Brazil: Can traditional distance learning become a fertile soil to widen MOOCs?

Distance Learning has a longstanding and successful record and is firmly anchored in the Brazilian education landscape. Written by Daniel Grünenfelder, STC, Embassy of Switzerland in Brazil.


Long ago distance education was recognized as a good option in Brazil, where a number of states have a very low population density, which makes it difficult to fill classrooms. Therefore, it’s not surprising that distance education has been in existence here for over a century. In 1904 the American Organization of International Correspondence School opened its first Brazilian Branch, offering training courses in commerce and services through correspondence. A few years later the use of radio was instituted for distance learning, becoming for many decades its main tool for this kind of education, for basic education levels, high school, and adult literacy, as well as for vocational courses. A few years ago undergraduate materials also became available as distance learning courses.

“Distance education has been in existence here for over a century”

Despite the first Brazilian legislation dating back to 1961, the country took a long time to regulate distance learning at all levels. In 2005 only a specific decree about undergraduate, postgraduate, master and PhD distance education was adopted.

The first undergraduate distance course in Brazil was created on an experimental basis in 1995 at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (Pedagogy for public state and municipal teachers) and until the year 2000, Brazil counted with only 10 undergraduate courses in the distance learning system.

At the beginning of this century the distance learning offer registered a strong increase. An important reason for this growth was the 1996 National Education law reform which from 2007 onwards made a university degree compulsory for primary school teachers. Until then High School level was sufficient to qualify. Therefore, municipal, state, and the federal authorities had a decade to prepare primary school teachers to be able to continue teaching after 2006. Thus, in the years of this strong distance learning growth, the vast majority of courses were in education. Until 2005 almost 80% of the distance learning courses were geared towards teachers. From 2006 onwards these characteristics began to change and the introduction of other courses, like administration, accounting, science and personnel management/human resources increased. Nonetheless, even today half of the courses are still in the area of education.


The number of people taking undergraduate courses through distance education increased a stunning 37’896% between 2000 and 2012.

Completed undergraduate studies chartsource:

Currently, even Brazilians who live in very remote locations, far away from major cities (in extreme cases in locations which can only be reached by boat trips lasting several days), and where the operation of a university would not be sustainable, have access to undergraduate courses thanks to distance education.

In 2012 the country had 1’148 undergraduate distance learning courses, with 1’329’407 student capacity offered, of which however only 542’633 were filled.

distance education curses graph

Kroton Educational Group isone of Brazil’s biggest providers of distance higher-education, with 150,000 students registered at nearly 500 centers nationwide. The most remote, with 300 students, is in Oriximiná in the Amazonian State of Pará, accessible only by light plane or a 12-hour boat ride from Manaus, the region’s main city.

Another, even bigger provider of distance higher-education is UNIP (Universidade Paulista) with its 480 centers spread all over Brazil and has over 200.000 registered students. Only the State of Roraima doesn’t count with a center of this group, which offers in its portfolio over 30 different undergraduate and technical courses.

Above map depicts the locations throughout Brazil with distance education courses from UNIP
Above map depicts the locations throughout Brazil with distance education courses from UNIP.

In 2012 from a total of 1’148 courses 45% were offered by public universities and 55% by private institutions at tuitions much more affordable then classroom courses. According to the Anhanguera University a distance education course costs in average only 45% of a classroom course, which turns these courses at the same time into a possible alternative for less well-to-do Brazilians, who do not succeed in entering a public university. In order to enable students from low income conditions to also have access to distance learning courses, the Brazilian Government may pay the full or partial cost of these courses through its specific scholarship program PROUNI.


Courses beyond the undergraduate level are also expanding throughout Brazil. Every year more private companies dealing with education offer distance education courses for different specializations, whereof some are recognized by the Brazilian Ministry of Education.

In the last few years public universities have started offering nationwide Master’s Degree programs for working professionals in the following areas: Mathematics, Physics, Languages, Arts, History and Public Administration. Although these courses are a combination between distance and classroom education, since the students have to periodically attend onsite seminars at university. The CAPES (Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education) directorate for distance education is responsible for these kinds of courses which were established by the Brazilian government with the goal of improving education for children through teacher training.

Considerations from Brazilian voices:

Local observers agree that new technology facilitates distance learning and provides inclusive opportunities for students otherwise unreachable. At the same time these observers emphasize the need for an individual interaction between students and educators.

Educational challenges cannot be overcome with technology alone

In general Brazilians feel that distance learning at undergraduate level is not viewed favorably by recruiters. Research conducted in January 2014 by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (Ibope), and commissioned by the National Confederation of Industry (CNI), reveals that 73% of Brazilians aged 16 or older fully or partly agree that the labor market values those professionals who attended regular university courses more than those who went through distance learning. The acceptance of technology-mediated courses rises for graduate level degrees. This circumstance may influence an effective broadening of high quality MOOCs in these latitudes or prompt the need to adapt to regional needs, respectively.

MOOCs are a new form of distance learning, born of inexorably high tuition costs. MOOCs provide first rate educational knowledge transmitted by internationally recognized capacities at practically no cost, and that’s their main point – rather than distance education. However under these conditions they do not confer a formal title. In this regard MOOCs are not a simple equivalent of distance learning, since the latter has a long tradition in sparsely populated parts of the world where public education is basically free.