Valeria Lentini, Isabel Roman & Felipe Carrera
The ﬁrst conﬁrmed case in Costa Rica was reported on 6th March. As soon as it was announced by the Ministry of Health, 1.1 million students in schools (91% in public, 9% in private) and three hundred thousand in universities (48% in public, 52% in private) were sent home, and all educational institutions were instructed to close and continue their service remotely.
Higher education institutions (HEIs), responded to the call by defining particular measures according to three particularities: their students’ characteristics (public universities comprise younger -18-24 years old- students from a poorer background, that are mainly first generations in their families in higher education); the point in their academic calendar (1 to 3 months from having started the southern hemisphere academic calendar); and permitted flexibility to adapt (public universities have university autonomy, private universities are strictly regulated). Online education in HEIs in Costa Rica was practically nonexistent before 2020, however, many universities had platforms generally for communications and academic material exchanges.
As in the rest of the developing countries access to higher education has long been an important equity challenge. In Costa Rica, a third of the 18-to-24-year-old population had access to higher education in 2020 due to an important public budgetary effort. Half of those that study in public universities receive socioeconomic scholarships. Although the country has made important social and economic improvements in the past decades, education and equity are still two important concerns as pointed out by OECD to which Costa Rica was invited to enter in 2020 (OECD, 2020). On average, 44% of high school students do not complete secondary education, a percentage that increases towards the rural and coastal areas. Economic activity, infrastructure and labor force (66%) are concentrated in the central region of the national territory, and the country’s economy relies mainly on the service sector (75%). Growth performance was 3.3% on average in the last 5 years, and almost 8% of yearly national gross domestic product was assigned to education (one of the largest globally) (1.4% particularly to higher education).
Migrating from on-site to online teaching in 2020 posed two immediate challenges for HEIs: students’ as well as professors’ connectivity; and professors’ adaptability to facilitate quality virtual education. Dependence on connectivity with very unequal internet infrastructure within the country added another concern: the possibility that students from socio-economic disadvantaged and rural backgrounds dropped out. Before the pandemic, 25% of students had bad connectivity at home, only by mobile or no connectivity at all (up to 48% in some regions) (ENAHO, 2020). Strategies of public universities included providing internet chips and tablets (sometimes laptops) to students from poor backgrounds, and negotiating with the main national telecommunications company to provide free data to log into the universities’ websites. Enrollment in the terms that followed the emergency remote teaching did not fall and even in some public universities, it showed a slight increase (CONARE, 2021). HEIs, in general, could also rapidly adjust their IT infrastructure and acquire licenses for virtual platforms for professors. Professors were also offered e-teaching and e-learning tools training.
It was good news that enrollment did not fall. However, the way students coped with the academic load of online classes varied. In August-September 2020, at the end of the emergency online term, we made a representative survey with students (n=4313) and professors (n=1598) from the main universities in the country (representing 44% of students enrolled in HEIs, public and private). The survey asked the students if they had withdrawn from courses, and if they were planning to enroll in fewer, same, or more courses than with on-site classes: 13% of students withdrew courses due to the pandemic, and 18% were going to enroll in fewer courses. The analysis through a logistic regression showed that having only a mobile phone device for internet connection, having siblings studying at home, and perceiving that evaluations did not reflect their learning were strong predictors for withdrawing. More vulnerable populations were those whose socioeconomic conditions were mostly affected by the pandemic, and who, due to campus closures, had to go back home to rural regions where the internet connection was not always available. Some students faced important changes in their households’ economic conditions – 11% of them were working before the pandemic and lost their jobs due to confinement; on the contrary, 6% of students had to start working to support their families. The most important variable that predicted courses’ continuity was having a scholarship. Scholarships were reinforced by the universities during the pandemic to provide devices and economic support for internet connection.
Proper devices and connectivity were also positively correlated with professors’ attitudes towards online teaching. After having experienced entirely online classes during the pandemic, professors and students were asked about their support for hybrid higher education in postpandemic courses; 85% of professors and 79% of students agreed on the benefit of having hybrid options in which some on-site classes could be complemented or substituted by online classes and material. Professors from public universities and those in universities with fewer rural students were more open to this possibility. Professors from private universities were particularly keen on the need to create new norms for online classes because they had less flexibility to adapt their classes than public university professors (for example, they were not allowed to reduce class sessions to distribute them in different time schedules).
In general, professors from HEIs with high proportions of rural students were concerned about equity and not being able to adequately reach them. Predictors of professors’ support for hybrid options included: their perception as to “how much” their students have learned during the online classes (same or more than in on-site classes), having participated in e-teaching training in the past (which has probably made the transition less hard for them), having a positive attitude towards peers exchanging experiences, and finally, their investment in devices and connectivity and their monthly savings since the lockdown. 72% of professors did invest in devices, equipment, physical space, or connectivity infrastructure to shift to online delivery, and this expenditure was on average 507 US dollars. Additionally, 59% reported monthly savings after adopting the virtual modality due to reduced commuting (in transport, food, accommodation), these savings accounted for an average of 200 US dollars.
In qualitative in-depth interviews with professors, they expressed their need for equipment to appropriately prepare material and to record the classes. Spanish-speaking Latin American countries have little prerecorded material in Spanish, so professors also took advantage of material available on the Web, which was mainly in English. According to the students’ survey, the recorded material available on the internet was broadly recommended by their professors during the term and, for students it was one of the most useful complementary tools for the courses (76% of students used it and 58% of them considered it very useful); and the other well-rated tool was having guests lecturers in the classes (49% of students used, mainly in public universities, 57% considered it very useful). The use of available prerecorded videos, however, was used less frequently by professors with a high proportion of students from rural backgrounds whose command of English is low. The recorded material available on the web, as well as professors’ own recorded or asynchronous classes were particularly useful due to the flexibility they offered. According to the students, recorded material allowed them to decide when to watch it if they had connectivity difficulties (for example, if they had to share equipment or their weak internet connection with other household members). Additionally, recorded material was particularly valuable for classes of a high degree of difficulty so students could slowly or repeatedly follow the classes according to their need.
For 74% of professors, remote teaching during the pandemic was an opportunity to think about new alternatives to improve and complement future teaching, and for 52% of students, the experience was an exploration of self-organization and learning. The experience provides important insights to further boost current innovative practices for hybrid education after the pandemic, instead of allowing them to regress. The expeditious transition to circumstantial remote learning has provided worthwhile expertise for HEIs that can be usefully leveraged in the future, focusing on the quality of learning, learning evaluation and equity. Allocating resources for connectivity infrastructure to bridge the digital divide is a challenge but also an opportunity to reduce inequity in access to higher (hybrid) education.
Valeria Lentini is Researcher and Lecturer in the School of Economics, University of Costa Rica and coordinator of the Higher education Chapter in the State of the Education Report.
Isabel Roman is the General Research Coordinator of the State of Education Report of the National Council of University Rectors.
Felipe Carrera is research assistant of the State of the Education Report.