Yesterday, I met with my two faculty mentors in Brazil and learned more about the university programs that each are involved with in Rio de Janeiro. First, I met with Dr. Alexandre Fortes, who is a professor of history and the dean of the Universidade Federal Rural de Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) in Nova Iguaçu. We met at a small Portuguese restaurant called Restaurante Castelinho in Flemengo, where we discussed my research project. I told Dr. Fortes that I am interested in learning more about the Brazilian educational system at the university level, and especially about how technology is changing pedagogical practices and making education accessible to historically marginalized communities. Dr. Fortes explained to me that the Nova Iguaçu University is relatively new; construction of the university ended only five years ago. Educational leaders and politicians joined forces to create the university in order to reach the surrounding population, which has traditionally lacked services. The area is stigmatized because of the violence and poverty that pervade it. One of the main goals of the university is to instigate change in the region over the long run through education. By providing students with the opportunity to receive a federal-level education, educators at Nova Iguaçu increase the probability of higher-level employment for their students and hopefully reduce the crime rate.
Unlike the surrounding area, the university space is up-to-date and does not seem so ‘rural” Dr. Fortes tells me. It has grown to serve over three thousand students, with over one hundred and seventy professors and another one hundred and fifty administrators. Most of the classes are held in the evenings to accommodate the majority of students who work during the day. The university has the latest technology and both teachers and students are working to ensure that resources are used efficiently. When I visit the campus next week, I will seek answers to the following questions. What does “efficient use” of technology mean in this context? And, what are the pedagogical models that professors are employing at UFRRJ in order to help students learn?
Although much progress has been made at the Nova Iguaçu campus, there is still work to be done. One clear issue is transportation. There is no direct way to get to the campus from the city of Rio. Also, transportation is difficult outside the city center. A direct line to and from Rio would be useful as would a carpool system. Another issue has to do with funding. Bureaucracy means that resources sometime arrive late or not at all. Security presents another issue. In a 2013 article, “Upward Mobility in Brazil and the Quest for Higher Education,” Marco Warmen writes “This new school isn’t your bucolic campus with kids playing Frisbee on a lawn. The buildings are fenced in and have armed guards at the front post. This has long been a dangerous place." While the surrounding area has become less violent since the 1980s, students and faculty must take the necessary precautions when traveling to and from campus.
Despite these setbacks, Nova Iguaçu represents one part of changes taking place in the Brazilian education system. As Warmen reports, the university is one of 600 new public campuses that policy-makers have opened across the country. Other changes have included affirmative action, and the Educação a Distancia (Education at a Distance) system in Rio de Janeiro.
After lunch, I met Dr. Rolf Malungo de Souza at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF) in Niteroi to learn more about Educação a Distancia (EAD). Rolf is a professor of anthropology and a Group Coordinator for the EAD system in Rio. He coordinates an anthropology class on gender and masculinity for the program. Dr. Malungo de Souza and one of his colleagues, another anthropologist, discussed consortium CEDERJ with me. CEDERJ is the umbrella organization for a group of universities in Rio de Janeiro that participate in the EAD program. It is funded through the government and those that receive a diploma from the program obtain the same diploma as students who are part of the traditional federal university system. While CEDERJ is a system that operates only in the state of Rio de Janeiro, it serves over 100,000 students in the interior of the state. In order to be accepted into the program students must take a national test, the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (ENAM), or they may take the Vestibular. If students opt to participate in the EAD program, the law also mandates that students must meet in a face-to-face class at least one time per week. Dr. Malungo de Souza explained that this requirements makes it difficult for some students to participate in the program. For many, however, traveling only once a week instead of everyday makes higher education possible.
Dr. Malungo de Souza explained the EAD system to me. As the Group Coordinator, he is directly under the General Coordinator for the class. He heads the researchers, the Instructors’ Coordinator, and the Instructions. Each of these positions has different functions. The instructors, for example, are the most akin to traditional professors except that they act more like tutors towards the students (the proverbial “guide on the side”). They are the ones that have the most contact with students. Instructors’ Coordinators act as a go-between between the Instructors and the Researcher. The Researcher designs the course, creates the exams, and provides expert help when questions are raised. The Group Coordinator and the General Coordinator fulfill administrative roles.
While EAD is providing services to thousands who would not otherwise have access higher education, some educators have their doubts. Dr. Malungo de Souza explained that EAD is most useful for short courses and times when you need to learn a specific topic quickly. It is less useful for longer programs like masters or doctorate programs. Also, some disciplines, such as history and anthropology, are easier to teach in a face-to-face setting. "Pedagogical methods must change if traditional anthropology and history classes are to be taught online," he explained. It is hard to imagine what a successful online class within these disciplines would look like.
Both Dr. Fortes and Dr. Malungo de Souza are working to open access to higher education in Brazil. Their methods are different and they provide different results, but both are equally important and provide useful points of comparison between efforts in Brazil and the United States. Both UFRRJ and EAD are part of the public educational system in Brazil. Unlike the U.S., the Brazilian public university system is more prestigious than the private. In the U.S., the opposite tends to be true. Yet, one wonders whether this difference has allowed Brazilian educators a more streamlined system for reaching underprivledged communities. The federal government's hand in education has facilitated the creation of programs such as Rio’s CEDERJ and the construction of more public universities in marginalized places. Would such a system be possible in the United States?