Priscila Gonsales is transforming the classroom experience of primary and secondary school teachers and students by revitalizing and customizing existing pedagogical resources to reflect the realities and needs of Brazil’s diverse students. Priscila helps educators and students see themselves as content producers, not just consumers of information, while also introducing new models for national teacher training and textbook production.
The New Idea
Priscila is working to transform the system by which educational materials and trainings reach teachers and students within Brazil’s massive public education system. She expects to improve the quality and relevance of curriculum materials and teacher training to raise educational outcomes in a system beset by chronic underperformance and an inflexible national textbook purchasing authority. Priscila uses a two-pronged strategy to influence and achieve policy change at the national, state, and local levels. She seeks to shift the regulatory environment in order to promote Open Educational Resources as a content-based alternative for customizing and tailoring education information for students across Brazil. Second, Priscila is building collaboration across key departments and ministries of education to develop new training systems. These include new coursework to facilitate comprehension of subject material and to also promote a mindset shift among teachers (i.e. and by extension the students) to become creators and disseminators of educational content. In this way, she aims to create an invigorated and dynamic educational experience for Brazilian students.
For years, Brazil’s public education system has been the subject of intense criticism. The problems often begin outside the classroom at the bureaucratic level. In 2012, the Brazilian government allocated the Ministry of Education the largest budget in its history: approximately $43.5 billion, the equivalent of 1.97 percent of the country’s total GNP. Ten years ago Brazil spent less than half of the current budget on education, yet greater appropriations have not led to positive results. In 2012, Brazil ranked 88 out of 127 nations in the UNESCO Education for All Development Index. Specialists agree that Brazil woke up to its serious educational problems very late, especially relative to other countries with fewer resources, but above all, inefficient use of this exorbitant budget seems to be the most important factor.
The official National Textbook Program, for instance, second only to China’s in size, spent approximately $740 million dollars in 2012 to produce pedagogical materials for children, replace classroom materials for remaining primary and secondary school grades, and purchasing library books. A single federal government program, though, is not the appropriate mechanism to purchase materials for educating a country as vast and diverse as Brazil. Produced in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the government-issued textbooks maintain an urban perspective on information found interesting and applicable mainly to people living in the country’s urban centers. Students from rural areas seldom relate to the teaching materials presented to them, thereby distancing them from the learning process and making it harder for teachers to engage them.
Textbook production in Brazil, though, has remained static for decades, catering mainly to large publishing houses that churn out millions of books for the program without regard for regional specificity or changing lifestyle needs. In fact, when Pearson Education Inc., the world’s leading learning company, evaluated 39 countries based on the quality of educational materials and services provided to their students, Brazil ranked second to last.
Another key issue affecting Brazilian education is the distance between educational policy and teachers. In the past twenty years, the government has sought to employ computer and IT-based tools for the classroom, such as the pilot project launched in 2010—One Computer per Student Project—to distribute 150,000 laptops to students in 300 schools. Furthermore, in early 2012, the ministry announced it would spend approximately $90 million on providing 600,000 tablets to Brazilian public high school teachers. Merely spending extra money on new hardware, though, did not improve the educational experience, and the ProUCA program neglected to offer teacher training and sensitization on using the new tablets, so the products were not employed to their fullest potential. In one international colloquium on education and technology, a historical analysis of the use of ICT in education showed that primary school teachers and policymakers seldom collaborate in writing public policy. Educating in the digital age does not mean simply replacing analog devices for high-tech gadgets; teachers need to be prepared to use technology in order to design new teaching methods in tune with contemporary society.
Mozart Neves Ramos, President of the Education For All movement, advocates for high-quality education and describes education in Brazil as being full of schools from the 19th century with teachers from the 20th century attempting to teach students in the 21st century. To bring all elements into today’s society, Brazil must train teachers to feel prepared to use, share and produce educational resources from a new model that manages copyrights differently while seeking partnerships that will make this happen in a cooperative manner.
Priscila launched Educadigital after ten years of leading a program which developed Brazil’s largest online educational platform, Educared. She recognized that in order to liberate teachers and students from a dependence on centralized, largely static system providing instructional materials that failed to meet the needs of Brazil’s students and teachers, she would need to engage diverse coalitions to shift the thinking and practices of an extraordinarily diverse range of educational actors, from private publishers to local, state, and national education bodies, from teachers and trainers to textbook purchasing agents.
Priscila’s work is assisted by the public understanding that Brazil’s primary and secondary educational system is failing (in contrast to Brazil’s public university system which is highly regarded and better funded), and the growing realization that Brazil’s significant investment in technology in classrooms has not paid off. In this environment, Educadigital has been able to work collaboratively with university research bodies, foundations, teachers and teacher organizations, and allies with the government who seek to improve the education of Brazil’s youth.
Priscila aims to transform two subsidiary systems within the educational establishment: (i) the training and engagement of teachers (and the institutions which support them) so that they enhance and expand their role as producers of educational content that is tailored to the needs of the diverse student population, and (ii) shifting the policies, practices, and procedures of the regional and national educational authorities and actors regarding the procurement and distribution of educational materials. This latter system is comprised of a bewildering array of actors from publishing companies, elected representatives on key legislative committees, as well as multiple departments within the federal and state ministries of education and technology.
In keeping with her teacher- and student-centered philosophy, Priscila has designed a methodology that trains teachers to use open source education resources in the classroom based on three basic values: empathy, collaboration, and experimentation. Empathy in the context of Educadigital’s training is the exercise of putting oneself in the place of teachers to understand the challenges and opportunities of education in a digital culture. Collaboration is centered on the free exchange of ideas and experiences, and the collaborative potential posed by the Internet. Finally, experimentation means letting the group plan their own objectives for the online course they will start. Through this process, trainees imagine what they will learn, identify their main doubts and likely obstacles, and anticipate how they will likely resolve them. Once the course is over, participants meet to share what they have learned, their new ideas about education materials, and their accumulated knowledge, before spreading these ideas to others.
One of the most basic premises of Priscila’s work relates to a teacher’s “digital literacy”—their proficiency and familiarity with the Internet. This includes training teachers to conduct research and collaborate online, and once they start to produce materials, learn of the responsibilities and rights due to them as authors of content. Priscila believes that teachers and students need to learn broader, more comprehensive Internet skills, which are essential to research and any content production, rather than solely learning certain specific subjects. As the public uses the Internet outside the classroom, she expects that they can bring this knowledge into it, tailoring their experience to the acquisition, and spread of knowledge.
To extend the depth and reach this shift in perspective and practice to teachers across Brazil, Priscila seeks to establish partnerships with public education agencies. She is already working with the Centers for Technology and Education at the state and municipal levels. By inserting the concept of educators as producers, not just consumers, of content into existing pedagogical political projects, she believes educators will become agents of change and increase impact.
To shift national policy, Priscila is working to change legislation at different governmental levels, while also working within the existing system to create demonstration projects permitted by current law that introduce and demonstrate new concepts drawn from what is known as the open educational resources movement. At the municipal level, she advocates that all knowledge produced or purchased by the administration remain an open educational resource that can be accessed, reused, and adapted by third parties. The goal here is to ensure that teachers, administrators and students are able to tailor instructional materials and educational resources to meet the needs in their own environment—in short, to move away from the current one-size-fits-all model that dominates Brazilian educational resources.
At the state level, Priscila advocates for similar legislation that would make all products and research produced at state universities available in the same manner. She does so by serving as a resource, not just an advocate. Priscila offers seminars and advice to government officials who seek to learn more about the implications of both a new model for publishing, and how this can impact the classroom environment. In addressing the potential arguments against a more open system, Priscila and her allies in the movement have argued that since this is knowledge paid for by taxpayers in São Paulo, citizens should have access to adaptable forms of the information produced. As resources of the city and state they should serve teachers and students in dynamic ways, as creative teaching resources instead of static, unchangeable texts.
At the national level, Priscila works directly with the Congressional Committee on Education and with the Ministry of Education. She wants everyone to understand the advantages of changing intellectual property laws in order to keep everyday educational resources open to teacher and student revisions. Priscila has helped to introduce legislation that would directly affect the government procurement process to purchase textbooks.
Priscila is also responding to requests to conduct workshops for technicians within the ministry about open source education resources. A specific group dealing with purchasing digital resources wants to understand the advantages of using teaching materials that can be edited in the classroom by teachers and students so that they can begin to change public bidding for textbook purchases. While Priscila works collaboratively within the current system to help officials redesign procurement systems, this should also assist in the broader effort to promote the rewriting of federal copyright laws, thereby making all educational resources bought by the government free and open.
In another project seeking to demonstrate the viability of the open educational resource model, Priscila and her co-founder at Educadigital have produced a literacy primer though a Brazilian publishing company which will be the first open source textbook used by Brazil’s education ministry. In the book, all illustrations are open resources, for which they negotiated the most open intellectual property rights license. They have left the book completely open for edits, revisions, and use by teachers and students to suit their needs. Priscila has submitted her book to the Ministry of Education for approval in the next round of textbook bids to show publishing companies and the government how textbook publishing is beneficial to all interested parties and can be profitable.
Priscila understands that she must engage and enlist at least some segments of the publishing industry as allies. She attends industry conferences to network with publishing insiders, and regularly fields questions from industry representatives. Priscila is in direct contact with publishing companies to show local publishers new business models in the age of open source publishing, with examples derived from publishing giants such as Pearson. She wants to show publishers that open source education resources are not a matter of “losing” intellectual property but, rather, an alternative and more flexible licensing option. Educadigital highlights alternative models supported by organizations such as Creative Commons, which can provide various stages of ready-made copyright agreements according to what authors and publishers are most comfortable with, from the most open to more restrictive contracts.
As a teenager, Priscila decided to become a journalist as a way to experience other cultures and interact with different customs and ways of life. Journalism also provided her a way to report challenges and misdeeds in the world, especially in education. The field of education always interested her, probably due to influence from her mother, a public school teacher.
Along with the influence of her parents, the ten years she worked at the Center for Studies in Education, Culture and Community Action (CENPEC) also deeply affected her. There, she got a chance to build and coordinate Educarede. Created in 2001, Educarede is the child of a partnership between CENPEC, the Telefónica Foundation, and the Vanzolini Foundation. It served as Brazil’s first portal for free educational content. By 2010, Educarede offered the most diverse projects based on the innovative use of digital technologies, giving Priscila the chance to experiment organically with new approaches to learning, such as open source. While participating in forums, she came to formally understand the concept of open educational resources, although she had been dealing with them for years.
Leaving Educarede and seeking to focus her energies primarily on digital culture projects for education, Priscila created Educadigital in 2010. She wanted to expand audiences, partners, and possibilities to contribute to creating and developing new learning opportunities that encourage the formation of creative citizens sharing information, knowledge, and culture in a society that is continually transforming.