JORGE CAMIL STARR

Mexico,

Using a network of technology-equipped centers, Jorge Camil Starr has developed a comprehensive basic and vocational education model for Mexicans in the urban and suburban bottom of the pyramid. This network forms a parallel infrastructure that complements Mexico’s public education system, with the ultimate objective of boosting access to economic opportunities for the most disadvantaged Mexicans.

This profile below was prepared when Jorge Camil Starr was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

Using a network of technology-equipped centers, Jorge Camil Starr has developed a comprehensive basic and vocational education model for Mexicans in the urban and suburban bottom of the pyramid. This network forms a parallel infrastructure that complements Mexico’s public education system, with the ultimate objective of boosting access to economic opportunities for the most disadvantaged Mexicans.




THE NEW IDEA

In the extensive Mexico City metropolitan area, Jorge and his team at ENOVA offers low-income Mexicans a blended learning model of basic and vocational education that combines computer-based learning with teacher-led instruction. The poor quality of the Mexican public education system disproportionately affects low-income communities that lack political influence and educational alternatives. Without satisfactory basic education and computer skills, many of the people in these communities are unable to find stable employment that allows them to advance economically. As a result, many toil in Mexico’s large informal economy—which means that they enjoy no government-backed social safety net—or turn to illicit activities to earn money instead.

To begin bridging this educational divide, Jorge and his colleagues have constructed an independent, parallel educational infrastructure known as Red de Innovación y Aprendizaje (RIA centers—Learning and Education Network) where students of all ages can complete high-quality, appropriate coursework in basic education, information technology, and work skills. What distinguishes the RIA network from other alternative education providers is its comprehensiveness; it has all the necessary elements of a stand-alone education system, including certified teachers, state-of-the-art facilities, high-quality content, a sustainable economic model, and educational credentials. Moreover, the model is largely financed by the government at both the federal and state levels, which is extraordinary because the respective incumbent political parties are different. The RIA center’s appeal across political lines will be an invaluable asset as ENOVA, the social business that created the RIA network, continues to expand into other Mexican states.

The RIA centers have been designed to close the enormous education gap in Mexico by simultaneously bridging the digital divide. ENOVA’s pedagogical approach blends computer-based learning, which can be tailored to each student’s needs, with face-time with trained RIA instructors. The entire RIA system is underpinned by a sophisticated open source technology platform called Mako that tracks each student’s learning patterns and progress. Unlike other private technology-based education centers in Mexico, the RIA network focuses exclusively on the needs of poor urban and suburban populations that lack access to high-quality educational opportunities. The RIA centers have offerings for all age groups, from elementary school students to the elderly, although its students do share a couple of common characteristics: Two-thirds have never used a computer and many have not completed their formal public schooling. Consequently, the vast majority of ENOVA’s target population has never had access to an educational alternative like the RIA network.




THE PROBLEM

In terms of education, the case of Mexico is a paradox: Although the national government spends a quarter of its annual budget on education, the public education system is plagued by poor student performance and high dropout rates. Studies have shown that up to 75 percent of Mexican children who begin elementary school do not finish high school and that only 13 percent complete a college degree. Mexico’s inadequate education system directly affects the health of its economy, as poor educational quality inhibits social mobility and keeps many families and communities locked in cycles of poverty.

Given how much the government spends on education, it is evident that the system suffers from fundamental structural weaknesses, namely the low-quality of its schools, educational materials, and teachers. Public school facilities, especially in low-income urban neighborhoods and rural areas, are often so inadequate that students must be divided into morning and afternoon groups because of the school’s limited physical capacity. The rigidity of the public school curriculum, which is determined centrally by the Secretary of Public Education, with no flexibility for local differences in individual states, makes pedagogical change and innovation extremely difficult. Moreover, the powerful national teachers’ union wields enormous influence over education policy and has been known to block efforts to change the status quo. As a result of all these factors, transformative education reform in Mexico is exceedingly hard to achieve.

One factor that exacerbates the educational gap between rich and poor Mexicans is the digital divide, a problem that is becoming increasingly relevant as more and more jobs require technological literacy. According to the Mexican government, 78 percent of the population does not have access to either a computer or the Internet. As a result, many low-income Mexican’s suffer from high rates of unemployment or underemployment, and they must often recur to the country’s immense informal sector for work that is not always fairly paid or adequately regulated. The lack of educational and economic opportunities is also directly linked to high crime and migration rates, both of which strain the Mexican social fabric and aggravate the impact of poverty.




THE STRATEGY

Instead of trying to reform the Mexican public education system from within, Jorge and his team have designed and constructed a parallel system to complement it, with the ultimate aim of eventually transferring some of ENOVA’s innovations to the traditional school system. Jorge conceived of the project and recruited two of his closest friends to join ENOVA’s management team, of which he remains the chief strategist. ENOVA is a for-profit social business that provides content and operational services to various clients in both the private and non-profit sectors. ENOVA’s primary client is the Proacceso ECO Foundation, a non-profit citizen organization (CO) that was also conceived by Jorge and his partners to advance digital inclusion and provide blended learning to the most disadvantaged urban populations. Jorge expressly separated his vision into a for-profit entity and a non-profit entity so that each could execute very different sets of responsibilities. While ENOVA’s for-profit structure allows it to create the highest-quality products possible and also grow rapidly, ECO’s non-profit status enables it to receive crucial government and philanthropic funding. ECO is ENOVA’s most important client, accounting for 80 percent of all of ENOVA’s sales.

ENOVA currently administers forty-two RIA centers on behalf of ECO, which primarily finances the centers with public funding from both the federal and state governments. The RIA centers play host to a wide range of students, although 80 percent are women and 50 percent are under the age of 25, which bodes well for their adoption of the technological skills that ENOVA aims to impart. The majority of RIA students have never used a computer before, and many have never completed their formal education within the public school system. While ENOVA maintains high standards for all its RIA centers, each center has the flexibility to offer facilities and programming that are tailored to its particular neighborhood. Every center is attractively designed using recycled and sustainably sourced materials to create a welcoming, comfortable environment where students are excited to come time and again. Jorge believes that the physical learning environment that students experience is directly correlated with their motivation to learn.

Each RIA center contains computer labs as well as additional classrooms where teacher-led instruction takes place to complement the computer-based learning. Class offerings typically include basic education courses in topics like languages, math, and science; basic informatics courses in topics like personal computer use, Internet use, and OpenOffice; foreign language courses; and preparatory courses for standardized exams and job interviews. Students interested in completing high school, college, and even master’s degrees can do so through ENOVA’s partnerships with accredited educational institutions. In addition, ENOVA is beginning to pilot life-skills courses in topics such as home economics and self-esteem. All courses combine practical content designed by subject experts with a high level of interactivity, which makes the courses much more engaging than the material usually found in a typical Mexican textbook. ENOVA trains its own teachers, known as facilitators, to accompany the students in their computer-based learning. To Jorge, recruiting top-notch teachers and providing them with thorough ongoing training is paramount to the RIA centers success. Jorge believes teacher quality is one of the key differentiators between the Mexican public school system and the RIA network. The facilitators are critical because approximately half of the sixty hours of an average RIA course is spent with a facilitator.

ENOVA employs sophisticated technology not only to teach its students but also to evaluate and track their progress. Jorge and his team have developed their own open source technology platform called Mako to store student data as well as administer all aspects of the RIA centers operations, from student registration and online coursework to teacher scheduling and personnel management. The ENOVA team is currently refining Mako so that it will soon be able to adjust coursework to the specific learning patterns and needs of individual students. Jorge uses the enormous amount of student data captured by Mako to analyze student performance, revise course content, refine the student learning experience, and measure the RIA center’s impact on student progress.

Although RIA classes are heavily subsidized directly by ECO and indirectly by ENOVA, they are not entirely free of charge. Jorge believes that each student must be responsible for contributing toward his/her own education, even if that contribution is modest, in order to incentivize continued and active participation. Unlike other private computer-based learning centers in Mexico, the RIA network charges tuition fees that are accessible to low-income populations; depending on the course, fees range from 4 to 15 pesos (about 30 cents to $1.25) per hour of instruction. The true cost of RIA operations is covered by two income streams made possible by the partnership between ENOVA and ECO. First, ENOVA provides its content and center management services at cost to ECO, a subsidy that ENOVA can afford because of higher revenue from its range of for-profit clients. Second, ECO receives substantial public funding from both the federal and state governments, which view the RIA centers as an effective means of narrowing Mexico’s technological divide.

The dual ENOVA-ECO structure is one of Jorge’s key assets in replicating the RIA model beyond the Mexico City metropolitan area to other major urban—and someday rural—areas of the country. Within this partnership, each institution can focus on what it does best: ENOVA can continue to innovate in terms of course content and delivery as well as further develop the Mako platform, while ECO can continue to secure public as well as private philanthropic funds to open additional RIA centers. ENOVA’s content creation team is particularly responsive to increasing demands for new courses from the students themselves, who are asking for increasingly more advanced and specialized classes. Jorge’s goal is to achieve national coverage with some 350 RIA centers and to create an impact on the public school system, whether through some sort of collaboration or through the public school system’s incorporation of elements of the RIA model into its schools.

In its first two years in operation, ENOVA opened forty-two RIA centers and added twenty-eight more in 2011. More than 80,000 individual students are registered in the system, and over 15,000 have graduated from at least one course. ENOVA has accelerated its growth through successful partnerships with the government and other educational institutions, and the team is now beginning to pilot the first center for a rural population, which has very different needs. Jorge is now dedicating much of his energy to expanding the RIA network beyond the greater Mexico City area to other major urban centers throughout the country.




THE PERSON

A young social entrepreneur, Jorge has long had a dual fascination with social challenges and economic development in Mexico. In particular, his experiences have led him to believe that technology can be a powerful tool to simultaneously solve both sets of problems if deployed in an appropriate fashion.

Jorge’s first experience with Mexican populations in need came from his mother, a long-time volunteer in a public hospital. She spent years volunteering in the pediatric leukemia ward, and she would regularly take her Jorge with her to the hospital twice a month. Meeting young terminally ill patients—many of whom the doctors had sent home to die because their families had no resources to pay their medical bills—greatly impacted him from an early age. It was then that he first became aware of the great social and economic disparities in his country. When Jorge was 14, he volunteered to help reconstruct communities along the Acapulco coast that had been devastated by Hurricane Paulina; that experience reinforced in his consciousness the great needs that existed in Mexico’s poorest communities. Based on these early experiences, Jorge developed a passionate interest in economic development as a means to improve the social situation of his fellow Mexicans.

As he grew older, Jorge questioned why Mexico, which is blessed with great natural resources, could not sustain a more competitive and balanced economy. He studied this topic at length as a student at Pepperdine University in California, where he earned his degree in economics and business administration. In his undergraduate thesis, Jorge wrote about social inequality in Mexico and the factors that sustained that inequality. In 2003, he was invited by Grupo IUSA, a Mexican conglomerate, to join a fledgling company called PLC Networks that would provide broadband Internet via the existing electrical grid in Mexico. Although Jorge became deeply involved with the company, the project came to an abrupt end when the Federal Electricity Commission unexpectedly declined permission to use the grid. Undaunted and still intrigued by the technology sector, Jorge co-founded a company called LT Solutions in 2005 to sell specialized computer equipment. The business did very well and expanded quickly, achieving a regional distribution in a short time.

Nevertheless, Jorge soon realized that he yearned to use his technological savvy to solve some of the social challenges that had long concerned him, particularly the education gap and the digital divide. In 2007 he sold his stake in LT Solutions and conceived of the project that would eventually become ENOVA. He soon persuaded two of his oldest friends to join him in launching it. Jorge is now in his element working at the intersection of education and technology in Mexico, and is convinced that using technology to close Mexico’s education gap will be his lifelong project.




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