Increasing Access to Higher Education in Latin America

Priscila Zigunovas and Roberto Barriga
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Quick take: By providing accessibility and flexibility in its training programs, IPLACEX is reducing barriers in its educational environments, which benefits, for instance, students with disabilities and those that live far from urban centers.

Santiago de Chile, Chile

During the Global Accessibility Awareness Day, held in May 17th, 2018, E-Learn had the opportunity of sitting down with IPLACEX, a Chilean institution that is committed to promoting access to higher education throughout Latin America. A region where, according to the World Bank, access to higher education for students between the ages 18 and 24 does not exceed 40%.1

Meet the Interviewee

Roberto Barriga Tapia, academic vice-rector at IPLACEX, is a Civil Industrial Engineer with a minor in Computer Science from the ‘Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile,’ and has more than 20 years’ experience in education, technology and social projects. He held various management positions at the ‘Instituto Profesional DuocUC,’ where he is most notably known for the creation and development of the Information and Telecommunications School. He was also a board member of the ACTI AG (Chile’s main IT industry association), supporting human capital strategies, and a member of the Technology Council for the Accrediting Agency of the College of Engineers, AcreditaCI.

Could you tell us a bit about your work at IPLACEX?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

One of my fundamental roles at the institution is to define the best practices and teaching-learning strategies that we can incorporate in order to improve, and guarantee, our students’ successful learning. This is particularly relevant in the case of programs with a high degree of flexibility. IPLACEX is known for implementing programs that are flexible and accessible, and that is why most courses take place online; we also have blended and face-to-face programs. One of my main objectives is to make sure that curriculum and instructional developments take place, as well as the incorporation of technologies, which not only serve to improve educational conditions, but also to offer more enriching and unique learning experiences.

Photo Roberto Barriga Tapia, Vicerrector académico en IPLACEX
Roberto Barriga Tapia, academic vice-rector at IPLACEX.

Awareness is the first step to offering students access to enriching learning experiences. Why should educational institutions consider access as one of their strategic priorities?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

The answer stems from a fundamental fact which greatly influences the Chilean higher education system and something that is, of course, evident in other places around the world. Formal learning systems are too rigid – very structured. The traditional concept that we have about a learning process is: to study a career at an institution with a face-to-face modality, with a series of modules that are related to prerequisite criteria, where if you fail a module you fall behind. Generally, units last a semester, where you either pass everything or nothing. In this context, the number of people that can access this type of learning structure is limited. If one looks at online higher education numbers, one realizes that it hasn’t grown. In fact, it has decreased by a few percentage points, which means that everyone who can study in a traditional, rigid educational system is already studying. Nevertheless, the people that work, and that cannot access these rigid systems because they do not have the needed availability, are out. This is very important because if one takes a look at international studies about the training needs of working professionals (such as figures from developed countries), one realizes that Chile is well below the average.

How would you score access to education at higher education institutions in Latin America? What are the main challenges for this region?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

In general, access is very limited. The traditional system prevails, mainly due to a face-to-face component and rigid curriculum structures, and with few alternative mechanisms that validate previous learning. Perhaps some countries are the exception, such as Brazil where distance learning is well established. But, in general, it is a slow incorporation process.

What is the general strategy for your training programs? What makes them unique?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

The general strategy is to provide flexibility and accessibility. Access, when referring to a geographical component, is where we offer virtual environments for learning. At the same time, when we talk about flexibility we refer to aspects such as asynchronous learning or supporting people who have previous experience or knowledge, whether it be informal, gained through experience in the workplace, or formal, obtained through degrees or certifications. These means of special admission are not the only ones we provide; there is also the possibility of organizing the programs according to the previous knowledge gained, allowing students to accelerate their study process.

What is the importance of having access to professional education? How has IPLACEX’s focus on access evolved in the last few years?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

Access to education must be analyzed at various levels. One level is related to the physical access to learning spaces. In this case, people that cannot travel certain distances or cannot physically come to the facilities must be taken into account. When one embarks on a project that deals with the importance of providing access (like a virtual approach or component of study), one is addressing several things such as traveling great distances for those that live far from urban centers, or mobility issues faced by people with physical disabilities.

Another level that is very important is the one that goes beyond physical means of access, and it’s the one that is referred to as asynchrony. These learning processes are asynchronous, which means that learners do not have to connect at the same time to see their professor. Rather, every individual can log into the learning environments at their own time and pace and enjoy their experiences freely. Another point is that travel expenses are brought down to zero.

How does IPLACEX make the most of Blackboard tools and resources to fulfill its objective of improving access to education in Latin America?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

We knew that we needed a digital learning environment such as Blackboard Learn or Blackboard Open LMS that would allow us to manage our students’ virtual learning process. Now, throughout our experience we have identified that:

1. We need a platform system that is robust.

2. We must have the capacity to store all student interactions throughout their learning process.

3. We need a platform where we can install and deploy various virtual learning experiences using different technologies.

4. We must use the assessment tools that the platform offers for learning processes, not only to evaluate learning, but also to evaluate educational processes.

5. We need to offer our students their own learning paths through adaptive schemes.

At IPLACEX, we have students with different learning backgrounds and styles, and we hope to offer them alternative paths for their learning process on the long term – all the way from the curriculum, to the assignments they must submit. This is precisely one of the flexible tools that Blackboard supports us with.

"At IPLACEX, we have students with different learning backgrounds and styles, and we hope to offer them alternative paths for their learning process on the long term." Roberto Barriga

What trends do you think will define access to education in the next few years?

Profile Picture Roberto Barriga

In terms of trends, we envision several things. The first point is related to generating mechanisms that enable the student to build their own learning schedule at the formative level, and with a certain degree of flexibility. This is going to slightly depend on their profile, their learning pace and learning style at the curricular and instructional level.

On the other hand, we are also evaluating flexible methodologies in order to offer different types of curriculum paths. This will allow students to develop their capabilities according to the industry they want to belong to.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day
Rigid formal learning systems exclude people from having access to higher education, especially in Latin America, where online learning is still being adopted by universities. To IPLACEX, providing accessibility and flexibility in their learning programs is a key strategy to broaden access to education.

Roberto Barriga Tapia, academic vice-rector at IPLACEX.


AFP Pablo Vera Lisperguer


1 World Bank. (2017, May 17). Educação superior se expande na América Latina e no Caribe, mas os resultados estão abaixo do potencial. Retrieved May 31, 2018, from

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