Education Innovation: Lessons from Latin America

Educational systems around the world are in a critical state. Nearly everywhere, they struggle with poor-quality schools, persistent inequality, and local administrations with restricted budgets—which all combine to compromise the educational opportunities of a large portion of the student-age population.

These worrisome trends are reinforced in emerging economies, like those of Latin America. The region has seen over a decade of sustained growth and growing middle classes, and as the burgeoning “knowledge society” is impacting every sector, these expanded middle classes are demanding better education and greater opportunity.

While Latin America trails behind most of the world in its education performance, there are a number of governments taking the initiative in confronting these challenges. Leading this group are Chile, Colombia, and recently Mexico, where President Enrique Pena Nieto has successfully pushed for deep education reforms. While passing legislation cost significant political capital, and on paper the measures—including reforming the teacher tenure system—look very positive, the ultimate impact on the quality of learning will depend greatly on the implementation and follow-through of subsequent governments.

But perhaps the most surprising recent phenomenon in Latin America has been the extent to which the non-government sector, including entrepreneurs, companies, and investors, is getting involved in education. Among these disparate groups, there is a new awareness of the importance of education and an unprecedented understanding that the region’s previous commodities-based, export-led, low productivity economic model will not be enough to advance to the next stage of development. Instead, to achieve more competitiveness and greater productivity, what is needed is enhanced human capital—and thus, improved education.

This development—that private groups are finally realizing both the importance of education and their own potential role in reshaping it for the better—is what my latest book, Educacion 3.0. The Struggle for Talent in Latin America, attempts to capture.

“While it is ultimately governments who are responsible for the education of their citizens,” reflects Rebecca Winthrop, the director of the Brookings Center for Universal Education in Washington, D.C., in the book’s preface, “a new wave of non-governmental partnerships are arising to confront these and other educational challenges: civil society organizations, the faith-based community, and private sector innovators are all increasingly joining forces to improve education quality around the world.”

Advanced economies like the United States have been moving down this road for a while, but Latin America is catching up. Among other cases, the book explores Brazil’s energetic role in the education space, serving as an example for education tech entrepreneurs in the region. One of the most compelling Brazilian examples is Descomplica, an online platform that serves as a “full service online classroom” with a wide range of study guides and instructional videos. Others from around the region include Duolingo, a free language-teaching app founded by the Guatemalan Luis von Ahn; Open English, another language platform founded by the Venezuelan Andres Moreno; and, a Khan Academy-like free video teaching service whose math videos record over 3 million views a month.

In the higher-education field, apart from major global players like DeVry, Pearson, or Laureate, a new wave of entrepreneurs is also getting involved on the ground floor of education. Mexico’s David Stofenmacher has founded UTEL, an online university in Mexico with more than 6,000 students (with the expansion of distance learning at the Regiomontana University, Mexico has been a leader nationally), while Julio Noriega of Peru is leading investors into the technical and vocational institute sector with Vigenta Educacion. And in Brazil, Carlos Souza has replicated the MOOC online course model that has seen success in the U.S. with Veduca, a platform with 3 million visits and $1.3 million in outside investment.

An additional paradigm shift in Latin American education is the involvement of the for-profit sector through the support of venture capital. Business leaders are changing the way content is delivered to students and schools. Carlos Garcia of Victoria Capital Partners, who is disrupting the textbook sector with the acquisition of Latin American publishing giant Santillana, is but one example. Another is Diego Meiriño, the CEO of Colombia’s Carvajal Education, who is working to introduce new technologies to teachers around the region.

This is not to say that governments are not necessary; on the contrary, education 3.0 is about finding the right balance between the talents of the private and the public sectors. Governments in general do not have a comparative advantage in innovation and risk taking, but they can help scale up and expand good ideas. Meanwhile, the private sector social investors can help improve efficiency and capacity.

Government programs that support such socially oriented entrepreneurship—Mexico’s INADEM institute, Chile’s CORFO, or Colombia’s InnPulsa program, to name only a few examples—can help bridge the financing gap that many startups with great ideas face in Latin America.

In short, Latin American economies, like those of the developed world, have increasingly come to depend on technology and “knowledge work,” even as the region’s human-capital development has not kept pace. Innovation is desperately needed to improve education quality and remain competitive. But governments can’t do it alone: Education 3.0 will require the combined efforts of a new generation of entrepreneurs, investors, and forward-thinking policymakers.

-Gabriel Sanchez Zinny

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is the founder and President of, a startup that provides continuing education for adults in Latin America. He is also the author of Educacion 3.0. The Struggle for Talent in Latin America.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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