Teachers in these remote barangays now lead 'digital classrooms'

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There are over 200 students in Cabugao Elementary School, where there is no electricity. They only use solar energy and generators for power. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The morning sun was already burning bright by the time we reached Cabugao, a small barangay in Coron. From Busuanga Island, where the city center is, it is accessible only by motorized boats, which have to tread the open waters of the Sulu Sea. Even at the height of summer, the waves were strong, threatening to turn over our boat on either side.

The boat captain found it hard to navigate through the waters. One wrong move and we just might find ourselves having an unscheduled morning swim. Even with the shore in sight, it took us 20 more minutes until we reached the relative calm of the reef. A lone wooden dock serves as the entrance inland. The main priority was keeping our most important baggage — a large bag with five tablets, a 14-inch LED T.V., a smartphone, a pocket-wifi with a starter load, a charger, and a solar panel — from getting wet.

Our destination, Cabugao Elementary School, is 300 meters from the port, a few minutes walk. Apart from a few teenage boys hanging out at the makeshift lookout, there are only trees stretching as far as the eye can see. Further up, houses start to appear: one with a satellite dish, another with an April Boy Regino song leaking from tinny radio speakers. More houses dot the roadside closer to the school. The term has just ended, so some children were playing by the roadside.

School in a bag Musician and former Urbandub frontman Gabby Alipe carries the Smart School-in-a-Bag to Cabugao Elementary School in Coron, Palawan. The bag is donated through their record company, MCA Music, Inc. Photo by JL JAVIER

Cabugao Elementary School is built out of six one-storey buildings angled to face a dry, open ground. There are still students inside the classrooms, who are only in school for the turnover of Smart Communication’s School-in-a-Bag. The donor for Cabugao, MCA Music, Inc., is represented by musician and former Urbandub frontman Gabby Alipe, who has slung the bag to his back like an excited kid going to the first day of school.

As we settle to prepare for a short program prepared by the teachers and students, Darwin Flores, Smart’s department head for community partnerships, takes out a tablet to play with the kids. He opens the Batibot app, an interactive tool for pre-schoolers and low-level students. It is basically gamified learning: users are asked to arrange the alphabet by order, sound out words, and, like a typical Pinoy activity, engage in karaoke-style participation. The children huddle around Flores, picking up on the app’s touch screen mechanics in just a few strokes — even though some of them have never handled their own smartphones or tablets.

Tech-savvy kids from toddlers to pre-adolescents are called ‘digital natives’ these days — a generation whose first few steps include touching a tablet or a phone. Their curiosity to fumble with a device seems almost innate and instinctive. But in Cabugao, gadgets are a rarity. There is no electricity and wifi. Power comes from solar energy or generators that run on gasoline. Some families — most of which belong to Palawan’s Tagbanua tribe — have members who own touch screen phones. “Halos wala pang sampu,” fourth grade teacher Juline Macoy says. But for the rest. who are still few, they usually have the basic candybar phones.

school in a bag Financial advisor Leah Avelino-Quimson with some students from Banuang Daan Elementary School in Coron, Palawan. Quimson donated a Smart School-in-a-Bag, portable digital classroom that facilitates access to education. The package includes five tablets, a LED T.V., and a laptop. Photo by JL JAVIER

Laptops and tablets, usually owned by the teachers, make appearances in class but as teaching instruments rather than personal luxuries. The class usually has to huddle in front of one small screen to see anything.

“[Kahit] lang nag-che-check lang ng attendance [at] nakaupo lang ako sa desk, nakatingin [ako] sa laptop ko,” says Macoy. “‘Yung ginagamit na din namin kasi [laptop] sa pag-check ng attendance, class report, lesson plan ...”

“Curious talaga sila sa technology,” she adds. “Hindi namin pipigilan sila  … andyan sila sa likod mo, kahit maiinitan ka na nagpapaypay sila sa likod mobasta sila ay magtingin.”

Krissa Dugan, the school’s information and communications technology (ICT) teacher, admits that the technology-focused element of the K to 12 curriculum — which has a grading period involving lectures on Google and basics such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint — has been difficult to implement in an area that has no electricity or internet. In the absence of the ideal one computer to one student ratio, Dugan brings her own netbook to class or uses images of the software and applications to demonstrate to the students — a problematic method since the lessons are supposed to be hands on.

According to a 2014 report by the Department of Education, there are 5,954 schools in the Philippines that do not have electricity. This means there are over a one million students in these schools who do not have access to basic technology necessary for learning.

“[Kahit ‘yung] basic lang, kung paano mag-operate ng computer,” shares Dugan. “‘Yung ‘pag nagsisimula tayo, ‘yung [mabagal] na hinahanap-hanap natin yung letter [sa keyboard]. Pero makita man nila yung mukha, hindi nila alam kung paano pindutin. Pagdating sa bayan paano nila mahahanap 'yun? Sa libro namin talaga picture lang.”

Since Dugan only has one small netbook, she usually has to stack a few books on her table so the whole class can see the computer screen.

Katulad nung [phases of the] moon [na lesson], nag-download ako. Ang ginamit ko PowerPoint, 'dun ko na siya tinuro. Kaya lang, maliit yung netbook namin….”

School in a bag Teachers from Cabugao Elementary School in Coron: Juline Macoy, Krissa Dugan, and Annabel Abadilla. Photo by JL JAVIER

Since the journey to Cabugao from the city center usually takes more than an hour by boat, the teachers stay in a cottage within the school’s premises for the rest of the week. Most of them live in the town center, where they usually download teaching materials for the class when necessary. Come Sunday, they take the boat back to the Cabugao.

Nakakatakot pa kapag alon ang kalaban mo tapos may dala kang laptop, masisira din,” says Dugan.

Naranasan ko yan,” relates Macoy. “Kakabili ko lang ng touchscreen na bagong model na computer, two months pa lang gamit ko [tapos nabasa]. Halos isang buwan akong ‘di naka-recover … ‘di ko na napaayos.”

Despite being in areas without electricity, these devices still serve as useful links to the rest of the world and, eventually, as tools for academic development when the students move to the city center to study high school. We’ve usually associated gadgets with leisurely whims — social networking, video streaming, and mobile games — but stripped down to their most important aspects, they are essential tools for learning.

 

 

According to a 2014 report by the Department of Education, there are 5,954 schools in the Philippines that do not have electricity. This means there are over a one million students in these schools who do not have access to basic technology necessary for learning.

Smart Communications commissioned its own study on the effect of managed use of tablets — only 30 minutes per session, three times a week — in kindergarten to boost literacy. According to the results, “students who used the tablets to learn the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors, and so forth showed higher improvement in cognitive (88% difference in test scores), affective (heightened interest in lessons, among others), and psychomotor learning domains versus students who did not have access to tablets.”

“What we’ve noticed is that even if the geography of the school changes — whether the school is in a coastal community or in the hinterlands or is an IP community — the reception and impact to the school is the same,” says Steph Orlino, Smart’s public affairs senior manager.

School in a bag Steph Orlino (second from left), Smart’s public affairs senior manager with Leah Avelino-Quimson (third from left) and the teachers of Banuang Daan Elementary School. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Because they do not have something as basic as power and they are in a remote community, they never imagined that they would ever receive and use and enjoy something like the School-in-a-Bag. So something (the laptop, tablets, internet) that children in the urban communities take for granted are considered priceless ‘gifts’ by these schools and their communities. Giving them access to information and knowledge becomes empowering and opens up their horizons and opportunities.”

The students and teachers in Coron Island belong to the underserved percentage of the education sector. Now that computer literacy is a vital skill required to advance in school, students who are not armed with the basics of usage and online research will find it hard to keep up with more knowledgeable students, a problem that Coron-based teacher Zyra Lew Galang relates.

Galang teaches in Banuang Daan, another elementary school in the island. To get to Banuang Daan from Cabugao, it takes another 45-minute boat ride or a hike across the mountains of Coron. Like Cabugao, Banuang Daan is also mostly home to Tagbanuas.

Hindi sila makasabay pero kung ganito na meron [nang mga tablet and laptop], engaged sila sa bagong technology … hindi na sila matatakot,” Galang says. “‘Yung iba po kasi nahihiya, bukod sa [indigenous people] sila, siyempre [may] discrimination. Paano namin ma-a-assess kung paano sila makakasabay sa bayan ‘yung isa sa mga naiisip namin [na gumamit ng] multimedia para kapag nagtuturo 'yung teacher, familiar sila. Naibigay na dapat sa Grade 6 yung basics eh, so yung secondary diretso na sila sa activities, so malaking malaking bagay [‘yung mga tablet at laptop] hindi sila ma-be-behind. At least makakasabay sila sa pag-aaral. Hindi na siya hindrance.”

School in a bag The campus of Banuang Daan Elementary School only has three buildings. The teachers are hoping that a fourth one will finish construction soon. Photo by JL JAVIER

Orlino and her team actually visited Banuang Daan last December and told the teachers that they’ll be coming back with a School-in-a-Bag. This time, the bag is sponsored by Leah Quimson, a private individual who has taken interest on the program since she heard it from Orlino, who happens to be a friend.

Quimson carried the bag to the school — a shorter walk from the dock compared to Cabugao. The school is composed of only three one-storey buildings. The teachers have prepared a ‘clubhouse’ nearby for the turnover ceremony. Galang later tells me that the ‘clubhouse’ is also used as the classroom for the sixth grade students. Banuang Daan still needs a few classrooms. DepEd is currently making one building but the remoteness of the area has caused delays in delivering materials.

Kapag umuulan, nababasa 'yung mga estudyante,” shares Galang. “Distraction din kasi daanan 'yung clubhouse. Mabagal kasi 'yung pagtayo ng classroom.”

Upon arrival, they hand us printouts of the turnover program — one page, printed back to back, with the words “School in a Bag project by Smart Philippines” in colorful Papyrus font. Like the teachers in Cabugao, they also use their own laptops for their classes. Late last year, they solicited for a school printer.

Pinush po namin talaga yung printer,” says Galang. “‘Yung mga kaibigan po namin sa bayan kinausap namin. Nag-request po kami na kailangan talaga ng school. Malaki din po ‘yung problema namin kung wala ‘yan. Halimbawa may exam po kami, hindi po kami makakapag-pa-exam, mga 2 to 3 weeks pa po kasi pupunta pa kami sa bayan para mag-print. Kapag meron na po, download na lang at mag-pi-print.”

“Kahit ‘yung basic lang, kung paano mag-operate ng computer,” shares Dugan. “‘Yung ‘pag nagsisimula tayo, ‘yung mabagal na hinahanap-hanap natin yung letter sa keyboard. Pero makita man nila yung mukha, hindi nila alam kung paano pindutin. Pagdating sa bayan paano nila mahahanap yun?"

Out of the 30 sixth grade students under Galang, only three of them has used a tablet. Some of the lower level students I talked to have also used smartphones owned by someone in their family. Like the ICT teacher in Cabugao, Galang also has problems in teaching computer literacy to her students.

Wala kaming kuryente dito,” says Galang. “So pag may mga assignment or requirements, more on [gumagamit ng] technology, kailangan nilang mag-research, hindi sila familiar. Hindi nila alam mismo kung ano yung computer, hindi nila alam i-operate. More on drawings lang nga kasi kami.”

Iba [talaga] kapag nakikita at nahahawakan nila, dun sa kinu-kwento at sinasabi mo lang,” she adds. “Mas mabilis silang matuto. Yung cellphone ko hindi ko na siya personal, sa kanila na rin. Kapag may mga kailangan po ako … kapag [nagtuturo ng] grammar, pinapanood namin [sa cellphone], [Ngayong] meron na kaming tablets at T.V., mas madali po. Mas malaki na yung screen, makikita na nila lahat.”

 

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As of 2017, Smart has released 18 bags to 19 schools across the country. The program only began in August 2016 and targets schools located in remote, even un-energized areas. Recipients are identified in coordination with local DepEd school division superintendents. Orlino and the team from Smart have encountered various permutations of difficulties in delivering the bags across the country.

“One of the experiences we will never forget is when we donated our first ever School-in-a-Bag to a school in the mountains of Tanay, RIzal,” shares Orlino. “We visited Rawang Elementary School last June and learned of their stories of challenges on travel and on handling classes of 162 students with just four teachers. Back then they had two concrete and two makeshift classrooms, all without electricity and water. The impact of the absence of power struck us the most when, during our solar power demo sessions, one of the female students was very hesitant at participating. The teacher told us that it was their first time to see an actual light bulb, and so more eagerly we encouraged the student to turn on the first light bulb in their school.”

School in a bag Zyra Lew Galang, a sixth grade teacher from Banuang Daan Elementary School. Photo by JL JAVIER

Another area they went to is a Dumagat school just in Antipolo City. The hike to the school took three hours and involved a long stretch of dangerous dirt road, which is just around 18 inches or one and a half ruler wide, with the mountain slope on one side and a steep drop on the other.

“Even with the fear of falling down the cliff, [it] was outweighed by the exhaustion we felt while hiking,” shares Orlino. “Our clothes and bags were all soaked in water when we crossed a river with a fairly strong current. At the top was the humble Dumagat Learning Center made through the bayanihan effort of the community, where they dedicated their Sundays to building it with mostly earth materials such as mud, rocks and bamboo reinforced by cement.”

Aside from the devices, the package also includes Dynamic Learning Program (DLP) learning activity sheets prepared by Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, Dr. Christopher Bernido and Dr. Ma. Victoria Carpio-Bernido; and a FrontLearners Learning Management System. These teaching tools encourage independent study to address the lack of classroom and teachers in the target areas. To facilitate the best use of these devices and programs, week-long trainings and immersions are provided to select teachers from the beneficiary school. To check back after several months, a third-party monitoring and evaluation team will hold evaluations and assessments to follow-up how the beneficiary schools have used the devices to boost student performance.

"We believe that technology is not the goal but a means to enable learning," says Orlino. "It is also not meant to replace the teachers but to support their teaching."

School in a bag Smart's School-in-a-Bag program started in August 2016. It targets schools located in remote, even un-energized areas. Recipients are identified in coordination with the local DepEd. Some of the package's contents include tablets, a laptop, a pocket WiFi with a starter load, a LED T.V., and a solar panel. Photo by JL JAVIER

Nung pagsabi pa lang [tungkol sa donations] hindi na kami makatulog,” says Galang with a laugh. “Tuwing nakahiga kami pinag-uusapan namin … ‘Ma’am anong gagawin, may tablet daw’ …tapos yung seminar … tapos yung grade six po tamang-tama, nabanggit ni ma’am ‘yung doon sa culture … pwede silang mag-download ng mga sayaw nilapwedeng i-share sa iba. Or yung mga bata mismo, tuturuan namin sila nung [Microsoft] Word, kung paano mag-research, kung ano yung kailangan nila.”

After each turnover, it is a marvel to witness how the children manage to quickly operate the tablets on their own. I wrap up my interview with Galang and already a group of second graders are watching a lesson in one of the tablets from the School-in-a-Bag. In the school grounds, under the shade of a tree, Quimson is teaching higher-level students how to use a tablet. Just a few meters in front of them, a makeshift stage is spruced up for tomorrow’s graduation. The decorations are simple: swathes of green cloth line the stage with the words “Pagkilala 2017” cut out in curly, vibrant cartolinas. A sense of excitement fills the air.

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For more information on how to donate, interested parties may send an email to TechnoCart@smart.com.ph or visit Smart's official website.