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Will the remote school system work?

By: Isabel Escoda - @inquirerdotnet - Inquirer.net | August 01,2020 - 10:17 AM

There’s a school in Mactan called Einstein School Cebu that is welcoming students for the new school year. It’s apparently been educating children from pre-school to high school for some time. Now it boasts of new technology infrastructure providing enhanced internet facilities. It says it’s invested in supplementary learning applications used worldwide, accessed via e-Cloud from the United States. It claims it’s capable of managing up to 1,000 students simultaneously.

Using Einstein’s name for a school in this country implies that it aims to produce geniuses. One wonders why a local genius’ name like Rizal wasn’t used instead. Perhaps that was considered too pedestrian as there are lots of companies, institutions, places, and products using our national hero’s name. So a Western genius’ name was found more appropriate.

All this sounds wonderful for a developing country being ravaged by a pandemic. But one has to be aware, as Cebu SunStar columnist Bong Wenceslao wrote recently, that online education “… will only serve to worsen the already elitist setup in our educational system. Only children of the upper middle and upper crust of society will be able to survive it… marginalized (parents) need to be ready to let the crisis pass and forgo their children’s education, if worst comes to worst.”

With classes due to start on Aug. 24, the Department of Education (DepEd) promises to provide a system employing a “blended learning scheme” for teaching online, by TV and radio utilizing “printed modular materials containing self-learning kits and worksheets.” The DepEd said it’s working with the Presidential Communications Operations Office for the use of radio and TV for remote learning. Now that ABS-CBN has been axed, this may be problematic. The blended learning scheme is full of pitfalls since none of it has been tried before, and teacher training will require much creativity and energy to make it succeed.

As of July, the DepEd has announced that an estimated 20.22 million students nationwide have enrolled, three-fourths of last year’s enrollees. Hoping the one-fourth will not fall by the wayside, it has put provisions in place for late enrollments. To calm the prevailing pessimism among many families, authorities are struggling to ensure they can handle the myriad problems involved in a remote school system.

Surveys have been made to determine the estimated number of cell phones in the country, a crucial point in a country whose 100 million population has a median age under 23. Poor internet connectivity is pervasive, but the Department of Information and Communications Technology said it has earmarked P7.7 billion in its proposed 2021 budget for the implementation of a Free Wi-Fi for All program in public places, state colleges, and universities.

In the province of Cebu, only 17.29 percent of 537,487 enrolled elementary school students have internet connection. Students with devices in other provinces may also be bedeviled by recurring brownouts. A question is how students who don’t own devices (whose parents can’t afford to buy them) will cope. And what if parents are ignorant of the new technology?

One hope is that the private sector will step in and provide the needed equipment. But in today’s harsh economic times, how many companies will be willing philanthropists?

This brings to mind a project by Nicholas Negroponte back in 2005. He’s the younger brother of John Negroponte, who was US ambassador to the Philippines from 1993-1996. Nicholas Negroponte had a vision of providing laptops for children “in the South.” Connected to the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he conceived of a project he called OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) for children in poor countries. A prototype was made, and the final product costing only $100 per laptop was promoted. Thousands were produced and sent to certain Latin American and African countries. It seemed a great idea, but there were glitches. Negroponte was called a utopian visionary, and critics called his device impractical and too US-centric.

Earlier in 2000, American John Wood set up the Room to Read program, which built schools and libraries in poor countries, aiming to promote literacy and gender equality. In all, he helped 16.6 million children in 16 countries. Then there was Books for the Barrios, set up by an American couple specifically for the Philippines. Their work involved collecting discarded books from American schools and shipping them to our remote barrios. It prospered by means of fundraisers and contributions by Fil-Ams in the United States, but support dwindled over the years.

So will the government fail Filipino children? Is the DepEd truly prepared for the huge task ahead? One danger is that overambitious plans will come to naught if the authorities don’t consider the 6 Ps: “Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.”

Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.

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