Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme

Country Profile: Colombia


47,120,770 (DANE, 2013)

Official Language


Other recognised languages

Quechua, Wayuu, Paez, Embera, sikuany, piapoco, curripaco, puinave, romani, among others (total: 65)

Poverty (Population living on less than 1.25 USD per day, 2000-2007)


Total Expenditure on Education as % of GDP (2011)


Primary School Net Enrolment/Attendance (2005–2009)


Total Youth Literacy Rate (aged 15 to 24 years, 2005–2008)

Male: 98%
Female: 98%
Total: 98%

Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2005–2008)

Male: 93.5%
Female: 93.7%
Total: 93.6%

Statistical Sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleVirtual Assisted Literacy Programme (Programa de Alfabetización Virtual Asistida, PAVA)
Implementing OrganizationNorth Catholic University Foundation (Católica del Norte Fundación Universitaria)
Language of InstructionSpanish
FundingNational Ministry of Education
Date of Inception1997 – present

Background and context


In 1991, the New Constitution of Colombia established that education was a human right that should be guaranteed by the State, society and family from pre-school to secondary school, or from five to fifteen years of age. Many other improvements in the country have been observed until today, as public expenditure on education has progressively grown from 2.8% to 4.8%. From 1985 to recent years, net enrolment in primary school has increased by 25%, reaching 90% of the Colombian children, the survival rate to Grade 5 has grown from 67% to 88% and the gross enrolment in secondary school has risen from 73 to 91%. Also, the adult literacy rate has significantly improved, especially when comparing the high percentage of 13.5% adults with no basic literacy and numeracy skills twenty-five years ago with the current average of 7%, similar to other more advanced Latin American countries with regard to literacy such as Uruguay and Argentina.

However, recent data show there are still approximately 2.3 million people aged 15 years or older who are illiterate. The greatest concentration of this target population falls among the most vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people, the poor and Afro-descendants. Disparities in different departamentos have also been reported: whereas in Antioquia the rate of adult illiteracy has fallen to 5.8%, in Choco there are as many as 20.1% of the adult population with no literacy (2003). In 1994, the National Congress passed the General Education Law which established the structure of educational services and provision to learners and educators, including financing, monitoring and evaluation. But it was only in 2002 that the National Ministry of Education (NME) took over the lead in youth and adult learning opportunities. As a result, the NME established the National Literacy Programme and Youth and Adult Basic Education (Programa Nacional de Alfabetización y Educación Básica de Jóvenes y Adultos).

This programme has been designed to increase the provision of flexible learning opportunities to youths and adults by articulating partnerships between the National Ministry of Education, Science and Technology with public, private and civil society organisations. On the government side, its role is to give the necessary support for the implementation of the literacy programmes in local service centres and to set the structure of the curriculum, known as the Special Integrated Academic Cycle. It is organised into six stages or “cycles” which are equivalent to certain levels of formal education and integrated in sequence for continuation through one stage after the other until the secondary level has been completed, as shown in the figure below.


A very interesting example of the implementation of this national programme at ground level is the service offered by the North Catholic University Foundation (Católica del Norte Fundación Universitária). Established in 1997 in Antioquia, the foundation’s primary aim is to provide virtual educational services to meet the country’s demand in highly-qualified human resources. As a pioneer in the field of virtual education in Colombia, the Católica del Norte, among its many initiatives, offers the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme (Programa de Alfabetización Virtual Assistida), an innovative approach to youth and adult learning due to the use of new information and communication technologies which promotes digital literacy not only to learners, but also to facilitators. This programme was awarded in 2010 with the Honourable Mention of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize for providing an inspiring and creative example of an effective literacy programme designed to serve and reach vulnerable groups with limited or no access to learning opportunities.

Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme

Aims and objectives

The programme endeavours to:

Programme implementation

The Católica del Norte works in partnerships with educational institutions which have implemented the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme in the city of Valledupa and throughout 45 municipalities located in five departments of Colombia – La Guajira, Bolívar, César, Santander, Antioquia – where there are high illiteracy rates especially among the vulnerable groups due to poverty, social exclusion and violence. The foundation selects educational institutions which have the capacity to offer classes within their communities. The role of the Católica del Norte is to provide trainings and materials and to oversee the quality of lessons and the progress of participants’ learning, while the institutions deliver the services at ground level and provide human resources and infrastructure (i.e. classes, desks, computer labs) for the classes.

Recruitment and training of facilitators

There are currently 460 facilitators working in the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme, the majority of whom are women, a fact that replicates the well-known gender bias in education roles in Latin American countries. Selection criteria include being a licensed teacher or in the final year of university studies working towards a teaching degree, having at least two years of teaching experience, demonstrating minimum experience using computers and the internet in order to successfully participate in the pre-service training, and finally, having general knowledge on theoretical and practical approaches to adult learning. Prospective facilitators are recruited by the educational institutions which send a list of candidates’ names to the departamento’s secretary of education, who is then responsible for the approval of the selected facilitators. Facilitators work with groups of 20–25 students each, for 10 hours per week – divided into 8 hours for classes plus 2 hours for meetings, teacher trainings and filling out progress reports – and they receive a total stipend of USD 1,300 per course disbursed in four instalments per year.

Facilitators are requested to participate in a pre-service training entitled Computer-based Tools for Youth and Adult Education which lasts 120 hours and contains three modules including techniques and methodologies, fundamental knowledge on pedagogy, adult learning, literacy and educational didactics. Training sessions are carried out by experts in the field of study they teach and aim to give facilitators an overview of their tasks and provide an introduction to the programme’s model as well as the content. It is also an opportunity to strengthen the participants’ abilities to operate computers and the technology they will be expected to master during the classes. The Católica del Norte additionally offers other professional development workshops on Technology and Entrepreneurial Skills, Strengthening the Quality of Education and Foreign Language.

Enrolment of learners

The programme targets youths and adults who are aged 15 or over and come from the lowest socio-economic groups in the country. Despite the non-existence of any major discrepancy between males and females with regard to literacy rates and access to education according to national data, the vast majority of learners are women. This could be explained by the great gender disparity in unemployment rates: 15.8% of females are outside of the labour force as opposed to 9.3% males (2009), a fact that allows illiterate women to have more time available to pursue education in contrast with their male counterparts. Furthermore, there has been evidence demonstrating that women tend to be more motivated than men when it comes to participating in literacy programmes. Female learners tend to perceive such classes as an opportunity to socialise as well as feeling more confident of being open about their basic educational needs. In 2010, almost 15,000 students were enrolled in the programme. Learners are recruited through communication media, such as television, radio and the internet, advertisements of secretaries of education and local educational institutions as well as home visits carried out by facilitators who directly invite member of their communities to enrol in the classes.

Teaching/learning approaches and methodologies

Classes last for approximately eight hours per week, totalling 230 hours spread across the year from March to December. The students spend half of the time on-site, whereas the remaining four hours are dedicated to individual and collaborative work on the computer in order to reinforce what was previously learned. Classes take place in the educational institutions, mostly during alternative timetables in the afternoons and weekends, since the classrooms are also used for formal primary schooling. Because students have very limited financial resources, their personal access to technology is very restricted. Therefore, the educational institutions offer computer labs where they can complete their four hours of independent work according to their own individual time availability.

The programme contains two phases: an initial phase where learners develop the basic writing, reading and numeracy skills which can be completed in 16 weeks, and the complementary phase, aimed to develop during the remaining 20 weeks the competencies and knowledge on social and natural sciences which are built on the basic skills previously developed. Overall, the programme aims to develop oral and written communication to improve learners’ interpersonal relationships and employability as well as enhancing their performance in ordinary daily activities. Learners are taught argumentative skills which enable them to reason about statements, provide arguments to support their view, develop a hypothesis and provide theories and concepts to establish a conclusion; they are taught critical thinking and problem-solving skills and the mastering of technologies, i.e. computer and the internet. In addition, the completion of the programme corresponds to the first stage or “cycle” of the Special Integrated Academic Cycle, which allows students to move on into the formal public educational system.

Classes on-site resemble traditional courses where facilitators and students work together in activities to enhance reading, writing and general knowledge through lectures and the use of textbooks. Each of the four subjects has its own textbook which includes not only theoretical content but also practical activities. Their titles are Language, Rediscovering the Wonderful World of Mathematics, Scientific Thinking and Social Changes. In virtual classes, on the other hand, students work independently on the computer, though they also receive instructions and help from the facilitators as well as being encouraged to engage with peers online. They use a multimedia CD with lessons and activities which include audios and videos using contents developed by experts in adult education from the Católica del Norte Fundación Universitaria and then reviewed and approved by the National Ministry of Education. Students also work with the Learning Virtual Environment (LVE), a software package designed for the delivery of e-lessons, promotion of collaborative work among peers and management of student progress.

Prior to the start of classes, students take a diagnostic assessment during which they have their writing and reading baseline skills evaluated in order to be assigned to the appropriate level matching their individual needs. There is also a mid-term language examination, which assesses the competencies acquired by learners in the initial phase of the programme, and a final exam which evaluates the students’ knowledge in the four areas (i.e. literacy, mathematics, social and natural sciences) as well as their computer skills. While the mid-term evaluation only assesses reading comprehension, interpretation, argumentation and analytical skills (language), the final exam also evaluates the four basic arithmetic operations (mathematics); general knowledge about nature (natural sciences); and understanding about democratic processes, human rights, family, state, society and geographical locations (social sciences). Both the mid-term and the final examination are paper-based, but it also include tasks on the computer, and they enable students who pass the exams to move on into stage or “cycle” two of the Special Integrated Academic Cycle. They also receive an official certification of completion of the third-grade level of primary school.

Funding support

The Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme is funded entirely by the federal government through the NME. In order to receive funding, each organisation, including the Católica del Norte, has to submit a basic budget of expenditure per student that includes detailed information about the costs for material, training for facilitators and technology. After the ministry has carried out a financial feasibility study in the target geographic area where the grant was submitted, both parties sign a contract which states the NME will provide the financial resources while the institution, in this case the Católica del Norte, will deliver the education services. The costs per learner in the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme equal USD122 and the expenditure per year is equivalent to USD1.7 million.

Monitoring and evaluation

Three different groups of actors are involved in the monitoring and evaluation of the literacy programme offered by the Católica del Norte: 1) the regional coordinators who are in charge of monitoring the activities and results, 2) facilitators and students and 3) a research group that evaluates the quality of the programme and the NME who compiles the data and uses them for tracking the progress of national educational policies and programmes’ implementations. Data are collected through classroom observations, field notes written by facilitators and bimonthly meetings with all the coordination staff. They are also compiled through the software, which enables facilitators and programme coordinators to track students’ learning progress by accessing information online regarding completed activities, completed lessons, grades and scores in assessments as well as statistics and participation in online discussion groups.

To date there has been no formal external evaluation. However, there are annual non-experimental evaluations designed to assess three features of the programme: 1) pedagogical aspects, such as student learning and progress, relevance of the programme to personal, family and social development; 2) organisational aspects, such as the quality of infrastructure (e.g. classroom and computer labs), student attendance and drop-out rates, the role of the manager and coordinators of the foundation and 3) training of facilitators, that is, the quality of the pre-service and professional development trainings, the performance of facilitators in teaching literacy and general content to facilitators and the associations between the training sessions and student learning. Results from these annual evaluations have found a reduction in illiteracy rates: in 2010, 1,765 students were promoted into stage or cycle two and, since the programme’s inception, 33,114 persons have successfully acquired literacy and numeracy skills as a result of their participation in the programme. The programme has benefited participants in many ways:


Católica del Norte has faced many challenges in the implementation of the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme including: limited accessibility to technology by participants after the completion of the programme preventing learners to keep using and enhancing their newly-acquired computer skills; limited governmental funding designated to literacy programmes; lack of motivation and interest in learning in the general society which influences individual participation in the programme and causes high rates of student drop-outs. In order to tackle these two latter obstacles, the foundation has developed and implemented a course on entrepreneurship aimed at increasing rates of class attendance, programme completion, integrating students into the labour world and providing an additional strategy to improve the participants’ quality of life and their employability.

Lessons learned

The key lesson learned by Catolica del Norte during these almost 15 years of experience in the implementation of the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme is that the use of technology combined with high-quality teacher training is effective in teaching literacy to youths and adults, especially those with restricted access to educational opportunities. The scope of the success of this programme has not been limited to the promotion of literacy. On the contrary, this initiative reaching out to underserved groups through the internet has also proved to be effective in promoting social mobility, allowing participants to acquire general knowledge by the use of newly-acquired literacy skills in combination with access to online newspapers, books and several other resources as well as improving their interpersonal relationships. Overall, this programme has shown that innovative non-formal education programmes can produce great improvements in the participants’ daily lives.


The Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme has demonstrated sustainability for various reasons. First, the virtual component employs the well-known Learning Virtual Environment, a scalable approach due to its simplicity, user-friendliness, promotion of self-service and independent access to courses and the management capacities which easily allow tracking of student learning. Second, Colombia not only needs literacy programmes as 7% of the youth and adult population still do not master basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, but it also has the capacity to implement such initiatives: 80% of departments and municipalities have educational institutions which can provide the appropriate infrastructure for the implementation of these projects. Third, the Virtual Assisted Literacy Programme has been presented to the Dominican Republic which has requested a pilot project with 1,000 participants that it is soon to be initiated. Fourth, the programme provides educational opportunities in accordance with the National Literacy Programme and Youth and Adult Basic Education, which guarantees complete and sustainable federal funding by law. Finally, the programme has increased its coverage since its inception in 2008, which started with only one pilot project in La Guajira with 350 participants. Due to its positive results, it has expanded its reach to five departments and 22,000 learners today.



Ricardo Nieto Rizo
Gerente PAVA y Coordinador Centros Aprende
Católica del Norte Fundación Universitaria
Telephone: +57 312 757 17 97
rnietor (at)

Last update: 23 December 2011