. The creation of educational research groups within university schools and departments is a concrete step that several institutions are taking toward building sustainable efforts to improve teaching.

5. Share knowledge and best practices. An important goal of IDIA’s work has been to facilitate a network of educational experts around the region and within individual countries that promote academic innovation. Within institutions, the creation of such networks is highly beneficial in encouraging faculty to share knowledge and best practices and to form teams that can facilitate further innovation and measure progress. Encouraging class observations among faculty and examining teaching approaches in other disciplines fosters an environment where teaching improvement is promoted.

In the context of a globalized world economy and greater synergy between universities, government, and the private sector in Latin America, the quality of higher education is certain to be a key point of future focus. With its nearly fifty years of experience in the region and its dedication to promoting innovation and academic excellence, LASPAU looks forward to further strengthening partnerships with organizations throughout the Americas that share this goal.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Peter DeShazo is Executive Director of LASPAU: Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, affiliated with Harvard University. Before coming to LASPAU in 2011, he was director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. and taught at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University.

Angélica Natera is the Associate Director for Academic Innovation at LASPAU: Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas, affiliated with Harvard University. Since 2006, Angélica has led IDIA, the Initiative for the Development of Academic Innovation, which has benefited over a thousand professors in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is a graduate of Universidad Tecnológica del Centro and Universidad Simón Bolívar in Venezuela and of Harvard University

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