Friday, 23 March 2012

Cyber Education Project: The best response to challenges in Philippine education?

There are two ways to take a critical look at the controversial Cyber Education Project (CEP) (See the slide below). One is the process by which it was crafted and peddled in public. The other is its feasibility in the Philippine context. This article attempts the second.
An ordinary folk surely asks: What is that thing called Cyber Education Project? I don’t have an easy answer but based on my copy of the electronic presentation prepared by the Department of Education (DepEd), which unfortunately does not give a one-liner definition of it, I define it as one that provides basic education to all areas in the country through a satellite technology that connects in real time all DepEd offices and public schools, which use hi-technology multimedia devices to facilitate learning process. (Caveat: This definition has to be checked against the expected reach of the project. See below.)
The project contextualizes itself within the challenges in education, namely, low academic performance of students, significant drop-outs, and big population of out-of-school youths and functionally-illiterate adults. Thirty-percent and 60% of children entering Grade 1 do not finish elementary and high school, respectively. Mentioned in the reasons for drop-outs were lack of pre-school preparation, disinterest in the lessons, poverty, malnutrition, and transportation problems.
The rationale cites the difficulty for the DepEd to service the 9.16 million functional illiterates and 12.24 million illiterate youths and adults with its insufficient resources (800 mobile teachers and 0.17% of the department’s budget used for the alternative learning system).
And here’s the proposed solution: Reach the illiterate youths and adults with the aid of electronic multi-media technology. Better yet, use a satellite technology that connects all schools in real time so that contents and processes are standardized. Thus, the CEP proposal, with China’s Tsinghua University as the major partner to lead in the turn-key setup. The Philippine government will rely on the university’s experience in satellite and long-distance education technologies.
The project targets to benefit not all of the public elementary and secondary schools, though, but only 37,794 or 90%. Only about 70% of the schools will be provided with satellite-based facilities. Likewise, if the slide presentation of DepEd is to be believed, only those “outside the 1st and 2nd class cities” will stand to benefit. I’m sure that this will invite backlash from the education personnel and Mayors of the excluded cities. It is not therefore true that the project will benefit all public schools.
The project also targets to reach at least 13 million students and 800 classes for out-of-school-youths.
To realize this project, a total of P26.48 billion is entailed over five years, with equipment and operating cost taking up the biggest share of the pie. To get the project rolling (for year 1), over P5 billion is required, to be sourced from USD100 million soft loan from the Chinese government plus Philippine government’s counterpart of P1.3 billion. DepEd boasts that the investment per pupil is P1.22 per day compared to P15 per hour spent in an Internet cafe. Over five years, the average cost per student per day is 64 centavos.
The projected impact of the CEP on public education consists of improved student performance, savings of up to P60.3 billion in DepEd operations, and new possibilities for the Philippine education sector.
While they are not averse to the role of ICT to supplement Philippine education, various civil society organizations have already raised their criticisms of the project. These focused on a) the unnecessarily high cost of investments, without really building on the existing or previous ICT projects, b) DepEd’s lack of capacity to handle the project, and c) the project’s apparent romance with ICT for its ability to replace face-to-face education activities. (I have with me the draft briefing paper but I don’t have the permission yet to publish it here.)
I agree 100% on the criticisms. I also want to build on some of their criticisms and add mine. Yes, government is wont to introducing a project as if it were novel and had no relation whatsoever to the related previous ones. The CEP has been packaged as though projects like “PCs for Public Schools”, e-skwela, and GILAS have failed. If indeed these projects have failed, then the more the government has no right to delve into this grandiose, waste-of-money undertaking.
Moreover, the CEP is deemed as though it is a stand-alone project. It doesn’t recognize the roles that other stakeholders should play, like LGUs that should ensure sturdier school buildings and stable supply of electricity in far-flung areas and NGOs that could assist mobile teachers in reaching out to out-of-school adults and youths.
The DepEd lacks more plausible ways of convincing people about the project’s cost of investment. Surely, the claim that tens of billions of pesos will be saved in the deparment’s operations sounds like the savings could be used for other noble purposes. But comparing the cost per pupil from the hourly rental fee of Internet cafes is purely ridiculous. Who in this earth has proposed to the government to subsidize students’ Internet cafe activities? And will the CEP’s studios provide the same serendipitous learning that Internet cafes are able accord their student customers?
The CEP claims to be the best solution in addressing the challenges of in Philippine education, which includes poverty, malnutrition, and transportation problems. But how? I wonder if it can really fill in these gaps. Note that the (additional) 800 classes intended for OSYs are set up right in the elementary schools, not in areas closer to the OSYs. So the project’s claim that it will “provide 12 video channels, wireless wide-area networking, local area networking and wireless internet all in one package to the remotest area of the country” is all but propaganda. Poor, mobile teachers, they’ll remain to fend for themselves.
Now, about the equipment. By estimate, a multimedia classroom will cost almost half a million pesos. That is really high considering that half that amount is sufficient enough. That would reduce the project’s cost by over P5 billion.
Clearly, Congress must hold an inquiry into the CEP. It must give it the same importance it has given to the NBN/ZTE deal. Besides, the CEP and NBN/ZTE are closely linked to each other.
Before the government is allowed to implement this kind of huge project, it must:
  1. Give a full accounting of its ICT projects, including their impact.
  2. Have clear guidelines on how the project will be implemented, including procurement of equipment and the software applications that will be used. The guidelines must be clear about open standards, including the software source codes and document formats.
  3. Come up with a feasibility study, which should include DepEd’s capacity to implement the project as well as the project’s assumptions and risk analysis.
Unless the abovementioned are done, the CEP will be another scam in Philippine history. And no one will bear the brunt but the tax-paying Filipino citizens, rich or poor.

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