FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 4, 2020 - 12:00am

How do we limit the damage this pandemic is inflicting on our young?

Our educational experts are scrambling to find a way to bring back some sort of structured learning without making our schools Petri dishes for infection. Since we are just not ready for the traditional face-to-face classroom interaction, our education officials are now speaking about “blended” learning.

Online registration for the next school year is now going on even as no one is really sure when the new school year will get underway. COVID-19 infection rates have gone down but not quite dramatically enough to think of bringing our youth back to the classrooms.

Our revered school calendar begins in June, unsynchronized with the rest of the world. That will certainly not happen this year.

If we have to wait until August to open our schools, we might as well synchronize our academic calendar with the rest of the world. This is the unique opportunity to do so.

If our traffic managers have used the opportunity of the pandemic to move the bus lanes on Edsa from the rightmost to the leftmost lanes (as well as reconfigure the routes), it should be a simple matter to reinvent our school year. Some of our best universities, after all, have years ago adjusted their school calendars to be in synch with the rest of the world.

In a world of constant movement across borders, it is important to synchronize educational schedules. For too many years, young Filipinos lost a year of schooling when their families had to move.

Still, no one seems to have a clear idea about what “blended” learning looks like.

Our educational system is laboring under multifold deficiencies. We have had teacher and classroom shortages for years. We do not have the broadband or the gadgets to make distance learning workable for millions of our students. Our internet service is slow and is completely unavailable in remote areas.   A great number of our young are unfamiliar with digital technologies.

From the snippets we have heard from our education officials, “blended” learning will involve the rapid production of teaching materials to support home schooling, the use of the barangay framework to distribute them, commandeering of internet cafes for educational use and mass distribution of Wi-Fi devices.

There has also been some talk of commandeering a sequestered television station for use in the “blended” learning effort. That channel, however, has limited reach.

To be sure, television is among the most widely used communications device we have. But still no one has come up with a clear proposal on how this might be used to support disrupted classroom work. We are trying to shift to “distance learning modalities” with a lot of handicaps.

One outfit that has some experience in using television as a medium for learning is ABS-CBN’s Knowledge Channel. Rina Bautista, CEO of Knowledge Channel offers its services to the DepEd’s thrust towards “blended” learning. This channel, she says, “can play a valuable role in reaching as many children as possible if it is allowed to reopen.”

Knowledge Channel has long been providing curriculum-based programs for different subjects for 20 years now. These programs are tailored for the K-12 students. The channel’s studies show that when classroom sessions are paired with its alternative learning system, children’s absorption improves by as much as 45 percent.

The shuttered network covers 19 million out of our 21 million households. It claims to exclusively serve three million households in “missionary areas” – those locations so remote and inaccessible that the only programs they can access on their radio and television sets are from ABS-CBN.

Bautista thinks the curricula suited for distance learning can most effectively be rolled out through the ABS-CBN network. With only 18 percent of the country’s households having internet access, TV and radio remain the most dominant media for reaching them. The challenge at the moment is how to produce suitable content supportive of distance learning.

Knowledge Channel is not readily available, however. The franchise it holds for the bandwidth it uses expired early May. The grant of a new franchise is a matter caught up in a different set of considerations entirely separate from the network’s potential to support distance learning.

In the “blended” learning now being fleshed out by the DepEd, it appears that the greater instruction load, at least over the next few months, will be through distance learning modalities. Education Secretary Leonor Briones described TV and radio as the “classic long-line approaches” that can be used to transmit instruction programs.

We might have lesser problems if we pushed through with the National Broadband Network (NBN) proposed over a decade ago. The NBN could have served as the medium for linking all classrooms to a single digital network. Through this medium, instructional packages could be produced from a central point and downloaded to all the schools instantly.

But we do not have the NBN. Our schools are not digitally networked. We have to improvise with what is available. And what we have available to deliver education packages to our children kept away from schools by a pandemic are the “traditional” broadcast channels.

Some hard decisions will have to be made over the next few days over how to proceed with “blended” learning given the severe limitations on our available resources. We can only hope our educational officials find a way to get this done.

Nothing fully substitutes for classroom instruction. But if we fail to deliver some suitable “blended” alternative, our children will lose a year of school.

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