Note on distance education in Brazil

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By ALEXANDRE MARINHO PEPPER*

Distance education has a fundamental commercial dimension

In early November, the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research Anísio Teixeira (Inep) released the results of the last Census of Higher Education, referring to the year 2021. Census data provide a broad picture of this educational level, thus being very relevant. for the debate on the direction of education in the country.

Among the various information and variables of the 2021 Census, the strong growth of distance education (EaD) stands out. This is a controversial issue at this educational level, on which we will make some critical comments. Before analyzing this type of technology-mediated education, it is important to situate it within the recent dynamics of Brazilian higher education. In addition, another interesting path is to start from the expansion of distance education to verify technological changes underway also in the face-to-face environment, which is increasingly “hybrid”.

 

The expansion of higher education in recent years

As a vast literature demonstrates, higher education in Brazil was a late construction, even compared to several Latin American countries. The socio-historical configuration of our country also marked such an educational level with deep social, regional, racial and gender inequalities. At least since the military dictatorship, there have been efforts to reform higher education, aiming, above all, at a format capable of reaching a minimum percentage of the population with a higher education and some level of institutionalized scientific production. Such efforts were driven, often in a conflicting and contradictory manner, both by different social movements and by demands from the ruling classes in favor of capital accumulation in the country.

The most recent wave of higher education expansion began in the 1990s and continued under the PT governments, through various reforms. This expansion caused the number of enrollments in undergraduate courses, the most significant dimension of this educational level, to increase from less than 2 million in 1991 to more than 7 million in 2011, according to Inep data. A relevant multiplication of the size of higher education in an interval of two decades.

Even though vacancies and public institutions have grown in PT governments, for example, through the Support Program for Restructuring and Expansion Plans for Federal Universities (Reuni), the private sector also grew strongly in the same period. It even expanded its presence in higher education enrollments: in 2011, out of every four enrollments, three were in the private sector.

That is, this expansionary wave occurred concomitantly with the strengthening of the already significant private sector. This was possible through several legislations and promotion policies, together with the very growth of companies in the field, which went through an intense process of financialization and oligopolization. The PT governments continued Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Higher Education Student Financing Fund (Fies) and inaugurated the University for All Program (Prouni). Both programs abundantly financed the private educational sector, directly or indirectly, and served as a basis for the development and profitability of this business sector.

This most recent expansion began to show signs of exhaustion in 2015 and 2016. It is no coincidence that this was a period of deep economic recession and cuts in public spending. In 2015, higher education reached 8 million undergraduate enrollments. Six years later, in 2021, 9 million enrollments had still not been reached, showing a significant slowdown in growth. Even in these last years of greater stagnation, the private sector continued to advance: in 2021, the sector expanded its presence to 77% of undergraduate enrollments in the country. Regarding income, the private sector represented 87%.

Despite being significant, the last expansion was not enough to change the country's position in the ranking of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Brazil remains well below the average in terms of percentage of the population with higher education. It was also enough to increase equity. Some historical social inequalities remained, while others gained new formats and dynamics, for example, through internal stratifications at that educational level. Although several social groups have accessed higher education for the first time in history, the hierarchies of courses, modalities and institutions have generated “excluded from the interior”, to use Pierre Bourdieu's term.

 

Distance education today in Brazil: dimension and characteristics

Since the emergence and dissemination of new information technologies, distance education has become a reality across the globe, in different formats and arrangements. Following the world trend, in Brazil, this educational modality began to gain strong momentum from the 2000s onwards, integrating various higher education expansion policies.

In 2000, there were only 10 distance graduation courses in the country, with a very small share in the total number of enrollments. In little more than a decade of exponential growth, in 2012, the number of vacancies offered in distance graduation had already exceeded 1 million, being greater than the number of vacancies offered in face-to-face courses. In terms of effective enrollments, the advance of distance education over face-to-face education has been more gradual, but no less relevant.

In 2011, distance education had just under 1 million enrollments, or 14% of total undergraduate enrollments. Especially after the last wave of expansion in higher education, distance education has advanced even further. As the recent Census shows, the distance modality went from two million enrollments in 2018 to almost 3,7 million in 2021, thus reaching 41% of the total enrollments in the country.

With regard to freshmen, distance education is already superior to face-to-face education. In 2021, 1,4 million students entered the on-site undergraduate program. Falling number in recent years, it is important to emphasize. In the distance graduation, there were 2,4 million new entrants, representing growth in recent years. The capillarity of this modality is also impressive: 2.968 Brazilian municipalities now have distance education centers. Undoubtedly, it is possible to state that EaD is consolidated at the Brazilian higher level.

As with higher education in general, the public sector was not the main driver of the recent expansion of distance education in the country. Even with unprecedented and relatively successful programs, such as the Open University of Brazil, launched in 2006, enrollments in this modality represent only 6% of total enrollments in the federal network. The private sector was and still is the main driver of enrollment in distance education. And very impressively: today, distance education is largely private, and the private sector is increasingly distance education.

Since 2005, the private sector has become the dominant sector in distance education in terms of enrollments. Gradually, the distance modality itself became dominant in private sector graduation, also with the help of public funding. In the year 2021, 51% of private sector enrollments were in distance education. In the same year, 70% of newcomers in this sector were in the distance modality. All the 15 largest institutions offering distance education are private, and they alone dominate about 74% of distance enrollments in the country.

The impressive expansion of distance education therefore has a fundamental commercial dimension. The lucrative private sector strengthened this modality and was strengthened by it in the last period. Today, such symbiosis is perhaps the most dynamic factor in the country's higher education system. However, with questionable quality or economic return beyond businessmen in the field. Also according to Inep, the student-teacher ratio in private distance education reaches 185, while in face-to-face education it is 23, a fact that has made it possible to reduce the teaching staff in this market. Now, the training of new teachers in challenging basic education has been increasingly taking place in this environment of “educational products and services” of reduced quality. Among other limits and contradictions of this supposed democratization.

 

The impact of new technologies beyond distance education

Finally, it is important to point out that new technologies have enabled transformations in higher education not only through distance education, as a structured and recognized educational modality. Accompanying the changes that the economy, the State and contemporary sociability are going through, educational processes as a whole are increasingly impacted by virtualization and the expansion of digital platforms.

Not just because of the moment of emergency remote teaching of the pandemic, in which virtualization/platformization abruptly became a reality, including in basic education. But also before and beyond the peak of the pandemic. Virtual learning environments were already advancing as a didactic tool in face-to-face courses, even before the pandemic. Online or hybrid events and stalls are now the new normal at undergraduate and graduate level.

The use of large digital platforms, increasingly specialized for educational practices, is present in the construction, exchange and storage of information in all higher education institutions, formally or informally. And more recently, the latest developments in artificial intelligence threaten to rock the academic world even more. The incredible ability of algorithms to search, systematize and generate information, including academic writing (just see the recent ChatGPT, from OpenAI), poses a huge question mark about the future way of doing education.

In this sense, if we can say today about a consolidation of distance education as a higher education modality in the country, we still can say little about the current dimension and future impacts of virtualization and platformization of education in general. In any case, it is up to us to position ourselves politically in the face of such changes and technologies that cross all of contemporary society – perhaps this is one of the central challenges of our time. Which technology for which society?

*Alexandre Marinho Pepper is a doctoral candidate in education at UnB.

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