The question of giving brands a presence in institutes of learning is a controversial one. On the one hand, schools–particularly public pre-secondary institutions–are perennially in need of resources, resources that brands are often willing to provide in exchange for a modest presence in the classroom. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue against the idea that schools should be a place where students are free of any corporate persuasion. It’s a tough tug-of-war between ideology and real-world needs.
Open Door (Porta Aberta), a new Brazilian e-learning program developed by distance learning organization Eschola.com and the Central Coalition of Favelas (CUFA), dispenses with any such handwringing and invites brands to sponsor something the country desperately needs: free high-school equivalency education to people living in Brazil’s favelas.
The brainchild of Eschola founder and CEO Paulo Milet, Open Door is designed to tackle the issue of dropout recovery in Brazil. Milet says there are currently 22 million adults with only primary education or who haven’t completed high school, that 24 million have only completed secondary school, and of those who’ve entered college, 10 million have dropped out. Add to that the fact that 10% of the population, or 1 million people, drop out of high school every year and Milet says that educational liability is a significant problem for the world’s seventh largest economy.
To address the issue, the Brazilian government adopted in 2009 a national secondary exam called ENEM–like a combination of GED and SAT–that allows students to earn a high school degree and qualify to college at once. And with Eschola.com, which he established in 2001, Milet had already created a paid program where adult students could complete the high school curriculum. But when dealing with the 12 million people living in Brazil’s favelas, Milet knew there needed to be a different solution.
“When I decided to study the problem of education liability and understand its most serious issues, I was surprised by how huge the problem is. And it’s mostly in high schools,” says Milet. “We have a huge group of NEETs (No Education, No Employment, No Training) that don’t have jobs because they cannot find a position, so they end up choosing to remain in the informal economy, performing lower-level jobs. They know they have to go back to school but don’t have motivation or time to face a conventional classroom. And the challenge is that most of this population is very poor. A paid solution would never have scaled to solve the problem.”
Increased access to the Internet in the favelas is one of the factors that make a program like Open Door possible. Milet says recent studies have shown that more than half (around 52%) of those in favelas are online, and among 16- to 29-year-olds, 78% are connected.
Milet says there’s another factor that suggests this program will succeed. “In recent years there has been significant growth in the lower income classes, giving birth to what was called ‘the new class C.’ Now with a little more cash in their hands, they were able to join the economy and consume. With that also came much higher expectations for themselves, and their families, something only education could bring,” he says. “The favela-dwellers in Brazil represent an annual consumption of around $25 billion and growing. The will to shop and consume grew together with their income and gave them access to cars, credit, appliances, banking products, medicines, sophisticated food, and sporting goods, but also cell phones, computers, which gave them the access to this kind of education.”
Although the course is open to people living in any of Brazil’s favelas, the program is launching with a deeper pilot that includes courses and exercises as well as online support at Rocinha, the largest favela in Latin America. The project is being fully funded by CUFA and Eschola, though the intent is to expand to other favelas across the country with the support of corporate sponsors.
With the goal of reaching 1 million students a year over three years (at a cost of $6 USD per learner overall), Open Door is looking to attract $6 million in sponsorship over three years. Milet says he hopes to appeal to such sponsors two ways: as a marketing and social responsibility partnership, “Where the goal of the company is not to take direct financial benefits but to nurture the image of being responsible and caring for its community,” or as a way to forge a relationship with a broader 12-million-person market. Or as Milet says “to use the platform as a medium to talk to 12 million people with more money they have ever had.”
Launched in May and five years in the making, Milet says Open Door is more than an education program or a marketing play; instead, it’s a ultimately the manifestation of design thinking.
“If you think of the design as a way to use the latest technologies to better solve old problems, this is mostly a design project. It’s not as visual as, let’s say, a Nike FuelBand, but the impact is much greater because this project is changing the lives of many people, forever,” he says. “This is a project that involved redesigning the curriculum and access to the communities, rethinking and reinventing the business model of education to be able to do the right thing, and give free access to those who can’t pay. And last, but not least, social projects are a good way of storytelling; that is how advertising lives.”