Making distance learning possible for hard-to-reach, under-resourced and often makeshift schools

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Students download learning materials through a designated e-learning application using LAN and interact with teachers through a wireless network, a novel approach in participant communities.

With support from NIRAS, the ADB and the Filipino Department of Education (DepEd) have, for the past two years, supported hard-to-reach, under-resourced and often makeshift schools in acquiring “safe, secure and consistent facilities” designed for distance learning.

August 30, 2023
  • SDG: #4, #9, #10
  • SECTORS: Development Consulting
  • COUNTRIES: Philippines
  • DONOR: Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific
  • CLIENT: Asian Development Bank
  • CONTRACT VALUE: EUR1,354,014
  • DURATION: April 2021 - November 2023

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, students attending last mile schools – designated by DepEd as schools with less than four classrooms, no electricity, a bare supply of essential equipment, and other criteria – were at a loss: how would they continue their education without going to the classroom? For both the schools and the families of students, distance learning was out of reach with the few resources and limited capital available.

In 2021, the ‘EdTech Solutions for Last Mile Schools in COVID-19’ project (EdTech Solutions for short) was launched to address the gap experienced by 21 last mile schools with the greatest connector to date – technology. Due to the limited facilities and resources of these schools, government intervention had already been required for years, but against the backdrop of the pandemic, delivering quality education to home-bound students gained urgency. 

Although last mile junior and senior high school teachers in schools across Kalinga, Bohol, Abra and Zamboanga Sibugay were resoundingly positive about students’ and their own interactions with digital learning materials (DLMs), their introduction was not without challenges. EdTech Solutions’ goal was not only to pilot the use of technology in far flung under-resourced schools but also to inform DepEd’s response to the pandemic and other future challenges through learnings gained from the project.

3 Key Outputs of EdTech Solutions

  • Distributing low-cost edtech solutions designed for distance learning;
  • Developing content for blended learning in secondary education;
  • Delivering training and capacity building
    activities to school staff to make blended learning sustainable.
Edtech Solutions For Last Mile Schools In COVID Bangad NHS Accessing The Wi Fi Lan

Delivering and adapting low-cost solutions to support education technology

To make edtech possible for students and teachers in last mile schools, one of the project’s deliverables was the distribution of tablets to students and teachers and access to DLMs through a local area network (LAN). With this setup, students can download learning materials – regularly updated by their teachers – through the designated e-learning application Moodle using LAN, and interact with teachers through a wireless network.

Originally, EdTech Solutions was operationalised in the context of a purely remote learning setup in the 2020-2021 school year. However, when face-to-face became mandatory the following year, the project’s design had to adjust quickly. “The design was inextricably linked to the status quo of remote learning. That status quo included no school room access and minimal teacher-student contact, in the context of a geographical environment in which communications infrastructure did not allow for internet access for the majority of schools, teachers, and students,” says Team Leader Esther Care. 

Because of this change, the EdTech Solutions team identified several limitations, including hardware and software solutions with face-to-face classes involved and the limitations of the Moodle platform in the new context. However, the team also introduced potential solutions: 

  • Providing a campus-wide WiFi system with accompanying Moodle server hardware;  
  • Upgrading Moodle; 
  • Relocating WiFi LAN; 
  • Production of multiple DLM formats.

Moodle is a free and open-source learning management system used for blended learning, distance education, flipped classroom and other online learning projects.

Edtech Solutions For Last Mile Schools In COVID 19 Project Assistant, IT, Teacher

Developing content geared towards blended learning 

Blended learning refers to a mix of both face-to-face and online learning, a term that acknowledges a shift in approach to teaching when students are in the classroom versus when they are learning remotely. Taking this into account, the EdTech Solutions team enlisted the expertise of subject specialists and experts in distance learning, information communication technologies and gender and culture to develop digital modules for students from Grades 7 to 12. 

The specialists created interactive and tablet-friendly learning materials using DepEd’s Self-Learning Modules as their basis. As of writing, a total of 215 DLMs have been developed for English, mathematics and science, subjects that are the focus of EdTech Solutions. 

DLMs' quality is assured through a rigorous process. After their development and approval by Deputy Team Leader and curriculum development and training specialist Jessica Sucgang, the DLMs are shared with a group of multimedia specialists, technical developers who conduct technical quality assurance audits before they are deployed. The multimedia specialists are responsible for the digitisation process, which ensures DLMs function the way the team designed them to.

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While “blended learning” is used throughout the implementation of EdTech Solutions, Esther – who, in addition to Team Leader, is also an education specialist – reconsiders this term in the context of the project. She foresees blended learning as something to be gradually integrated into last mile schools, which can achieve for the time being only a precursor to the full-blown blended learning setup that resource-rich schools can implement. 

Telling the schools that they need to shift to being adaptable and deliver education in different ways is one thing, and providing some guidance and resources to teachers is another. But we've seen a couple of occasions where the teachers have not known how to proceed,” she says.  

“What we need in terms of blended learning is for teachers in last mile schools to know how to use the technologies and to understand that there are different pedagogical approaches they need to employ,” Esther says, adding that a better Information and Communications Technology policy helps.

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Teachers would say they didn't have time to become more familiar with the devices and tech. And we saw the consequence of that in the project because when we walk out the door, the teachers stop practicing how to use them. What we need to ensure is that there is an understanding that the use of distance learning or online learning tools is the marriage of ICT and pedagogy. If you simply provide infrastructure, nothing will happen.

Esther Care

Delivering training and capacity building activities to school staff to make blended learning sustainable 

For blended learning to work in a last mile school setting, EdTech Solutions equally prioritised giving teachers, school leaders, information technology officers and other personnel edtech training. These learning sessions have tackled an understanding of how the technology works and how to properly use it, as well as best practices for the devices’ maintenance. 

Because of the newness of the technology, the deployment of devices and equipment to last mile schools, students and teachers was racked with several issues. Having to spend time testing and debugging devices, troubleshoot connection problems, and wait out power interruptions stalled training sessions to an extent.  

While generally received openly and positively, gadgets have also given teachers anxiety because of the extra workload required in learning how to use them and a fear of not being able to use them properly.

However, the team also reports a marked difference in a few schools based in Bohol and one in Zamboanga Sibugay.  

Prior to the installation of the upgraded solutions, wherein every school has the same outdoor WiFi LAN setup, teachers in these schools have been accessing and using the DLM courses more consistently than others in their face-to-face teaching. It is interesting to see how these teachers were able to overcome the barriers to integrating edtech in their teaching and learning environments,” Jessica says.  

And according to Esther, one of the greatest measures of success for EdTech Solutions, a pilot project, is when teachers consistently use the DLMs the project introduced.

Edtech Solutions For Last Mile Schools Camalog And Taloctoc NHS Workshop Proper

Piloting towards scalable edtech solutions in the country 

As a pilot project, EdTech Solutions’ core goal is to find out what works and what does not, both learnings being equal in usefulness and value, Esther says.  

Through these learnings, the project team will be able to provide insights to similar initiatives in the future, paving the way for edtech solutions to become more equitable, accessible and sustainable in the Philippines. 

Vanessa Kristine Cervantes Sorongon

Vanessa Kristine Cervantes Sorongon

Business Development and Project Manager

Manila, Philippines

Cheska Thalia Castillo

Cheska Thalia Castillo

Project Management and Business Development Associ

Manila, Philippines