Education and Opportunities for All: Connecting Rural and Indigenous Communities

Pedro Antonio González Martínez, President and Co Founder of Kaanbal, tells us the story behind this wonderful project of social innovation that arises with the intention of enabling Internet and digital experiences in the most isolated communities of Quintana Roo where technology is barely present.

Pedro Antonio González Martínez is passionate about the Internet, science, technology, art, design, social innovation and digital culture.

He is a Mechatronics Engineer graduated from the Technological Institute of Cancun and has experience in automation, robotics, Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

He is the President and Co-founder of Kaanbal, a social innovation laboratory working for the digital preservation of Mayan culture.

He also is Collaborator of Cerebro Digital, an organization that promotes educational content in science and technology with more than 3.8 million followers worldwide.

He currently works as the Innovation and Linking Director of TechGarage Technology Park in Cancun, the first ecosystem working to boost the creative and technological industry of Quintana Roo state.

He has won statewide, national and international awards and has experience as an organizer, conductor, workshop, lecturer and exhibitor in more than 200 activities related to science, technology, research, innovation and entrepreneurship throughout Mexico, the United States and Latin America, including being a speaker at Harvard Business School and MIT Media Lab in Boston, as well as at the UN headquarters in New York.

Personal background

For many years of my life, I studied in La Sallistas schools, well known for their social action and mission programs. When I was about 17 years old, during my last high school semester, I had the opportunity to participate in one of these programs where we set up a small physical library inside one of the community’s rural school, hidden by the toll-free highway connecting Cancun to Merida. We organized a book collection and donation, and it coincided with a moment when our school library was renovating their furniture, we thus received tables, shelves and some chairs. That experience was the first one that made me actively participate in a project with social and educational impact on this area’s communities.

Some years later, during my studies in Mechatronic Engineering, I started working with the Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a credit card with which you can do an infinity of things such as drones, automation, robotics and all kinds of encapsulated solutions. One of the many things that can be done with this device is to program it as a Wi-Fi access point and as a web server, which basically means that every mobile, tablet or computer can connect wirelessly to the Raspberry Pi through the network it generates, and view the content it stores locally from any web browser, and all of it without necessarily being connected to the Internet. This solution is not a difficult thing to do at a technical level, yet it is something that offers a high impact benefit for locations where digital resources and connectivity infrastructure are scarce.

Once I linked the experience I had during high school with the possible applications that this type of technological solutions could offer within the communities, I realized that it was possible to enable digital libraries instead of physical libraries to generate a paradigm shift in the educational experience and, of course, enormous social benefits. From this moment on, emerged a research process for my thesis on access to ICT and digital education in rural communities without Internet access in conjunction with the National Chamber of Electronics, Telecommunications and Information Technologies and supported by a fund that we were managing from the Internet Society. The relationship with my current partner, Camilo Olea, arose when we met at a networking event. After talking for a while about education, technology and the huge inequalities present in rural communities, we realized that in addition to agreeing on many of the points mentioned, we counted with what was necessary to generate a positive impact on society. After that meeting, we began to share ideas by mail until the name “Kaanbal” was born, from the word “learn” in Mayan language.

After almost 3 years since this project began, it has transformed the reality of more than 1,300 people in 5 different communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, has received international funds and awards, as well as has been presented in the most important worldwide forums for social entrepreneurship, digital education, cultural preservation, Internet governance and technological innovation from Harvard, MIT and the UN.

May this interview serve to inspire each and every one of its readers to take their projects as far as they want, and to be willing to contribute to the construction of a world with more and better opportunities for all, through their passions’ development.

Pedro Antonio, tell us Kaanbal Social Innovation was born and what is the philosophy behind it.

In a world as globalized as the one we live in today, many of the existing societal problems and needs are increasingly affected by the lack of access to technology. Such is the case of Mexico and Latin America where, in their thousands of rural communities, the digital divide is a situation that prevents the inhabitants from having a telephone or Internet signal and therefore from the benefits they can offer such as communication, education and access to information, among others.

This is what millions of people face every day in places where they have to walk several kilometers or spend a lot of money on transportation just to be able to do their homework or access their email. It is well known that today there is more access to digital resources than ever before, however, isolated social groups still face enormous difficulties in making proper use of these tools. The current technological alternatives are abundant, but not many are focused on remote areas development where sometimes telephone signal is not even available.

Kaanbal is an organization working to provide Internet and digital experiences to communities where technologies are practically non- existent. It arises as an initiative in conjunction with my partner Camilo to bring education and opportunities to the places that need it most, as well as to promote Mayan culture’s digital preservation, so strong in this area.

Kaanbal Social Innovation is an organization and platform that allows students in rural communities to access educational content without requiring Internet connection. How does it work?

In schools, community centers and municipal houses in areas without Internet coverage, we enable digital libraries that generate Wi-Fi networks to which any cell phone, tablet or computer can connect and browse through the thousands of educational resources it locally stores. This ranges from the entire Wikipedia, to more than 2,000 video classes from Khan Academy, educational videos with 360- degree experience, illustrated health libraries, food guides, PDF books, educational games, information in indigenous languages, dictionaries, English courses, mobile applications, computer programs, well … a lot of content. They also include a module which allows to upload or download files shared by connected users, so that both teachers and students can interact with content stored on their own devices such as PDF documents, photographs or videos.

So far, we have provided between 64 and 500 gigabytes of content in each school and to dimension this, keep in mind that the Spanish Wikipedia only, with more than 1.4 million articles that include text and images has a weight of just 25 gigabytes, so it is possible to handle a significant volume of information within these small digital monsters. The Wi-Fi signal transmission through access points that include local educational content without the need of Internet represents an extraordinary support for rural schools since it attends reception’s technical problem that the conventional data signal involves, as well as a network’s implementation and maintenance high costs, especially in very remote communities.

How does the fact of belonging to rural communities affect young people’s interest in this type of education?

To answer this question, consider the case of Luis Roberto Poot, a 13- year-old boy, the youngest of 7 siblings who, during the morning, attends rural secondary school in the Agua Azul community and in the afternoon helps his father in field work.

When Luis has to do a task, he mainly depends on two information sources: the knowledge his teachers can share with him and the few books he has, mostly donated by well-intentioned organizations but not necessarily with relevant or updated content. If Luis needs an additional source, it means that he has to leave his community to the nearest cybercafé, which is about an hour away, having to walk several kilometers to then take public transportation, pay between half an hour and an hour of Internet time that he will use to find the information he needs, and of course, take into consideration the returning cost. Now, Luis wants to be a lawyer “to protect the good from the bad,” and for this to happen, he has to continue with his high school studies which will inherently require him more and more access to educational resources which entails spending more money. Many parents like Luis’, in this situation are sometimes forced to stop their children from studying to help them by working in the fields, although not intentionally, but because they lack resources. The average family in these rural communities lives with less than 3,000 Mexican pesos a month, something like 150 dollars a month (impressive, right?).

The case of Luis is similar to that of millions of students living in rural communities in Mexico and around the world, where they are forced to drop out of school due to a lack of educational resources within their reach that would allow them to continue to develop their learning. The educational gap is intimately linked to this phenomenon that also affects both students and teachers, who are victims of the same problem.

How do ICT support and such platforms achieve and catalyze young people’s empowerment in rural areas without permanent and continuous access to the Internet?

Thanks to access to ICT, it only takes a few seconds to respond to an online search, compared to the time it takes to only use books as a sole information source. Accessibility processes need to be addressed to reduce the digital divide and the educational gap. Their empowerment is related to the proper management and use of technologies.

The amount of benefits that technology brings to education may seem obvious, however, the risks are often those that hinder its implementation. Although nowadays many students have a mobile device, some schools prefer to prevent its use in the classroom because it is related to leisure. If we add to that the lack of access to the Internet and telephone signal, it is obvious there isn’t a real leverage of cellphones.

Thanks to the digital libraries we have set up, teachers have gradually begun to allow and promote the use of mobile devices through our platform in these communities. Another very important point is the type of content that users can find, since being a previously filtered library exclusively containing educational resources, does not allow students to access social networks, pornography or content that do not contribute to their development. By enabling digital content that is within the educational, didactic and fun spectrum, it broadens technologies’ appropriate use and exploitation as well as, of course, users’ empowerment.

What led you and Camilo to become social innovators and to be involved in the specific field of open educational resources?

According to me, there are three particular points, one that befalls on me, another on Camilo and another one on which we both agree, the overall has resulted in a spectacular team.

Regarding my side, I would say that it was both the identification of technological solutions based on my experience during high school and engineering as well as my innate love for education; regarding Camilo his great expertise in marketing issues and his general affinity for solving social problems through technology, since he has not only been involved with educational issues, but also with the development of applications for natural disasters and blockchain for political transparency. Of course, we both have many points in common, but the one where I think we converge most is in our mutual passion to implement technological solutions that address situations of daily life in this information society, one of these being Internet’s development in all senses, from web design and development, accessibility, to digital content, and so on.

The great thing about Open Educational Resources is that they are for everyone and benefit everyone. There are hundreds of Internet contents regularly used by millions of people, but not many of them know that they are available for free use and download. Such is the case of Khan Academy, even when I was in high school, I came to use their videos to complement my math or physics classes. The same with Wikipedia, how many times have we asked ourselves something and used it even to have a quick overall view about the topic?

It is also worth mentioning that in Kaanbal there are two other involved associates: Alfonso Govela and Pedro Huerta, who with their extensive experience in digital civics, telecommunications and business contribute to the correct decision making and proper resource use. The association’s ecosystem is complemented by a great team of volunteers we always count on, mainly for taking photos and videos during the equipment, as well as to document and manage social networks.

The current situation in Mexico has recently shifted with the new government’s election. Do you think there will be more support for this type of initiatives in rural communities?

First of all, it is important to know that Mexico has currently much more important issues than digitization itself, which need to be addressed as a matter of priority. Although the efforts and intentions may be good, structural, security and transparency issues are the ones that often deteriorate social projects’ execution. Regarding the lack of connectivity in isolated areas, there are some elements I have noticed usually fail in the government equation: the proper management and use of technological resources by users, as well as the maintenance of both physical and intangible equipment or software.

In one of the first communities that we visited at the beginning of the project back in January 2016, it turns out that there already was a Rural Governmental Digital Community Center, which had chairs, tables and 12 computers. However, most of the computers did not work and the few remaining ones nobody knew how to use them properly. In addition to the fact that they had not used the space for almost a year because they had not paid the electricity and water bills. But the case doesn’t end there, the only one who could explain to us what was happening with that place was a young man who had worked there many months before as a manager, and who had to stop attending the place because when he arrived at the governmental office to receive both his salary and the payments for electricity and water services, they told him that the checks were not ready, and to return on the next day, not to mention that the municipal office is located more than 40 minutes away from his community and his transportation was not reimbursed. After several visits to the offices without any results, he could no longer attend the place and returned to work In field with his family.

In other places the government has given tablets to primary school children as part of its social programs, but after a few weeks most of them had been stolen.
Each place has its needs and its way of attending them, as it is commonly said in the world of entrepreneurship “fall in love with the problem, not with the solution” since the same problem can have many forms, methods, resources and instruments to be resolved.

Support for national/local initiatives such as Kaanbal would generate a series of benefits in parallel with the efforts made by the government but those do not fully meet the actual needs. I consider myself as a very optimistic person and I have no doubt that the new government will try to pay attention to these details to not repeat the same mistakes. Moreover, by relying on this type of multisectoral participation, projects apply the quadruple helix model, where academia, industry, government and civil society actively participate in problems resolution. On the other hand, the new government has constantly had an innate relationship with the social sector, mainly rural, so I am confident there will be more support and investment to address these needs.

How has your project influenced the overall community of which the students are part of? Can you share some testimonies with us?

I personally think there are several beautiful cases. I mentioned earlier one them: many teachers banned cellphones use during class but now thanks to the platform they allow its use, this is an element in favor of my much-cited promotion for digitation’s proper use and management.

We also have an anecdote shared by a teacher who returned to school on a weekend for a briefcase he had forgotten and to his surprise found several students outside the classrooms accessing the platform with their cellphones, since even though the premises are closed, the server’s signal is available, so many students can do their homework or download the files they need to take them home, once again without having to leave their community, avoiding expenses and saving them time.

There are other cases that have been mentioned to us, in which some parents use the platform to download PDF books and conduct small reading circles within the community. It goes without saying that many teachers have thanked us as they can count on additional resources to prepare their classes better or simply reinforce their knowledge on some topics by studying them through the platform.

How do you think progress in technology together with the creation and expansion of open educational resources will affect the future generations?

It should be clear to us that technology is only a mean to achieve something, and that its advances are a phenomenon that implies great advantages as well as enormous challenges. The use of augmented reality, virtual reality and cloud platforms for educational purposes are and will continue to be extremely valuable resources for those who have them within their reach. Learning about the human being after having a journey inside our body, seeing through different animals’ eyes, knowing the history and geography of another continent without having to visit it physically or even taking a tour through the universe’s wonderful extension are some of the incredible adventures we can experience thanks to the advances of these technologies.

However, in rural areas the impact is brutal because they are leaving this sector more and more aside, and it does not only about lack of Internet, but also a lack of educational experiences that promote a real learning stimulus and prevent a unworthy future for young people. We should also remember that many of these new technologies are developed in English, which requires organizations, foundations or universities to work on translating them at least into Spanish, and although there is already a lot of work done in this sense, there are only a few who work to translate into indigenous languages, which points out uncertainty and a greater educational gap and digital divide in those with little technological knowledge or those who speak another language than their mother tongue.

Preserving culture implies greater efforts in this sense, just as Mozilla, Wikimedia, 68 voices, among others do, contributing to digital platforms translation and generating free and open content in indigenous languages. The challenge also lays on how to give greater pervasiveness to the use of this type of resources, as well as add value to indigenous languages’ and culture’s knowledge, not only in the rural sector, but also in the urban, so that more people get interested in developing the issue.

Quality Education is an important part of the Sustainable Development Goals. How do you think ICTs can contribute to their achievement?

Providing Universal Access emerges from an interest in enabling digital resources and connectivity within reach of people within a reasonable distance of the place they live in. However, in the upcoming years, digitization will cease to be a necessity to access technologies themselves, but for all matters that may involve their use such as maintaining security in case of natural disasters, finding food or health content in case of not having doctors within reach, improving decision-making and even the mere fact of exercising freedom of expression. A clear example of this is the current UN declaration where the Internet is stated to be a human right to such an extent that all governments are urged to make its availability, accessibility and affordability a priority among their objectives.

Quality education through ICT can be achieved through the appropriate use of technological infrastructure and materials in digital format, allowing a proper transition from a traditional classroom model to a technological classroom that promotes and stimulates an innovative educational experience of a much greater nature compared to traditional models. If, in addition, digital use is promoted by schools at an early age, the amount of benefits offered in the long term for many of the points addressed in the SDG, is infinite.

The Kaanbal project is a standard that we intend to be replicated both nationally and internationally, which in the long term would allow the creation of educational community networks aimed at improving students’ and teachers’ digital performance in schools. Achieving this is not simple and does not solely depend on enabling ICT, it requires much effort, dedication and teamwork by multiple actors, from government, private industry, to academics and civil society, thus any kind of support is welcome. Keep in mind that ICTs make it easier and easier to connect with the world, but this only serves and makes sense for human development if our projects turn into tangible results for our immediate environment.

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