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COVID-19 and Higher Education in Latin America: Challenges and possibilities in the transition to online education

By Dante Salto / September 2020

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Higher-education institutions worldwide had to unavoidably switch from face-to-face to online instruction due to social distancing and lockdown measures adopted across the world. Even beyond higher education, educational institutions—among other “non-essential” services—had to close their physical doors to contain the virus’ spread. Even though some countries have decided to reopen some services, by July 2020, as many as 110 countries mandate system-wide school closures affecting more than 1 billion learners worldwide [1]. 

The physical closure of educational institutions, including higher education, has led to the adoption of online tools. This move toward online instruction occurs in the context of the COVID-19 global emergency, but it could have lasting consequences in the provision of higher education. Everyone with more or less resistance and every institution with more or less capacity and experience has moved to emergency remote education (ERE).

A New Reality In A Highly Unequal Region

Latin American countries and universities also had to adapt to the new reality of this global health emergency closing educational buildings worldwide. The move to the online provision of higher education took place in the context of rapid changes. A quick scan of the statements from leading Latin American higher education associations shows how higher education leaders across the region call for adopting ERE and possible hybrid approaches in the post-COVID world [2, 3, 4]. Those calls reiterate the importance of developing solutions to attenuate lasting inequality in the region.

As higher education institutions in Latin America rushed to move their teaching online [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10], they faced at least two core limitations: 1) the disadvantages generated by the unequal access to technology and the internet; ad 2) their capacity to do so in a short time and with limited capacity. Although Latin America has made remarkable progress toward bridging the internet access gap in the last decades, only 63 percent of the population in the region accessed the internet in 2017. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 1, access remains unequal across countries. Unsurprising, yet alarming, is the gap between the percentage of individuals who use the internet in Nicaragua than in Chile. In the Central American country, fewer than 3 out of 10 individuals use the internet while in the South American country, more than 80 percent of the population uses it [11]. Within countries, more even so in low-income countries, the socio-economic status and location–urban versus rural—play a critical role, not only in access but also in the quality, speed of the service. In a similar vein, educational coverage and performance vary across the region and within each country in drastic ways.

Figure 1. Individuals using the internet (% of the population) in selected Latin American countries (2017).

[click to enlarge]

Source: Author's elaboration based on International Telecommunication Union data via the World Bank database.

Unequal access to the internet has called for creative approaches to overcome these issues. For example, the University of Campinas in Brazil has distributed sim cards with prepaid internet plans to students who already had a cellphone but did not have data plans and internet access [12].

Capacity Versus Willingness, Switching Online

Beyond internet access issues, universities faced the transition to ERE without much capacity or experience to do so [13]. Only some institutions in Latin America offer a significant number of programs online, usually lead by private institutions. For instance, in Argentina, distance education enrollment skyrocketed in the private sector ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. While the private sector only enrolls 18 percent of the students who attend face-to-face programs, an astonishing 66 percent of the distance education students enroll in the private sector.

The situation has unearthed long-standing debates between those defending and opposing online education. The largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Argentina, the University of Buenos Aires modified its academic calendar until the face-to-face classes resume [14]. The university cited quality concerns as core reasons to avoid switching the courses online. However, some academic units within the university provide support to students. In the last weeks, the university has embraced ERE as the lockdown measures will likely persist for the rest of the year. 

Pitching face-to-face versus online instruction as a quality differential is a false dilemma. There is no inherent quality differential between both types of instruction delivery or in student satisfaction [15]. However, remote education in the context of an emergency might be used by online education opponents to further their arguments. In this context, the difference between ERE and online learning is of utmost importance [16]. ERE requires rapid and often chaotic adaptations. ERE is meant to be a temporary solution. Unlike online education, ERE does not aim to recreate the educational experience; it is a quick fix and does not involve an overhaul of the courses’ core foundations. By contrast, developing a meaningful online learning experience requires time, knowledge, and capacity. Online learning opportunities go beyond access and temporary fixes. It involves strategies to keep students and professors engaged throughout the courses to promote learning, retention, and completion [17, 18].

What Is The Silver Lining?

Most, if not all, higher-education institutions in the region have switched to ERE. Although it would be far-fetched to call it “online education,” this transition leads institutions, administrators, faculty, and students to become more permeated to the idea of online delivery, at least soon. Scientists estimate that unless the virus stops replicating itself—something unlikely for the SARS-CoV-2—a vaccine will not be widely available before mid-2021 [19].

In this context, institutions have a role to play in moving from emergency remote instruction to a genuinely high-quality online education experience soon. Otherwise, they risk reinforcing a stigma that equates online education to ERE [16], and thus, lower quality education than traditional face-to-face instruction.

Institutions need to develop tools that will help them adapt to different scenarios, in a context of increasing uncertainty and ambiguity. Emergent scenarios planning along with capacity building are critical in the near future, and likely so, the post-COVID era might see more flexible and hybrid approaches to teaching and learning. Institutions need to provide professors and staff with professional development opportunities if they want to promote authentic online learning environments.

Similarly, many educators have already adopted flexible approaches to teaching online. Since students lack access to broadband internet, the new normal will probably require adapting to technologies (e.g., mobile apps) that most students use daily or use software that can be accessed on different devices.


[1] UNESCO. Education: From disruption to recovery. 2020.

[2] Asociación de Universidades Grupo Montevideo. ¿Qué hacen las universidades públicas de la región ante el COVID-19? 2020.

[3] IESALC-UNESCO. How do universities guarantee pedagogical continuity and plan for the future? Emerging contributions of the first forum of rectors in face of the COVID-19 pandemic. June 9, 2020.

[4] Unión de Universidades de América Latina y el Caribe (UDUAL). Posicionamiento de las universidades latinoamericanas y caribeñas tras la reunión con la comunidad de estados latinoamericanos y caribeños. 2020.

[5] Affigne, C. A. 2020. Primeras comunicaciones y balance general de las universidades públicas en Venezuela durante la pandemia. Revista de Educación Superior en América Latina 0, 8 (2020), 29–36. 

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[11] International Telecommunication Union ( ITU ) World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database. Individuals using the Internet (% of population). Retrieved July 11, 2020 from

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[15] Allen, M., Bourhis, J., Burrell, N., and Mabry, E. Comparing student satisfaction with distance education to traditional classrooms in higher education: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Distance Education 16, 2 (2002), 83–97.

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[17] Conceição, S. C. O. 2007. Understanding the environment for online teaching. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 2007, 113 (2007), 5–11. 

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[19] Le, T. T., Andreadakis, Z., Kumar, A, Román, R. G., Tollefsen, S., Saville, M., and Mayhew, S. 2020. The COVID-19 vaccine development landscape. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 19, 5 (2020), 305–306.

About the Author

Dante J. Salto is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He holds a Ph.D. and an M.Sc. in higher education policy and leadership from the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY). He also earned a Licenciatura in education from the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Argentina. His research interest focuses on Latin American higher-education policy from a comparative and international perspective, mainly on issues related to regulation, privatization, and quality assurance processes.

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