The Philippines gets serious about connecting its schools

By Medha Basu

Interview with Aida Yuvienco, tech chief of the federal Department of Education.

“Only 26% of public schools are connected to internet or are able to connect to the internet,” Aida Yuvienco tells GovInsider. And nearly 5,000 public schools in remote areas don’t have access to electricity, adds the tech chief of the Department of Education.

The Philippines is now prioritising connecting up these schools. President Rodrigo Duterte has promised better internet connectivity nationwide in his first State of the Nation Address.

Yuvienco is heading up the education flank of this initiative, incorporating tech into the classroom, and overhauling the curriculum to match.

Improving connectivity in schools

The department is working with the new Department of ICT to “improve the ratio of schools with connectivity to the internet”, she says. “Most of the telcos are not present in those areas that we need them to be in,” she adds.

This month the government announced US$37 million of new funding for public WiFi. In the first year of the project, 4,000 schools across the country will get WiFi hotspots - among other public facilities like libraries, hospitals and parks.

As for electricity problems, the government is procuring solar energy panels and solar-powered computers this year for all schools that cannot access the grid. Yuvienco expects them to be delivered in the first quarter of next year.

Managing by numbers

Department of Education

Data is another area of focus for the department. It is expanding and building data systems in three areas: student management, teacher recruitment and budget monitoring.

First, the department is expanding a system to monitor students’ performance throughout their schooling life. It holds records on public and private schools for 24 million students from kindergarten to secondary school. With this “we are able to follow the progress of each learner”, Yuvienco says.

Second, the department is building an analytics system to improve recruitment and training of teachers. It has 700,000 employees, but no single database of all its teachers and staff. “We are hiring thousands of teachers”, she says, but “everything is done manually”. The new system will be used by “top management” to ensure teachers are deployed to the right places with the required skills.

Third, Yuvienco will introduce a system to monitor the department’s spending. The Department of Education is allocated the biggest chunk of the budget by law, she says. Its 2017 budget is estimated at 542 billion pesos (US$11 billion), with 7.8 billion pesos (US$164 million) for tech projects.

The department will automatically track where and how the money is being spent. Expenses are currently submitted manually on spreadsheets, she says, making budget control “difficult”. “The system would capture at the school level and consolidate at the central level”.

Expansion to informal learning

Students in class
About half of primary school graduates in the Philippines don’t go on to secondary school. A top priority is to ensure that school dropouts - and anyone else without access to formal education - are able to continue learning through the government’s informal education scheme, called the “alternative learning system”.

“An important programme of this government [and] of the secretary is expanding the coverage of the alternative learning system,” Yuvienco says. The department has asked for an additional 45 billion pesos (US$948 million) to expand the initiative next year.

The scheme involves any education that happens outside the classroom, in an informal setting, such as a community hall or even at someone’s home. The department has “mobile teachers”, district coordinators and instructional managers who conduct classes at a schedule agreed with the students.

Yuvienco’s team is providing laptops and tablets to these travelling teachers so they can access learning material on-the-go. Her team also has a portal with teaching material from kindergarten to 11th grade which the teachers can use. The material has been translated to local languages so that they can be used in any part of the country.

Reliable connectivity will be the key to ensure schemes such as informal learning can reach their potential, however. Without internet, teachers, staff and students will be left on their own.