The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that digital is going to have an even bigger place in our lives in the future. As the lockdowns required people to stay at home, online learning has emerged as the closest substitute for traditional classroom learning. The online experiment in the country, however, highlighted not only the economic divide between high and low income households (poor families lack mobile devices for online learning), but also exposed the country’s digital divide, especially in rural areas that have no Internet connection.
Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte recently lauded San Juan City for the successful implementation of its Free Fiber Optic Internet and Learning Management System. After her inspection of Pinaglabanan Elementary School’s Free Wi-Fi Program with San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora on December 13, Duterte said she wants the DepEd to replicate the city’s achievement of 1:1 teacher and student-gadget ratio in public schools.
“That is the dream of the Department of Education for all our schools, but for now, our direction is mixed,” she said, explaining that some schools do not have the capacity to have stable Internet connection because of the lack of infrastructure in their areas.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian pressed concerned government agencies to fast-track the installation of free Wi-Fi connections in all public schools nationwide, as suggested by the DepEd secretary. In filing Senate Bill 383, known as the Digital Transformation in Basic Education Act, Gatchalian noted that five years after the enactment of the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act (Republic Act 10929), the Free Public Wi-Fi Dashboard revealed only 860 or 1.8 percent of the country’s 47,421 public schools have free public Wi-Fi as of September 2, 2022 (Read, “Free Internet access in all public schools nationwide pressed,” in the BusinessMirror, December 26, 2022).
Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Committee on Basic Education, reminded everyone how the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the digital divide, which mostly affected learners in poorer households. He noted that based on a 2021 survey by the World Bank on low-income households, only 40 percent have access to the Internet, adding that the same survey also revealed that 95.5 percent of these households used paper-based learning modules and materials.
“If we revisit the lessons from the pandemic, we will see that technology is a vital part of education, especially in the middle of a crisis. Part of our efforts to stabilize the education sector is to ensure that every school has free Internet in order to deliver quality education,” the senator said.
Gatchalian reminded concerned authorities that the Digital Transformation in Basic Education Act also seeks to accelerate the building of the national infrastructure for Information and Communications Technology (ICT), adding that the proposed measure will mandate the National Telecommunications Commission to identify locations for the construction of telecommunications tower sites, while “missionary areas that remain unconnected, unserved, or underserved will be prioritized.”
Gatchalian’s bill also aims to strengthen the ICT capacity of all schools to implement online learning. “To boost the basic education sector towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Department of Science and Technology will work together with the Department of Education and the Department of Information and Communications Technology on the use of science, technology, and innovation to improve traditional teaching and learning processes,” he said.
During the pandemic, countries without sufficient ICT infrastructure and well-resourced digital learning systems suffered the greatest education disruptions and learning losses, according to Unesco.
It would do well for the government to accelerate the building of national infrastructure that would allow the deployment of free Wi-Fi connections in all public schools nationwide. Only by harnessing the full potential of digital technologies can we give our learners a better chance to strongly compete in the global arena.