Friday, July 24, 2009

Bringing Alternative Learning Closer to OSYAs

How a husband-and-wife team brought the eSkwela Project to the out-of-school youth and adults of San Fernando, Camarines Sur

by Carl Bailey, Lenay EnseƱado and Ave Mejia

For Joaquin “Jack” Olitoquit of San Fernando, Camarines Sur, what started out as a search for a plastic disc led to accidentally discovering the eSkwela Project, and ended up in him jointly establishing the first mobile eSkwela Center in the country.

No stranger to community service, Jack was at the forefront of addressing the plight of San Fernando’s farmers as a community organizer, having been a farmer himself. He was also involved in parish work; with his trusty motorcycle, he rode through rebel-infested areas to deliver medicine to the outskirts of Camarines Sur. Currently, he is a consultant of the municipal government, working on development and livelihood projects for San Fernando.

Jack is not alone in his passion for serving the community. His wife, Rose, is a DepED District Alternative Learning System (ALS) Coordinator; she spends her time going from one barangay to another as she conducts learning sessions for out-of-school youth and adults (OSYAs). In San Fernando, a fourth-class municipality where farming is the main source of livelihood, one third of school-aged children has dropped out of the formal education system or has not enrolled in high school after finishing Grade Six. They end up tending to farms and working in construction projects; some venture abroad as domestic helpers – just as their parents and grandparents did in years past. Through these hard-luck locals, the cycle of poverty continues its painful course.

The task of teaching OSYAs is not an easy one. Apart from the challenge of getting them to sign up as ALS learners, Rose has to make sure that the OSYAs stay on as ALS learners. She has to be creative and keep them motivated, with the hope that they become functionally literate, perhaps even acquire knowledge and skills equivalent to a high school education.

Jack witnessed firsthand how his wife takes on this challenge. He sees her sorting through worn-out print modules, spending her own money for photocopying additional copies once the modules become unusable. One night after supper, Jack asked how he can help her improve on these materials; Rose mentioned that the modules are available in compact disc (CD) and that it would greatly help her if she could obtain a clear master copy by printing the modules straight from the CD, and reproducing these instead.

By then, Jack could now do something to help his wife.

Trip to Manila

Jack immediately took the eight-hour bus ride to Manila in order to obtain the CD from the DepED main office. Upon his arrival, he was advised by the DepED - Bureau of Alternative Learning System (BALS) to also go to the eSkwela Center in Roces Avenue, Quezon City where he can get a copy of the CD. Once he was at the Center, Angelyn Malabanan, an eSkwela learning facilitator, was generous enough to provide him not only a copy of the CD but also a walk-through on how ALS sessions are conducted there, albeit with a technological twist.

At the eSkwela Center, the learners use electronic, multimedia and interactive versions of the ALS print modules (the modules are converted and developed by CICT, DepED-BALS, and eSkwela’s partner State Universities and Colleges, or SUCs). ALS Mobile teachers and Instructional Managers, doubling as eSkwela learning facilitators, engage their learners in discussions and exercises through the Learning Management System (LMS) software. The learners treat Internet educational websites as an immense library, and create individual and collaborative projects using the Center’s computer and digital equipment, online resources and open-source software.

At that point, Jack was not satisfied in bringing just the CD back home to his wife. He has to bring the eSkwela Center to the OSYAs of San Fernando.

Before his return trip, he swung by the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), where the eSkwela Project holds office, and sought assistance on how to set-up their own eSkwela. After meeting the eSkwela Project Team, Jack was now armed with the initial know-how on the basic setup requirements; he could not wait to share the concept of eSkwela to his wife as he headed back home.

Laptops instead of desktops

Upon bringing the news on eSkwela to his wife, who by then was equally interested to it, they have drawn up initial eSkwela setup plans - and realized that a mobile version of eSkwela would better serve the highland and coastal barangays of San Fernando. This was also recommended by CICT upon consulting with the eSkwela Project Team, who made recommendations on its infrastructure and technical requirements. Afterwards, the couple were on their way in figuring out where to get the laptop units for eSkwela.

Jack presented the idea to San Fernando Mayor Fermin Mabulo, who made no hesitation in throwing his support to the initiative, having been involved in ALS programs for indigenous peoples before entering politics. Mayor Mabulo immediately facilitated the request for the needed equipment.

Although they have secured the mayor’s support, local partisan politics made the request process more difficult than it should have been. They were only able to acquire two laptops in their initial request, barely enough to service one barangay. Nevertheless, by December of last year, they were able to test the eSkwela model and conduct demos to municipal officials – with the hope that they will see the benefits and opportunities eSkwela can bring to the OSYAs.

eSkwela Conference and CICT’s site visit

The couple found additional motivation to overcome the hurdles in their eSkwela implementation by receiving an invitation to CICT’s eSkwela Conference, having championed the project in their community. Held last April in Batangas, the Conference was a gathering of individuals and groups who are involved in eSkwela’s different project components. There they were able to interact with the other participants – LGUs, local DepED offices, civic, church and non-government organizations - who also share the same commitment and face the same challenges. The Conference’s forums, talks and workshops were all geared towards helping the project stakeholders work in synergy. As their conference output, Jack and Rose helped prepare an eSkwela strategic plan not only for their Center but also for their province the rest of the Bicol Region. But first things first, though – Jack and Rose had to start with San Fernando before they go beyond it.

Throughout the next three months, the couple and three DepED-Camarines Sur ALS mobile teachers / instructional managers – Lleza Orias, Helen Tunay, and Merly Lleva – underwent CICT’s training on the eSkwela Instructional Model. Through this training, they have also prepared the personnel requirements of an eSkwela Center, while waiting for their infrastructure requirements to be addressed. While it seemed that their request for equipment was falling on deaf ears, CICT made a timely intervention by conducting a field visit to Camarines Sur. The bottleneck that was partisan politics was partially remedied, and three more laptop units were issued to the proposed eSkwela Center – bringing the total units to five.

With the staff and equipment now ready, they can move on to the next step of conducting the eSkwela learning sessions.

eSkwela in San Fernando – and beyond

On June 29, the eSkwela Center of San Fernando formally started its operations. Not only is it the first eSkwela center in Camarines Sur and in the entire Bicol region, it is also the first to adapt the mobile model. Serving the OSYAs in an initial eight barangays (Buenavista, Del Pilar, Beberon, Lupi, Bocal, Pamukid, Planza, Sta. Cruz), the couple and the three ALS implementers are now full-fledged eSkwela learning facilitators and are able to optimally use the computers as a tool for learning. They have organized a schedule to cover each of the eight barangays. The LGU’s multicab is being used to transport the laptops from one barangay to another. In turn, the barangays chip in by providing for the electricity and a shaded or enclosed area as a stop-over station for the mobile eSkwela Center. While Internet service has yet to be made available in these remote barangays, they plan to hold some of the eSkwela sessions at the municipal hall’s premises in order to take advantage of the available Wi-Fi Internet connection. A wireless Internet broadband USB receiver will also be purchased so the laptops will have access to the Internet without leaving the barangays.

eSkwela San Fernando aims to serve ninety OSYAs for its inaugural year. While waiting for the additional laptops, the couple is currently busy engaging the rest of San Fernando and Camarines Sur to replicate the eSkwela model. They are now coordinating with CICT, DepED-BALS and its division office, the LGUs of San Fernando and Camarines Sur for the conduct of an eSkwela teacher training workshop in September, which will be participated in by seven potential eSkwela Centers in the province. They have also facilitated meetings with three public high schools in Lupi, San Fernando and Pamukid, eyeing the possibility of integrating eSkwela and sharing its computer labs to OSYAs.

Jack and Rose Olitoquit hopes that they have given the OSYAs enough reason to stay on as ALS learners through the technology-infused alternative learning at the eSkwela Center, and by gaining life skills or at most a secondary-level education, give them a chance to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

Which for Jack, is not too bad a bonus in what started out as his search for a plastic disc.

The eSkwela Project, a word play on the Filipino equivalent of "school", is a flagship project of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) through its Human Capital Development Group (HCDG), in partnership with DepED – Bureau of Alternative Learning System (BALS) and local community partners, that is envisioned to provide ICT-enhanced educational opportunities for Filipino out-of-school youth and adults. It likewise aims to help reduce the digital divide and enhance the capacity of these individuals to be successful participants in a global and knowledge-based economy. The initiative responds directly to a national development priority and will bring elearning opportunities and ICT for learning resources to mobile teachers / instructional managers and out-of-school learners in the Philippines in an exciting, innovative, and locally meaningful way.

For further inquiries, you may send an email to or contact the eSkwela Project Management Office at +6329286105 local 21/22.

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