Interview with Gabriella Bighetti, president of Fundacao Telefonica Vivo

Interview with Gabriella Bighetti, president of Fundacao Telefonica Vivo

The Vivo Telefônica Foundation was established in 1999 with the goal of investing in finding new ways for technology to improve, accelerate and maximise the quality of formal, informal and complementary education in Brazil. Its president, Gabriella Bighetti, sees the country at something of a crossroads with the National Education Plan recently established but now with the challenge of execution at grassroots level. She spoke to The Report Company about the role innovation has to play in educating fully prepared citizens of the 21st century.

The Report Company: During your 15 years in the education sector, what changes have you seen the Brazilian system go through and how much do you believe still needs to be done?

Gabriella Bighetti: I think we have had great progress, and now we are acting together. Foundations have been investing in the sector for a long time but lacked coordination, so the results were meagre. Now, we have shared goals and our impact can be a lot greater. No longer can the foundations be used as tools to shine a light on a particular brand, because the issue of education and its impact on the country is so vast. Our goals and investments now have to be the focus. This alone was a great step forward.

TRC: The National Education Plan took a long time to be approved. What can we now expect from it and what benefits should the population begin to see?

GB: The plan needs to be implemented at a municipal level; that is our current challenge. With that in place, it has a much greater chance of success, but there remains a large gap between the city and its students and families. In a city the size of Sao Paulo, such plans can go completely unnoticed in most schools, so this is a collective effort that needs the support of foundations and companies to make it a priority, otherwise it just remains empty legislation. To be truly beneficial, it also requires some adaptation to each specific municipality, and that requires a wider effort.

We already have institutions in Brazil that play an important role in this, like the National Council of State Education Secretaries (Consed) and the National Union of Municipal Education Managers (Undime). Their gathering and exchanging of information is extremely important because while the National Education Plan is strong, daring and ambitious, it won’t solve the problem on its own.

TRC: There appear to be pockets of brilliance and progress emerging in the country, but how can these be multiplied to the scale required by a continent-sized country?

GB: What we have learned over the last few years is that if people don't change, nothing will. The projects with the greatest results are those with motivated, cheerful people that want to make a difference. We shot a documentary last year called Educacao.doc with the goal of understanding why certain schools got the best results, and it is invariably a school director, a coordinator or a secretary of education that has made the difference, not an education plan.

There is a cultural aspect to it, too, which is why we talk so much about giving teachers and school directors the credit that they deserve. Motivation is very important. Yes, we need to have national and municipal plans, but we also need to praise teachers more, increase everyone's self-esteem. People need to want to change things. The issue is complex and requires complex solutions, but the desire to make a difference is key.

TRC: Many employers claim that graduates are lacking soft skills. How much of this is the responsibility of the school and how much is the responsibility of parents?

GB: I think we are at a point in which we cannot just throw all of the responsibility at schools. Schools today have done a great job if they manage to teach students to read, write and do maths. Today, around 50 percent of kids finish high school without really knowing how to read or write. If we do not focus on these basics first and try to do everything at once, things will not work out. We have to get there gradually.

I do believe that schools need to address the non-cognitive skills and competencies of the 21st century, which is one of our flagship projects, but this won’t be achieved in a couple of years. There is no magic trick. We have the teachers, earning what they earn, working at schools for at least six hours a day, with more work to be done from home and we are asking them to take additional training lessons, do research and be more involved in the community. We have to understand that we have a deficit of professors and that, in order to eliminate it, we have to act in the long term, focussing on the basics. I dream of schools that educate citizens in the ways of the 21st century, but we cannot get there straight away.

The projects with the greatest results are those with motivated, cheerful people that want to make a difference. It is invariably a school head, a coordinator or a secretary of education that has made the difference, not an education plan.
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TRC: Technological innovation in education is a major focus of attention at the moment, but without universal access to the internet, could it actually lead to greater inequality?

GB: I don't think so. I think kids are so interested in being online that they will find a way. In some of our projects in the north of Brazil, the kids have to go to a square nearby that has internet access, download the material on their mobile and go back to school. They find a way, because it is so attractive. I don’t think that connectivity is a barrier, and this will break very important paradigms.

In our Connected Youth survey, we saw that kids do know where to find information on education, entrepreneurship and activism, things that schools may fail to teach today because they have to address the deficit first.

We also have a project entitled Rural Connected Schools, aimed at regions with no internet access and where teachers have enormous challenges that could mean a 12 year-old and 5 year-old with different needs are in the same class, being taught how to read and write simultaneously to other skills.

In preparation to connecting the school to internet, we explain the teachers how they could use technology to address their challenge: Rather than splitting the blackboard in two, the kids have their own laptop with its own content, and teachers operate more as learning managers than knowledge conveyors.

TRC: Self-teaching requires a lot of self-discipline. Could it be the case that some students that don’t have it will fall out of the system?

GB: It depends. If you think that the subject you have to learn about is the most boring in the world, you need to be more disciplined. The new technology is looking to make education more attractive and more connected to the individual's own interests. In this context, education is not a burden, but a pleasure, what students want to do. That's why we have been investing so much in educational games that kids don’t have to participate in, but that they want to participate in. This changes the whole picture and expands the educational space, because people don't have to learn only in school, in turn increasing the time spent on ‘education’.

TRC: How great a role does the Foundation play in shaping these technologies and rethinking the way we see education in the future?

GB: We have a sub-unit dedicated to thinking about the future, studying trends and imagining future scenarios. Not all of them are positive, but we want to see what is likely to stimulate and what can hinder progress. As a technology company we have an important role to play in trying to foresee positive trends and bring them to fruition faster. In Sao Paulo, for example, we have been providing support to two public schools with a different methodology and forward-thinking teachers.

The headteacher of the Campos Salles school has been discussing the antagonism between autonomy and standardisation. If the bar is set too low, it's not good. Some heads are further ahead and they need autonomy. Standardisation is important so there is a common ground between schools, but more freedom is required for those with more responsibility. The heads that are delivering results should have more autonomy to take their methods to the next level.

Our international survey, Millennials, shows us that this generation is very optimistic, very willing. They believe they can change the world, and much more in Latin America than in the US and Europe. The theme was that the American dream is still alive, but in Latin America.

TRC: How open are teachers to embracing new technology in the classroom?

GB: When the Foundation was created 15 years ago, we already had an education project called Educarede, and teachers were very resistant. They were afraid that the technology would eventually replace teachers, but this has changed completely. For one, because they realise it is inevitable and important, and for another, because the new generations of teachers coming through have grown up with technology.

TRC: How is the relationship between the private sector and the public sector in regards to education?

GB: There is, first of all, a legal issue. We cannot go to the government and tell them how to write an invitation for bids, because there would be a conflict of interest that would exclude Vivo from the process. But we also see that purchases need to be conducted a certain way to be efficient because, after all, this is public money.

In that context, it makes a lot of difference to be part of a group of foundations, where collective experience creates a body of knowledge that is ultimately more useful for the government. Their first question is always ‘what do you want to sell us?’, and we try to be as open as possible. We do not provide anyone with technology for free, but we also do not oblige anyone to use our technology. In one of our projects with rural schools, the service is actually provided by Claro. This is how we operate; we are very careful about conflicts of interest.

TRC: How would you reflect on your 15 years in education? Is the overriding sensation one of optimism or frustration?

GB: I am naturally optimistic. I don't feel frustrated and I think there are a lot of interesting things happening, but I think that the most important advance right now would be for everybody to understand exactly what the priority is and work towards it. With technology, for example, we still don’t have the conditions for introducing it to the classroom on any scale, with platforms that are compatible with the ministry, with standardised features. These need to be established so that the government can open up a bid process and move forward because, at the moment, agents are acting individually and often end up buying the wrong equipment.

There has been huge progress with many steps in the right direction but with education, progress has to constantly evolve and modernise to embrace rapidly changing technology.

I dream of schools that educate citizens in the ways of the 21st century, but we cannot get there straight away.
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This article was published 18 May 2015
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