Not-so-funny comedy of errors
For individuals and groups caught in the midst of quarantine regimes in this season of COVID-19, social media has proven to be a godsend.
Families, friends, workmates, networks, and potentially even public audiences have broken through the barriers of social distancing by way of applications that allow for virtual exchanges.
Even without personal appearances or face-to-face sharing, people have been able to come together, be it in personal conversations, virtual meetings and conferences, and even social events like weddings, graduation, wakes, and funerals.Indeed, social media has eased many of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, technology brought to bear on the novel challenges of an outbreak overwhelming humanity.
Perhaps it was the potential promised by social media that convinced Duterte officials to push through with plans to open the new school year even if the coronavirus threat poses harm to millions of Filipino students. Their optimism is anchored largely on the promise of social media, with e-learning supposedly making it possible for teachers to virtually recreate the classroom experience.
But two recent incidents involving Senate hearings on—ironically enough—the connectivity issues bedeviling our internet infrastructure have cast a shadow on the future.
As thousands of internet subscribers and users can very well testify, connectivity in these islands is spotty at best, with the Philippines “enjoying” 21 mbps compared to the global average of 74.74 mbps, according to the Speedtest Global Index last April.
In terms of mobile internet speed, the country was ranked a dismal 121 out of 139 countries, averaging 12.09 mbps or far below the global average of 30.89 mbps.
These dismaying figures and their implications on the country’s internet capability were appallingly on display in the two recent incidents that had senators clenching their teeth in frustration and left the audience teetering.
Last week, during a virtual hearing of the Senate basic education committee, Sen. Francis Tolentino called on Deputy Commissioner Edgardo Cabarios of the National Telecommunications Commission to testify on the commission’s plans to coordinate with state-owned broadcast networks. This was regarding the country’s preparedness to shift to online learning.
But Tolentino was met only with silence, asking plaintively if the NTC official was on the other end of the line and then complaining that there “was no signal.” “That’s a very good omen,” the senator commented, as laughter filled the hearing room.
Earlier this week, it was Sen. Grace Poe’s turn to be “victimized” by the “technical issues” bedeviling the country’s internet network. After the Senate’s server failed to access the internet, she resorted to using her son’s video conferencing account, but even then the video and audio were spotty.
Even representatives of different telecommunications firms attending the hearing experienced the same glitches. It was, said the senator, a “comedy of errors.” But she promised that the hearings on the issue would not stop there, threatening to summon telco officials to come personally to future hearings.
It sure doesn’t augur well for the country’s public school students, faculty, and administrators who will be relying on e-learning even as the country’s poor internet infrastructure has been proven so dramatically and publicly at two Senate hearings, and even as teachers and the families of students complain about the lack of computer equipment and signals, or at least smartphones and money for internet load, for the so-called “blended learning” approach.
Meanwhile, a proven approach to distance learning stands imperiled as the contentious hearings on ABS-CBN’s franchise application continue to drag on.
For 21 years now, the Knowledge Channel, run by ABS-CBN, has been providing, for free, curriculum-based learning materials to students in far-flung areas unreached by advances in media technology. Some 250,000 public school students are benefiting from this partnership between Knowledge Channel Foundation Inc. and SKYdirect, SKY’s direct-to-home satellite TV service, but stand to lose this vital link should the franchise issue prove insurmountable.
One wonders what Kool-Aid the folks at Malacañang, the Department of Education, and allied bodies like the NTC and the Department of Information and Communications Technology are drinking. How can they believe that, contrary to all evidence including the hilarious Senate committee hearings, the country is ready for the “new normal” of learning, blended or not, in these fraught times? The issues they must first address are pressing and basic: connectivity, then affordability, then the capability of our teachers and students—and of the country—to take full advantage of developments in communications technology.
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