How to Teach Online with Awful Internet Access

One month into confinement, teachers jump through hoops to teach. The results match the disastrous state of Venezuelan education

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Since the nationwide lockdown was decreed on March 13th because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the country were closed and teachers and students have been struggling with distance learning. And not just for the same reasons as everyone else in the world, but also because of blackouts and a poor Internet connection. 

The Education Ministry issued some guidelines to all levels of academic education for a remote final quarter, but the Venezuelan education system, already under siege, is just unprepared for a contingency of this size. Tension grows with a distance education plan that’s being made on-the-go and most teachers aren’t trained in the required techniques. For “old school” teachers, unfamiliar with technology, this scenario, more than a challenge, is a headache. 

True Learning for Everyone

Regarding remote, online education, there are several approaches. Some institutions and parents demand that their children are assigned as much homework as possible, so they have a lot to do during the day and the discipline of their studies carries on; others consider that the flow of homework shouldn’t be arbitrary because it adds stress to a reality that’s already pretty complex and the mental and emotional health of the child should be prioritized. And yet another school of thought says that the academic year must end with an average of the grades already earned so far, and leave it at that. 

Nothing of this touches the reality of teachers, who must teach to make a living (at least in the private sector), and more than quality, they strive for quantity. 

Venezuelan education must go out of its comfort zonealways reliant on the on-site techniques while keeping other methods and platforms out of its radar.

“This generation we’re educating now, if we look back and analyze the last five years, has gone through a series of tough situations,” says Antonio Pérez, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, who works as a planning and evaluation coordinator in a well-known school of western Caracas. “In 2014 and 2017, protests; last year, the blackout, and now this. These students have had to miss school for important periods.” 

The one positive thing to be rescued from the current juncture, he says, is how Venezuelan education must go out of its comfort zonealways reliant on the on-site modalities while keeping other methods and platforms out of its radar.

In this unknown, unfamiliar scenario, we play a trial and error game, and teachers are allowed to test different options, making recommendations on platforms and working to improve the process as the lockdown is normalized. “Before this contingency,” says the teacher, “a group of sophomore and senior year English teachers was using the EdModo platform; a junior Math teacher was using Google Classroom.” Other teachers were working with Instagram, YouTube, and Zoom. Some schools use platforms like Encuesta Fácil, Google Forms, Flubaroo, ClassMarker, Socrative, QuestBast, and TestMoz for online grading.

Two teachers in eastern Caracas, Víctor González (34 years old) and Catalina Arreaza (31 years old), say that their institutions have decided to use Google Classroom. Víctor says it’s the most efficient platform because it doesn’t need a strong connection, but Catalina differs: “It isn’t a tool I’d use working with elementary school children. You can’t be as present as necessary with kids that age.” 

Always on Call

Although Venezuelan education has been pushed out of its comfort zone and there’s a growing population of young teachers (since more experienced professionals have left the country), there are still professors not used to new methods who struggle with the extra workloads and the distortion in their schedules.

It’s the case of Víctor González: “There isn’t a set time to work, now we might be glued to our computer screens or answering questions late at night.” All of this happens while they try to keep the student-teacher connection. “Students are overwhelmed, getting a large amount of activities all at once, and having conflicting deadlines. It’s overwhelming, they want to go back to regular classes and stop studying online all day.” 

Parents feel the same, deluged with poor internet access and unstable electric power. For some teachers, this context will reveal their students’ will: those who want to learn, will learn despite the difficulties and those who don’t, will use every excuse not to, even if they still pass because of the Ministry of Education’s policies. 

“There isn’t a set time to work, now we might be glued to our computer screens or answering questions late at night.”

Claudia Salazar, a 25-year-old teacher at a small school in western Caracas, says that “we feel pressured so parents see that teachers are doing something to justify their wages.” Four teachers agree that schools are maintaining their obligations and paying without delays. Antonio adds that “having a job right now is important, and we’re thankful for that.” Catalina says that some schools have lowered their monthly tuition, but she’s worried that they stop paying their teachers: “In my case, I can only use the internet with the data plan on my phone, so imagine how much my bill will be and how many times I’ve had to reload my credit.” 

Unlike private schools, public institutions are forced to comply with the ministry’s requirements. “One family, one school” is their slogan and they have proposed just two things: first, students should watch state-owned TV station VTV, known for broadcasting nothing but chavista propaganda (promoted this time as “relevant content” from elementary to high school); second, students should make portfolios, to be sent to teachers. 

That’s it.

“The actions the ministry proposed aren’t clear,” says Antonio Pérez. “And they’re using the crisis for their political means, disregarding the national context.” In general, the ministry’s measures have caused rejection and aren’t in sync with the country’s educational reality.

Professor Víctor González, who also works at a high school, says the ministry’s guidelines seem absurd to him, because suggesting an online education is possible for students attending private schools, not low-income public ones. Another teacher, María Victoria Salas, a 55-year-old with more than 20 years of experience, and coordinator of the Learning Resources Center (CRA), agrees: “The guidelines won’t translate into meaningful learning, learning isn’t found only in academia.” Just consider that some teachers don’t even have computers or smartphones, where they can assign or receive their students’ papers. 

Unsurprisingly, parents also think that the content on VTV is poor, and most of them refuse to follow the syllabus. “It makes no sense, it’s more of a setback than progress,” says María Victoria, who also doubts that the kids will learn anything that way, and doubts the parents’ commitment and discipline to educate their children, with more pressing needs like food, work, and home chores. Committing exclusively to educating children, for some, is just impossible: “Home isn’t school.”