Mónica Vásconez Vaca
Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador
Fellow Since 2008
This profile was prepared when Mónica Vásconez Vaca was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
Mónica’s internet-based education system accommodates impoverished students, indigenous groups distant from schools, working adults, institutionalized young people, emigrants outside Ecuador, and other vulnerable groups at-risk of dropping out of school. While she uses a standard curriculum approved by the Ministry of Education, she tailors her virtual courses to be appropriate for each context. She ensures that students who complete her program are computer literate and have developed a set of specialized skills, for example through a sustainable tourism program, that are particularly relevant to the working needs of her target population. Mónica partners with citizen organizations (COs), businesses, and government to choose her target population and ensure that students have computer and internet access to her virtual school. UNESCO is one such supporter providing financing, introducing Mónica to new partners outside Ecuador, and serving as a watchdog group to ensure program quality.
According to studies conducted by the World Bank, Latin America and the Caribbean region have the highest dropout rates and the highest percentage of children repeating years of school. On average, half of the children who enroll in the first year never finish the fourth year. Every year, 29 percent of primary school students are repeating years and in secondary school this percentage is even higher, at 42 percent. Among the five Andean countries, Ecuador has the worst scores on these indicators. Only 22 percent of the population has finished secondary school. According to local studies about the reasons for school dropout, 70 percent of the high school students indicated poverty, while 30 percent mentioned a lack of motivational methodologies, a culture of authority, and bad psychological treatment towards the students. It is known that education is the primary driver to social and economic development and more educated people means less poverty. However, one must consider not only the quantity of students passing their grade, but also the quality of the education. Most schools do not integrate or motivate students and there is little personal interest shown in them. Teachers are not well prepared, are underpaid, and have no incentive to improve. This results in a bad cycle, as schools become under-funded and sometimes discriminatory institutions for young children, disconnected from the local context and reality. In the 1970s the Ecuadorian government established a traditional distance education program to reach rural communities; focused primarily on adults. It has not proved successful with a distant and unreliable relationship between the students and the community. This program is also designed for other populations that do not have access to education, such as adults in urban areas, young people in distant communities, inmates, youth in juvenile detention centers, and emigrants working abroad—often illegally—as domestic workers. There is also a great need to find a solution for people who have not had the opportunity to finish school, and the very poor.Many of these groups do not have access to internet and new technologies, which reduces their prospects for learning and for employability.
The Iberoamerican Virtual School is an online distance learning program designed for students who need to complete the last three years of high school. Often, these students cannot attend a regular school. Students can choose between four specializations to graduate: Cultural and social management, cultural tourism and sustainable development management, sciences, or informatics. All these programs have a common curriculum of core courses as well as electives for students to choose according to their specialization. All students are required to develop a community project in the last year.This model is designed for vulnerable and high-risk people and contributes to the reduction of student dropout rates and the digital divide. At the end of each school year, students develop skills that improve their chances of entering the labor market, and therefore facilitate the economic development of their communities.In 2004, the Ministry of Education and Culture of Ecuador approved the creation and operations of the Virtual School. The same year, UNESCO provided a small grant for the launch of an online platform. Mónica started the first virtual school with a class of twenty-five students. She partnered with several COs to provide the computers the students used to access virtual courses. Each year, Mónica and her team have developed and refined the different sections and the contents of the platform. The team is focused on providing the best knowledge available that could be useful in the daily lives of students employed as farmers, artisans, cooks, and domestic workers. The Virtual School platform is built on free software, which makes its installation very simple, and designed in a way that ensures smooth operation for the user. There are also support systems designed for follow up, evaluations, and reviews of each student’s performance. The education methodology is clear: Each student enters the platform one hour each day, from Monday to Friday, at any time of the day and from any computer with internet access. The school year is divided in two semesters, and students take one course per month. There are virtual teachers and tutors who motivate and give support to students and follow up with the students’ advances. Virtual teachers are highly motivated young education professionals trained to work with twenty to twenty-five students at a time. These teachers enter the platform for two to three hours a day, at any time, and from any computer with internet access. The educational process is personalized from the close contact between the teacher and the student, but students also get involved in collective activities with other students that create a shared identity and shared sense of purpose. Students who are part of the educational program have received scholarships financed by a company or institution. It costs US$375 per student to attend the Virtual School yearly. There are an increasing number of private companies and local governments financing scholarships and also facilitating their population’s access to computers connected to the internet. In 2007, 350 people from eleven provinces in Ecuador studied in the Virtual School along with migrants living in Spain, Mexico, and Bolivia. By the end of 2008 there were 1,200 students in different places with their respective “infocenters.”The selection of students is one task that Mónica delegates to local allies as they know their beneficiaries better than anyone. For example, one of the Virtual School allies is Ashoka Fellow Nelsa Curbelo’s organization Ser Paz. Ser Paz works with gang leaders and had the challenge of reintroducing them to high school, despite the fact that no mainstream schools wanted them enrolled. The partnership with the Virtual School meant that these youth could finish their education and increase their opportunities for employment and success reintegrating into society. Mónica emphasizes that once they have the funding for a certain amount of scholarships, they rely on partners to select the young people who will attend the Virtual School. Another example is the partnership they have with Repsol, a company that operates in the Amazon region. Repsol is financing scholarships for indigenous children that due to distance, do not have access to school. The company has also financed the installation of a telecenter nearby, so these nontraditional students can attend the Virtual School. Mónica is cleverly taking advantage of the recent wave of social responsibility happening in the private sector. Her model is the perfect fit as they answer the companies’ inmediate need to have a tangible social impact by ensuring the education and inclusion of vulnerable populations. In the last two years Monica has had great success in fundraising. Local governments are also a key for Mónica’s spread strategy. Many years ago, national governments of the Andean countries installed 1,500 telecenters in rural areas as an attempt to bridge the digital divide. However, most of these are forgotten and not used for educational purposes, and others do not work. Mónica is making local governments invest in these telecenters and pay for scholarships so local populations can access the Virtual School. The partnership with the local government not only provides funding, but also ensures that the local Virtual School attendees are involved in the community’s regular activities, festivals, and parades. There is a requirement for students about to graduate from the Virtual School: They must develop a social project in their communities. In this way they practice the Andean value of reciprocity—giving back some of what they have received to the community. UNESCO believed in the model since its inception and has been an important ally. They have invested a little capital every year for the last four years. Currently, UNESCO is monitoring the quality of the model and has named it one of the “best development solutions from a developing country.” In an effort to explore new ways to spread this model in Latin America and Africa, UNESCO invited Monica to present to donors at an international event in Namibia.Mónica would love to see this model replicated in Africa, but her first goal is to spread it throughout the Andean region and to other Spanish-speaking countries. Because of an international education treaty signed by the Andean countries many years ago, 80 percent of the primary and secondary education platforms in the region have the same structure and content, with the exception of the national history and geography courses. This means it will not be difficult to customize the Virtual School for every country in the region.
Mónica is convinced that education is the only way for people to change their reality. She grew up in her parents’ hacienda—full of privileges and comfort—but felt growing unease as she started to understand the differences in social status and treatment between her family, the workers, and the rest of the town. In primary school she remembers being very aware of the painful and unjust social class separation she saw, felt, and lived. Her all-girls school was run by Catholic nuns and the students were divided into two groups: The children of landowners and the children of market vendors and laborers. Each group had its own entrance and classrooms, but both shared a common patio which was divided by an iron-wired fence. The children of the laborers used to come close to the fence to watch the others, while the children of the landowners, full of fear instilled by adults, maintained at least a one-meter distance. Being in this environment for six years left Mónica with a profound desire to change things. As a young woman she got involved in social movements that enabled her to channel her energies and learn about educational initiatives in marginal areas. She spent many years investigating and understanding the reasons for the fragmentation in Andean society. In the late 1990s, Mónica taught in several universities where she shared her understanding of the relationship between history, anthropology, and indigenous peoples. By this time, she had decided education was the answer, and that she had to create a democratic educational model. She also met her future partner, an experienced software engineer, who introduced her to e-learning concepts. With these pieces in place, Mónica started talking with UNESCO about her idea to create a virtual university. In 2001, she was appointed as Vice Minister in the Ministry of Education. She accepted the position only because it is a great opportunity for her to get her education model recognized. At this time, however, she significantly changed her model; Mónica realized that a virtual university would serve only 8 percent of the population, whereas a virtual high school would serve 68 percent. Little by little, with the help of her partner, Mónica developed the Virtual School and online platform. They both invested all the family resources they could—Mónica even sold her house—to supplement a small grant from UNESCO.