Digital readiness
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 3, 2020 - 12:00am

That was a telling scene at the Senate public services committee’s online hearing last Wednesday, on the digital readiness of the country especially for the blended learning planned for the new school year.

As usual in the time of COVID, the hearing was conducted by videoconference, with officials of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and National Telecommunications Commission as well as telcos executives as the resource persons. The connectivity, however, kept breaking down, until the senators gave up after an hour and suspended the hearing.

Perhaps amid the pandemic, too many people worldwide are relying on Zoom, StreamYard and the other platforms for videoconferencing and livestreaming. The quality of both video and audio is a long way from even regular (not high-definition) TV broadcasting, but we can live with this for now, as TV studios mostly remain shuttered to prevent coronavirus transmission.

The connectivity glitches are harder to live with. I’m on StreamYard five times a week for “The Chiefs” on One News / TV 5 and there are always technical glitches, some minor, some so bad we have had to prematurely bid guests goodbye.

So I can understand the misgivings being expressed regarding the readiness of the country for blended and alternative learning modes, which will rely heavily on ICT.

As of yesterday, however, the Department of Education remained firm on the Aug. 24 opening of the 2020-2021 school year. DepEd continues to recruit 10,000 additional teachers. It is pushing DepEd Commons, the online platform for public school teachers to support distance learning modalities.

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Proponents of blended learning argue that if we wait for the country to be fully ready, the program may never push through. And if it’s not possible, can we risk face-to-face classes when there is still no vaccine or cure for COVID?

Thailand, for example, has resumed face-to-face classes, with social distancing enforced through the installation of physical barriers. Perhaps classrooms and common areas for the youngest students, from kindergarten to third grade, can use dividers designed like toys to ensure physical distancing among the children throughout the school day.

The alternative, if we dare not risk school children’s health and we’re not ready for blended learning, is to suspend classes for a year – which is what parents who refuse to enroll their children for the 2020-2021 school year are proposing.

Obviously, a one-year postponement is the safest alternative in terms of public health. As for economic health, this would put about 1.3 million teachers out of work for a year and likely force the shutdown of many private schools. Can we afford that kind of disruption in formal education and livelihoods?

The Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations, composed of over 2,500 private educational institutions nationwide, has estimated that the sector would lose P55.2 billion in earnings if the school opening is pushed to August, and a whopping P142.1 billion if classes don’t open for a year. COCOPEA says there are nearly 410,000 teachers, faculty and school personnel in private educational institutions all over the country.

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Some local government officials are taking matters into their own hands and forging ahead, preparing for blended learning using local resources.

Several local government units in Metro Manila, for example, are allocating hefty chunks of their budgets to procure computers for teachers and students alike, and to boost internet connectivity especially in low-income areas.

Provision of the equipment requirements is complemented by programs to train teachers on the new learning modalities. Dry runs are being planned before the programs are rolled out on Aug. 24.

That’s less than two months away, but the can-do mayors believe the period of preparation will be enough. Aside from providing computers and internet access, the mayors are partnering with telecommunications and broadcast companies in their areas for distance learning, in coordination with the DepEd.

For local executives outside highly urbanized centers, however, the blended learning challenge can be daunting. Ormoc Mayor Richard Gomez points out that his city doesn’t have the wealth of Makati, for example, to give away tablets. Internet connectivity is unreliable in Ormoc and in many areas non-existent, he said.

Gomez, in a recent interview with “The Chiefs” on One News / TV 5, also pointed out that even going house to house to distribute learning modules is a challenge in areas such as Ormoc, where many people live in hard-to-reach mountain villages.

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If the government wants to sell blended learning and persuade more parents to enroll their children, DepEd can present to the public ASAP a dry run or pilot test in a highly urbanized area, and another in a rural community. I think there are local government executives who will be ready and cooperative, and will want to present their cities or towns as showcases of formal education in the time of COVID.

Even if glitches mar the test, these will show the areas needing further tweaking.

The rollout of blended learning can be complemented by the recent launch of a DICT program to develop 25 “digital cities” across the country by 2025.

Called “Digital Cities 2025: A Brighter Future Awaits in the Countryside,” the project aims to create more locally available jobs in ICT and business process outsourcing.

The 25 cities or city clusters are Balanga, Batangas, Cabanatuan, Dagupan, General Santos, Iligan, Iriga, Laguna cluster (San Pablo, Calamba and Los Baños), Laoag, Legazpi, Malolos, Metro Cavite (Bacoor City, Imus and General Trias), Metro Rizal (Taytay, Cainta, Antipolo), Olongapo, Puerto Princesa, Roxas, San Fernando in La Union, San Fernando in Pampanga, San Jose del Monte, Tacloban, Tagbilaran, Tarlac, Tuguegarao, Urdaneta and Zamboanga.

Perhaps one or two of the cities can be chosen for the blended learning pilot test. The DepEd can show that it means what it says, that parents who can’t afford to buy gadgets for online education need not worry because their children will have alternative modes of learning.

Seeing the possibilities can reduce parents’ misgivings about the little known blended learning mode.

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