Digitalization in Higher Education, an Imperative and an Opportunity for Central America

By Alejandro Caballero, Principal Education Specialist, IFC, and Alonso Gómez, Investment Officer, IFC

This article was originally published in Prensa Libre (Guatemala) in August 2021

Central America is embracing hope. In the region, many are already imagining a return to a time without restrictions. But we should not be blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel: reactivating national economies and overcoming the devastation caused by the pandemic — in employment, growth, productivity, and competitiveness, among other indicators — will require coordinated efforts among several actors as well as the design of long-term public policies. In the area of higher education, digitalization, which accelerated like never before over the past year, is forcing us to rethink not only the traditional models of teaching, learning, and skills development, but also the management of higher education institutions and all the services related to students’ academic and extracurricular life, keeping these students at the heart of everything that happens in the university environment.

Since March 2020 the temporary closure of higher education institutions has affected 23.4 million students and 1.4 million teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to data from UNESCO. Almost without warning, distance learning and the use of online platforms became the norm for future professionals in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Many were not prepared. However, the coronavirus outbreak highlighted a transformation that was already underway, which has not only impacted students but also teachers and non-teaching staff, forcing universities and tertiary institutions in these countries to adapt and find ways of reconstructing their business model.

This situation has caused us to reflect and act on higher education in the digital sphere: from the digitalization of higher education institutions to the modernization and strengthening of the supply of educational content, which is essential for preparing Central American students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Let us consider the following: there is a significant gap between global labor supply and demand: 80 percent of applicants cannot find a job in their area of specialization, 50 percent of employers cannot find candidates with suitable skills, and young people represent 40 percent of the unemployed population.

There are significant challenges in this context. For example, a steep learning curve lies ahead for higher education institutions that are seeking to expand their digital content. In addition, there is a real risk that the digital divide will widen between countries and within each one. In other words, better-resourced institutions can take the necessary leap while others will be left behind.

But none of this should block digitalization, especially given how technology has been redefining jobs and professions for decades, permeating all industries and sectors. The changes to teaching and learning methods must therefore focus on having the students develop the skills they need for the 21st century.

Let us reimagine education through the lens of technology and within a context in which we can transform operational and academic practices to better serve students.

Academic institutions can achieve this if they collaborate with specialists who can help them to outline, operationalize, and implement cutting-edge academic programs, in sync with a digitalized world.

We have seen successful cases in the region. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the main global development institution focused on the private sector in developing countries, worked with universities in Peru and Colombia to implement a strategy for digital transformation in higher education. A program was implemented called D4TEP (Digital for Tertiary Education Program) in which an evaluation was done of the universities’ digital maturity, the search for technology partners, the design of a roadmap, and training, among others. It is important to start by evaluating the current capacities in order to explore the range of digital possibilities that can keep them competitive and attractive in the market.

There are also instruments like Vitae, IFC’s ‘Employability Tool, which can conduct an analysis to help higher education institutions understand how well they are preparing graduates for the labor market, determine how to bring about a significant improvement in recruitment services, strengthen connections with employers, and boost their reputation.

The response to the pandemic in Central America has been varied. Quarantines, restrictions of movement, and border closures aside, in all countries, the coronavirus accelerated the digitalization process and changed deep-rooted practices on campuses and in classrooms. Meeting new market demands and preparing young people for jobs that do not yet exist in the region will only be possible with technology-mediated higher education projects. Teaching, learning, and digital skills development have now become an imperative as well as an opportunity.

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.