In Brazil's Amazon, teens go to 'Satellite High'

One distance-learning program in Brazil's Amazon has graduation rates that far surpass the national average in remote areas.

By , Correspondent

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    Classes are broadcast from a studio in Manaus, Brazil, across the vast state of Amazonas. Some communities are a four-week journey by boat from the state capital.
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In a jungle-covered state as big as France, Ger­many, and Spain combined, life at the remotest schools is tough. Qualified teachers are hard to find and just getting kids to class along some of the 1,000 rivers can be an odyssey.

These sorts of difficulties are what spurred the Amazonas state government to launch its online distance-learning project. Now, the project's success is prompting the government to expand it.

"Our aim is to increase coverage to areas normal schools can't reach," says program director Jose Augusto de Melo Neto. "What we do is offer the structure for people to study every day."

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The project was launched in 2007 in 300 classrooms – some of them four weeks by boat from the state capital. It has seen significant results.

Nationwide, 14 percent of high school students fail to complete their second year, according to Mr. Melo Neto, but for those taking the distance-learning course it is less than 3 percent. In Amazonas, 89 percent of students taking distance-learning courses graduate high school, compared with just 75 percent in Brazil as a whole.

One of the participants in the program is the Mario Silva D'Almeida school, located about two hours from the state capital, Manaus, and just a stone's throw from the mighty Amazon River.

Youngsters here in biology, math, and physics classes watch lessons on a big screen given by teachers in a Manaus studio and beamed to them via satellite. After explaining the basics – using everything from cartoons to music videos – the teachers set problems for the pupils, then go over them. A small number of students can ask questions via webcam or the chat function.

Some drawbacks

Like many Brazilian schools, the atmosphere at Mario Silva D'Almeida is informal. The system is prone to cutting out – sometimes because of torrential downpours or lightning strikes – and without a firm teacher on hand, students wander in and out of class or chat with friends, disturbing those who want to learn.

The teachers in the studio have to engage their audience, or else quickly lose them. And students say they are too embarrassed to ask questions because their mistakes can be seen by students across the whole state.

"Some people don't want to be on television," said Kezia Rodrigues Bastos, a student. "You make a mistake, everyone will see."

The school's principal, Frank Guedes, also has concerns about the project's effect on student-teacher interactions. "New technologies can be used to improve lessons, but in terms of relationships, I feel the students are excluded," he says.

While he is critical of the program, which predated his arrival at the school 10 months ago, he won't abandon it because the success rates prove that it works. "We've got these new numbers because of these new technologies. Other teachers can learn from it."

Ambitious plans to spread program

Melo Neto has ambitious aims to expand the program, which now reaches 1,300 classrooms, to half the state's rural students by 2014, and perhaps even further. Two other states have adopted the system and others are looking into it.

The poor quality of Brazil's broadband connections, especially in the interior, impedes growth. But some 3 million Brazilians already take distance courses over TV, radio, and even mail, says the Brazilian Association of Distance Learning. Companies are starting to invest in online distance learning, says Ivete Palange, an association consultant.

"There is great potential" in Brazil, Ms. Palange says. "Access is getting easier, it is getting cheaper, and schools are getting equipped, so it will keep growing."

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