No one left behind
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most difficult challenges facing us as a nation is how to resume the education of our children and youth when gathering them in their classrooms remains very risky. The Department of Education (DepEd) is planning on the use of online platforms, blended learning, and televisions and radios. But serious questions hound the feasibility and effectiveness of these delivery modes for learning. How ready are we to implement these modes of delivery? How ready is the DepEd with the substance and content for online, television, or radio-transmitted learning modules needed for all levels of basic education from Grades K to 12? But a more prior question is: How sure are we that we could reach all school-aged children around the country with these modes of delivery, and ensure that no student is left behind?
Cymon Kayle Lubangco, in a Policy Brief of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development, looked at the data to get a sense of the last question. He used the Family Income and Expenditures Survey (FIES) of 2015, the latest such data set available, which is a good basis to assess the accessibility to our families of the various distance learning delivery modes. The data also give the number of households with members attending school (I will call them “schooling households”), which numbered 15.8 million or 69.5 percent of all households in the country. Using the FIES, Lubangco compiled data on the percentage of schooling households that have access to the internet, or own a personal computer, cell phone, television, or radio.
The data revealed that only 9.8 percent of the 15.8 million schooling households spent for internet access in 2015, with all but four regions having the percentage in the single digits. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao had a miniscule 0.3 percent of schooling households with internet access, while eight other regions had less than 5 percent. Metro Manila had the highest percentage at 24.3 percent, but this level of access is still surprisingly low, given the high level of information and communication technology infrastructure therein. This suggests that cost has been a significant barrier to internet access.
Meanwhile, only 25.4 percent of schooling households in the country had at least one personal computer in 2015. Television and radio ownership was much higher, with TV ownership (79.2 percent) actually about twice as high as radio ownership (40.5 percent). But the highest rate of ownership was for cell phones, at 89.2 percent. Even so, one can surmise that smartphones with internet and graphics capability needed for distance learning would be substantially lower.
Looking across income groups, Lubangco found that it’s only the richest 20 percent of schooling households who have substantial internet access, at 40 percent, even as 76 percent of them owned personal computers—again suggesting that cost is a barrier. For the poorest 20 percent, cell phones were the most accessible, with 75 percent of the schooling households owning one, while access to TV and radio was only 51 and 32 percent, respectively.
What do all of these imply? First, it is clear that in a “new normal” of greater distance learning, a substantial portion of our school-age children and youth could indeed be left behind, unless access to the internet and the devices used to access it is made much more equitable. It could entail free distribution of devices (some local governments have already announced intentions to distribute internet-enabled tablets to all their students), but will require provision of free internet access as well.
Second, the government needs a strong partnership with media partners, especially to develop content delivered through TV and radio, where the latter have developed the expertise to communicate effectively to intended audiences for maximum impact. Yet it has just “killed” the one local media partner that is most advanced in this area.
Third, we need to plan for the hordes of teachers likely to be displaced by the shift from classroom to distance learning. They may yet be the biggest victims to be left behind.
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