COVID-19 Watch Features Spotlight

Distanced Learning: How Philippine socioeconomic realities increase the gap to education

For many underprivileged Filipino students, access to online education is still a luxury.

Maria*, a second-year college student from a university in Manila, says that online classes have only made her mentally exhausted and have given her increased anxiety.

According to her, the university is far from prepared in its transition to online classes. The university failed to take into account that some of its students do not, among other things, have the financial capability to partake in online classes. She adds that her university does not have any plans or campaigns to financially support the students disadvantaged by online classes. 

Hindi lahat ng students ay may privilege na makapag online class. At tsaka we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. Mas importante pa ba to?

(Not all students have the privilege to take online classes. And we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. Is this more important?)

Before the university rapidly implemented online classes, numerous student leaders have been echoing the students’ call to postpone online classes but their voices were ignored, she says.

She adds that since some degree programs require hands-on experience, online classes are not a viable option. Maria suggests that classes should be postponed until it is safe to conduct face-to-face classes again.

”Students of the current generation have already suffered through myriads of education-related experiments that have generally been unsuccessful. The government, CHED, DepEd, and academic institutions should listen to students as they are the ones who are actually attending classes,” says Maria.

Meanwhile, Nene*, a college student in Mindanao, is worried that she may experience difficulties in online learning as she relies only on her smartphone and a Wi-Fi vending machine near her home to access the internet. 

Both of her parents lost their jobs during the pandemic. Hence, she says that paying to have a stable internet connection is not their top priority. She also says that her university cannot financially support them at present. Spending for online classes would affect their family’s budget for food and essentials, she adds.

Workers and commuters falling in line before passing through a checkpoint along the border of Metro Manila. Philippines posted 45.5% unemployment rate in July equivalent to 27 million jobless adults, according to Social Weather Station (SWS) (Photo from Bloomberg)

Nene also says that her home is not a conducive environment for learning.

”I live in a village where people don’t really give a damn about what you are doing even though they are bothering you as long as they can do whatever they want with their lives,” says Nene

Furthermore, she claims that she has already been mentally unsound before the pandemic and that the stressful preparation for online classes is putting her mental health at risk.

“The government should hear our cries. Online classes [are] not for everyone,” says Nene.

The ongoing health crisis has put academic institutions in an unprecedented and unprepared situation. The imposed physical distancing and quarantine measures to curb the spread of the virus, have caused face-to-face classes to be suspended. In response, schools are adapting distance learning. However, Maria and Nene’s experiences prove that the shift to distance learning from traditional face-to-face classes have issues that the government and academic institutions must solve.

Distance learning is the home-based education of students who are not physically present in a classroom, through various media such as online, television, or printed materials. Most if not all tertiary institutions are either already conducting distance learning or are planning to do so mainly through the use of online classes.

In light of the continuation of classes on October 5, the Department of Education (DepEd) is said to implement distance learning in three different ways: online classes, printed modules, and broadcast lessons through television or radio. Among the three, modular learning is the most preferred by parents according to a survey conducted by DepEd.

Grounding on material conditions reported before and calls coming from other sectoral organizations, such as the Rise for Education (R4E), and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), there are four concerns that the administration of academic institutions must address in implementing distance learning. First is the ability of students and teachers alike in all sectors to access methods of distance learning. Second is the effectiveness of distance learning methods in educating students.Third is the ability of the government and academic institutions to facilitate and sustain the conduct of distance learning with their available resources. The fourth is the health and safety of all involved in distance learning amid the pandemic.

Online Classes Accessibility

Jessica* is conducting a #PisoParaSaLaptop campaign in social media to raise funds for equipment such as smartphones and laptops to use in online classes, not only for herself but for other students as well. With the quarantine measures having severely affected their parents’ livelihood, Jessica’s and the two other students’ parents cannot afford equipment for online classes. But through their campaign, they were able to buy two smartphones and a laptop in only the first four days.

While Jessica’s story may be considered a story of success and overcoming difficulty, the story of a student from Albay is completely different. Worried about expenses for online classes, the 19-year old incoming grade 9 student ended his own life shortly after preventing the suicide of a fellow student. In response, the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) slammed the government’s plan to conduct online classes.

“While the national government pushes flexible learning in the upcoming school year, lack of enough resources may reduce flexible learning to purely online classes which are anti-student. It must be understood that these unusual educational adjustments are rooted in the lack of medical solutions in the response of the Duterte administration to the pandemic,” NUSP said. (READ:[TW: suicide] Grade 8 student dies of suicide)

Two months later, another 21-year old student also from Albay committed suicide because he was unable to enroll in school. The student expressed his willingness to enroll, but his mother had to tell him to temporarily stop schooling this year because of poverty and problems brought by the pandemic.

“These two [suicide cases] are not isolated cases but are direct results of a broken education system that remains highly commercialized and exclusive, made even worse by the government’s incompetence and inutile response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” NUSP added. 

One clear disadvantage of online classes is that the equipment necessary for it comes at a greater cost than the books, pen, and paper used in traditional face-to-face classes. There are a great number of students as well as teachers that are unable to easily shell-out gadgets due to financial reasons.

Not only do students and teachers have to deal with the expenses of the equipment, but they also have to face expenses and problems relating to internet connection. DepEd said that only 67 percent of the Philippine population have access to the internet.

The average download speed for fixed broadband in the Philippines, which is ranked 109th fastest in the world, is a woeful 25 megabits per second (Mbps)—much less than the global average of 81 Mbps, and the average of neighboring Vietnam at 56 Mbps.

Some places in the Philippines do not even have internet connection at all. A number of students and teachers have gone through extreme measures such as camping out in upland areas, climbing trees, and even climbing mountains in order to find an adequate mobile signal and connect to the internet. 

Teachers in Leyte climbed up mountains in search of phone signal, in order to pass their paperworks online. It is expected that many students and teachers will resort to such extreme measures, due to poor internet access in some parts of the country. ( Photo from Joseph Sumayang)

Even the University of the Philippines (UP) has admitted that at least 5,600 of its students cannot afford online classes. Meanwhile, in a survey conducted by the UPLB University Student Council (USC), two out of five student-respondents said they do not have stable internet connections, while 1 out of 5 said they lack the equipment necessary for remote learning.

The sub-par quality of distance learning

“Three months na kaming nag o-online class pero parang wala pa rin akong natutunan.”

(We have been taking online classes for three months now, yet I feel like I have learned nothing.)

Those were the sentiments of Maria, on the effectiveness of online classes. In her experience, the face-to-face classes she has been accustomed to were more effective than the online classes she takes right now.

According to her, it has been challenging to focus on lessons in online classes, and there are problems in communicating with her professors due to limited internet connectivity, making it hard for her to ask questions freely and effectively. Without the distractions that are present in her home, she says that it is far easier to focus on the lesson in face-to-face classes.

Likewise, Jaime Rafael Ledesma, an instructor in UPLB, believes that aside from being less interactive, online classes feel uncomfortable, distracting, disadvantageous, and do not provide the same learning experience that face-to-face classes offer.

Meanwhile, in another survey conducted by the UPLB USC, 4 out of 5 respondents said they do not have a home fit for online learning.

Though true that some educational institutions such as open universities have been successful in implementing online classes, the objective of the current system of online learning, designed as stop-gap measures to ride out the pandemic, is not the same as that of the everyday online learning system of open universities that had been formulated from the outset—to pose as a permanent alternative to the conventional face-to-face methods.

UP Open University, the pioneer in online education in the country. From May 25 to 29, 2020, they hosted free courses regarding remote learning in an attempt to boost competency of teachers while transitioning to online classes. (Photo from UPOU)

According to researchers, it is unlikely that institutions currently making the transition under our current situation will be designing their system to take full advantage of the benefits and potential of distance learning.

The researchers further say that effective online learning results from careful design and planning. However, with minimal resources and meager time, this careful design and planning may be absent in most cases in the current stop-gap implementation of online classes. From planning, to preparation, and eventually, to development, the creation of an online course requires time. The strategy of DepEd and tertiary institutions in rushing to implement online classes during the pandemic, while seemingly necessary, may further diminish their quality of instruction. 

There are also some courses designed for face-to-face classes that are impossible to adapt for online delivery because of their very nature. An example of these classes are laboratory classes which require equipment only physically accessible in laboratories, hands-on learning, and the close guidance of an instructor. Other obvious examples are physical education and tertiary-schools service programs.

While DepEd is offering alternatives to online classes, Raymond Basilio, a Philippine History teacher and secretary-general of ACT, said that with the Philippines already struggling to meet teaching standards with in-classroom education, modular and radio-based instruction might worsen current concerns, pointing out for example, that radio-based learning does not allow for interaction with students. (READ: The Philippine Gov’t Wants Distance Learning for Public School Students. It’s Far From Ready.

Likewise, one teacher from a public school in Quezon city is apprehensive about the quality of learning that modules provide, as they do not allow interaction between student and teacher. Kabataan Partylist also said that modular learning burdens students and parents as it leaves them with having to ensure the continuity of quality learning processes on their own. Furthermore, the quality of a test broadcast of a DepEd TV-based learning program suffered from questionnaires with grammatical errors.

Readiness for Distance Learning 

Teachers and non-teaching staff, have had to carry the burden of rushing to conduct distance learning. (READ: UPLB profs share struggles of shifting to online learning)

A survey conducted by ACT on 1,463 public school teachers from July 18 to July 22 revealed that teachers were not yet ready to partake in any of the three distance learning methods of DepEd. The survey noted, among other significant findings, the lack of guidelines, guide materials, and training for teachers for the production of learning materials for online learning, modular learning, and TV/radio-based learning.

In a press conference on August 10, DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones reaffirmed that classes must resume on August 24 “no matter what happens with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).” However, only a day later, ACT revealed that issues in funding for the printing of modules proved that schools were far from ready to open on 24 August.

Teachers and school heads faced the problem of the late release of funds from the DepEd Central Office, resulting in the depletion of the available school funds for the mass production of printed modules.

The preparation for the modular learning system has been plagued with other problems as well, such as teachers being tasked with creating activities to supplement modules without seeing the modules themselves, and school division offices ‘lagging behind‘ on printing of modules.

On August 14, Secretary. Briones announced the sudden move of the opening of classes to October 5. ACT said that while it is a necessary move, the decision is an acknowledgment by the Duterte administration that it has failed to prepare for the delivery of safe and quality education for all in the midst of the pandemic.

Secretary Leonor Briones, while on a press briefing in PTV-4, said DepEd would have allotted the P389-million budget of Manila Baywalk project for buying gadgets and printing modules. (Photo from Angie de Silva/Rappler)

Aside from the problems in module printing, teachers were burdened with online enrollment tasks, making modules and activity sheets, and various online meetings and webinars without being provided with a laptop or internet allowance. 

DepEd Undersecretary Annalyn Sevilla explained that the approved 2020 budget was designed for face-to-face classes and does not take into account the additional costs of the transition to distance learning. For the printing of learning modules, P9 billion has been allotted.

Sevilla also said ideally, the DepEd would need P433 billion for the basic education-learning continuity plan (BE-LCP). Under conservative circumstances, as in present times, the department would need P105 billion, she added. DepEd had requested an additional P65 billion which would have been part of the P105 billion, however, the request was denied by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). 

Health and Safety Concerns of Distance Learning

The budget woes of DepEd only continue when it comes to ensuring the safety of teachers, faculty, and staff from COVID-19. Funding for COVID-19 medication and treatment is not present in the existing budget of DepEd either, Sevilla explained.

On August 24, DepEd announced that there are 823 COVID-19 cases in the department, including students, teaching and non-teaching personnel. ACT revealed, later on, that three teachers in Cebu were exposed to a COVID-positive parent during the school’s synchronized distribution of modules last August 18. According to Basillio, the teachers’ direct exposure to an infected parent highlights the risks associated with module distribution, largely due to a lack of preventive measures at schools. ACT slammed the department for its “empty guarantees” and called for proper guidelines and safety mechanisms for teachers.

There are more safety loopholes in the transition to distance learning, according to ACT. The alliance says that the government has not yet established tools to protect children taking online classes from sexual predators on the internet; Basillo said that this particular vulnerability in DepEd’s plans is alarming, given that the Philippines is regarded as a global hot spot for online sexual exploitation of children. (READ: Are there safeguards vs sexual exploitation as children shift to online learning?)

Buying more time

While DepEd has postponed the opening of classes by a month, student councils of tertiary institutions, particularly in the UP System, are calling for a similar measure to be implemented in their universities.

The UP Office of The Student Regent (OSR) called for the postponement of the scheduled opening of classes. The UPLB 5-Point Student Demands paper, released by the Rise for Education (R4E UPLB), and later revised by the UPLB Council of Student Leaders (CSL) on August 10, made a similar demand, saying that “there is a need for us to postpone the resumption of classes to give way for everyone to prepare and adjust to the new normal way of learning and of how education can continue.” (READ: UPLB 5-Point Student Demands)

The same paper also called for psychosocial help for students, faculty, and staff, the use of alternatives to remote learning, proper state services including mass testing, financial support for teaching and non-teaching staff, the approval of all maximum residency rule (MRR) and readmission appeals, the upholding of democratic rights and student representation, and the halt to all school fees collection, proposed school fee increases and budget cuts to education

On September 2, OSR launched a petition that had garnered nearly 10,000 signatures calling for the postponement of classes, however, it was rejected by the Board of Regents. Classes are still set to start in UP on September 10.

The long-term suspension of face-to-face classes and the transition to distance learning is not something that is necessarily inevitable, and it is important to note why we are in this situation in the first place. While face-to-face classes are now resuming in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, DepEd and tertiary institutions in our country are barely prepared for the start of distance learning.

Schools resume in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 was initially detected. Recently, Xi praised China’s efforts in combatting the virus, as worldwide cases continue to pile up. (Photo from Xinhua News)

The administration’s failure to respond to the threat of the coronavirus has, as ACT put it, left the country with nothing but the hard choice between two poisons—to risk lives and leave millions of students behind for an unprepared, education continuity program, or to further delay the fulfillment of the youth’s right to education.

Students, parents, teachers, non-teaching personnel, school authorities, and the government, are all new to this. An education continuity plan requires time, careful planning, and proper implementation. Anything that the government and private institutions come up with at this time would be far from perfect and would serve only as band-aid solutions.

In any case, things are not expected to return to the way they were, and this crisis will forever change the education system in our country. The government, after all the frivolous projects amidst the pandemic, has the capability to use this situation to provide scientific, mass-oriented, and nationalistic education. [P]

*Not their real names

Photo from Jonathan Cellona/ABS-CBN News

Donation drives and campaigns for the support of students partaking in distance learning:

Bayanihan Para sa Distance Learning – The Office of the Vice President and Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership. 

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