Colombia, a nation at the core of Latin America, is not unlike its neighbors in most social and economic aspects. Diverse, rich in resources, marked by political conflicts and inequalities. Among the things that do make it stand out around the world, Juan Sáenz, Founder and Commercial Director of Edu Labs, wants open source educational technologies to be listed among them.
The movement that led the nation to be one of the first organizers of the MoodleMoot conferences, which focus on the Free and Open Source Learning Management System (LMS) Moodle, has held steady for more than a decade. There was never any doubt as to whether it would take place in 2020. With the very special tenth edition of MoodleMoot Colombia approaching, Sáenz joins us on a tour around the region, and the response against the pandemic under an EdTech lens. Spoiler alert: Sáenz remains optimistic, perhaps more than usual. MoodleMoot Colombia Online 2020 breaks off from the usual “Moot” format, aiming to bring real solutions to Spanish speakers, the largest language-based community of Open EdTech users in the world, many of whom will enjoy direct access to the Colombian way for the first time.
The age of educational transformation is not over
It is inevitable to remember that the world is still facing a pandemic. In Colombia and Latin America, educational systems are re-evaluating their plans for the coming school year almost on a daily basis. Although basic education has not yet achieved universal coverage, it is in a relatively better position to guarantee its continuity, as it is the responsibility of governments. Menacing risks such as the volatility of the exchange rate, and the collapse of the prices of oil and other natural resources, however, threaten public budgets in the medium to long run, even in better-looking countries —in the eyes of credit risk rating agencies—: Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and of course Colombia, which last April he became the 37th official member of the OECD.
The situation varies in Higher Ed, the quintessential social mobility weapon in the face of rising income inequality, and where public universities consistently appear at the top. (The National University of Colombia, the largest public Higher Ed institution in the country, top ranked in several lists, is perhaps Edu Labs’ most outstanding client.) Although the level of coverage is lower, existing distance education programs offer an interesting history, with modalities of education through radio, television and mail. The challenge today, and the opportunity that the pandemic has made more palpable, is the complete transformation of educational models to adopt educational technologies in a massive, universal and definitive way. Not as a failsafe, and perhaps not merely as a companionship either, but as the de facto way the nation teaches its youth. Or at least this has been Sáenz’s operative principle, ever since this potential was revealed to such an extent that it would justify a radical turn in his professional career.
As an electronic engineer, Sáenz was doing electrical maintenance work for the National University of Colombia, when his office received a request from the Department of Foreign Languages for the implementation of an elearning project. “Although I didn’t even know how to install a program on a computer, the project caught my attention and I volunteered, they listened to me and I ended up dedicating my body and soul to elearning, up to this day.”
This is how in 2006 Sáenz achieved the first large-scale elearning implementation in the country, making it possible to take proficiency exams in foreign languages.
Edu Labs would see the light years later, where experiences at the National University as well as at the United Nations would strengthen Sáenz’s theses regarding the potential of open technologies to close educational gaps. The company would benefit from the growing interest groups on Free and Open Source Software, which would give rise to the first MoodleMoot Colombia, one year before its foundation. Elearning and Moodle remain on the rise in the region, not without some readjustments. The other Moodle Partner in the country, Nivel Siete, would be acquired by Moodlerooms, the free software branch of Blackboard. The subsequent break-up between Moodle and Blackboard —which led to Moodlerooms being renamed to Open LMS, then spun-off, now part of the London-based conglomerate LTG— leaves Edu Labs with the privileged role of being the only Moodle Partner in Colombia, and more recently Ecuador. In Mexico, it shares the distinction with Emprove. In the first edition of the MoodleMoot Global conference held in Barcelona, Moodle awarded Edu Labs as the Latin American Partner of the Year, due to its growth and performance.
“It is 2020 and I realize that, fortunately, elearning continues to evolve and solutions will always be needed, where Edu Labs is available to all its clients to offer them.”
Technologies that build human and democratic values
The core value proposition offered by an ally and promoter of open educational technologies still raises eyebrows. In fairness, at first glance any technology company could build a service business based on Moodle and other FOSS, without ever having to pay a dime for the privilege. The benefits in partnering up, however, materialize soon. This is true even for companies that are not particularly like-minded and share the values of open source. Edu Labs is the latest in a steady stream of companies and business models well apt in selling the benefits of belonging to and trusting in a decentralized technology movement with transparent and measurable outcomes.
Sáenz underscores Edu Labs’ emphasis on customer support. “Our added value is to offer top-notch quality of service, to feel the needs of our customers as our own, to offer them the best experience and the highest added-value offering possible.” The inability of a Moodle partner to depend on software licenses as a retention strategy becomes an incentive to build customer relationships based on high value, transparency and integrity.
Of course, one of the factors that allow Colombia to offer an interesting panorama for open technologies are the decades of awareness, which today have become spaces of influence in the educational, business and government spheres. Despite ongoing challenges, education and technology are high-held values in the Colombian society. Initiatives promoting educational and technological innovation are generally well received, as noted by the level of expenditure on national budgets and on CSR programs. Similar dynamics take place in the neighborhood, for sure. Depending on the political wills at the time, Latin American countries —Sáenz singles out early 2000s Venezuela; Brazil is also a stronghold of FOSS, Open EdTech, Moodle and more recently H5P— have been international referents in the implementation of large-scale and publicly-funded initiatives.
“Unfortunately, in many countries in the region access to good education is not guaranteed to all. But this can change with the use of technology. What we’re going through today, with this pandemic, is an unmatched opportunity to take that great leap, leverage what we’ve done and what we have to make knowledge available to all humanity. At Edu Labs, we are putting our grain of sand to bring about this into reality. ”
Pandemic, and what it unfolds
“I would be lying if I assured that we did not face some challenges, or that we did not have to rethink some of our processes and adapt to change,” says Sáenz. A slight advantage this side of the globe was the opportunity to see how the coronavirus, as well as the effectiveness of the response, was playing out a couple steps ahead. At Edu Labs, the lessons led to an investment in infrastructure early on. In addition to better position its cloud solutions in the face of the looming increases in demand, the move protected the company from the wild exchange rate, which for some companies relying on external technology has led to increase in fixed costs of around 20% at a moment’s notice. That was only part of the whole plan. “We also prepared as a team to strengthen our technical skills. We accurately predicted that our helpdesk would receive an above-average spike in support and assistance requests. We fine-tuned our finances to withstand swings in the economic climate, and planned a telecommuting strategy that will last at least until the end of 2020. Today we can assure our clients that as a company we will continue to function 100%.”
Schools, universities and other educational institutions in the country, in line with the global impact, were faced with a crisis for which they were minimally prepared. In many cases, it exacerbated social and financial issues that had not remained unattended for a long time. In others, it surfaced problems or unexpected repercussions that will lead to drastic and permanent changes we haven’t fully comprehended. In the case of education, Sáenz uses the case of e-commerce as a simple and concrete illustration. Before the pandemic and for a longer period, e-commerce in the region subverted all forms of established dynamics in the industry, from trade routes and supply chains, to marketing and promotion of almost every product category. Already becoming a widespread practice, the new normal of online commerce has been what, in Saenz’s opinion, turned out to be the lifeline of many companies, that otherwise would not have survived the impact of the coronavirus.
Sáenz does not doubt the need for a similar “New Normal” in the educational systems of the region. “This situation, which is becoming more and more disturbing, as it replacing the previous reality we lived in, has shown us that technology, free software, the internet and the digital world have enormous potential to allow us to teach and learn, at the same time that they offer a unique opportunity to democratize knowledge and make it universal, no matter where you live, what language you speak and what your income is. ”
The slight difference is that the transformation and adjustment process that the relatively flexible commercial sectors reached over a decade is expected to be faced by relatively inflexible educational sectors, in a matter of months or weeks.problems Agudizantes include limited prevalent digital skills and teaching faculty, and unequal distribution of educational capabilities in digital environments. While international colleges, public and private universities in the country demonstrate world-class standards in virtual education, technical, talent and budget challenges are part of the landscape of basic and higher education in many parts.
Sáenz’s optimism remains, in any case, unbreakable. The pandemic seems to be disrupting qualms and superstitions about educational technologies. He hopes they will make way for changes on the way we teach and learn.
And it is in MoodleMoot Colombia where Edu Labs synthesizes his experience and will, with effective mechanisms for helping and transferring knowledge to educators in the region.
Welcome to the MoodleMoot Colombia Virtual 2020
“The elearning”, says Sáenz, “is not today what it was 10 or 20 years ago and surely it is not what it will be in two years. I dare say the pandemic will lead to an acceleration in the adoption of technology in all spheres of society, including of course education. In a very short time we will see things that we had not imagined before, or at least not to happen so soon. As a company, we believe that the adoption of AI in our processes, reduced classroom attendance, an almost exclusive use of mobile phones and heightened online interaction are just around the corner. We are already preparing for it, adopting and innovating in these solutions and strengthening our relationship with Moodle, so that our clients can have the support, solutions and advice they need when it comes time to implement changes.
”MoodleMoot attendees will find a space for answers to their current needs and new digital skills to put into practice in their virtual classrooms immediately. The event is designed to increase the exchange of knowledge and experiences that are interesting and useful to all participants. We do not want to be just another congress, full of exhibitions that are only useful to the exhibitor, and that no one else can replicate. The current situation has revealed that the education sector suffers from a critical digital divide. Increasing the adoption of Information and Communication Technologies by teachers fast is one of our main expectations with the event.
”As for me, among my personal plans are to continue contributing 200% to Edu Labs, my team and clients. We have been supporting our clients in this situation as we have done for almost 10 years. And we will continue to do so, stronger than ever and with a very optimistic outlook on the future of education, of our company and of course, from Moodle. I really love what I do, my favorite day of the week is Monday! I will also continue learning new things every day, because in this business you become obsolete soon unless you keep on learning, although without neglecting my family, my friends and the motorcycles that I am so passionate about.”
MoodleMoot Colombia 2020 will take place virtually on Thursday, August 27 and Friday, August 28. Includes the intervention of Juan Gabriel Sáenz, Commercial Director of Edu Labs, and Martin Dougiamas, Founder of Moodle. Registrations open for participants, exhibitors and sponsors.