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The Digital Divide in remote learning

By Karen Racelis Published Jul 02, 2021 6:00 am Updated Jul 02, 2021 2:59 pm

“Left to their own devices.” What if that were literally the case? 

Traditionally, the metaphor means leaving a person to make his own choices, without help or control. Today, it has come to life. With inadequate assistance, students around the country face remote learning using hard-earned phones, laptops and routers as their options for learning from home dwindle by the day.

Teens are hiking mountains. Children are climbing roofs. Students and teachers alike are risking their lives daily to get a mere flicker of internet access. 

WiFi is still a staple in only a handful of homes. However, for isolated areas with limited connectivity, learning is an unaffordable luxury. The eLibrary Project aims to help close that gap.

The idea is to meet the current educational crisis with social and technological innovation. The eLibrary team reaches geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas through open educational resources. The ingenious bit lies in the technology. To bypass the need for internet connection, the team deploys a Library-in-a-Box made up of a micro-server and a microSD.

We spoke online with The Tambayayong eLibrary Project’s founder Peter Sy and the project’s implementation leader in Masbate, Jofer Asilum.

  ELibrary project founder Prof. Peter Sy of the University of the Philippines discusses the project in a student forum aired on DZUP radio in 2019 (Photo from Serbisyong TatakUP Facebook page).

YOUNG STAR: Take us back to the conceptualization stages of the project. When did the idea first come around?

PETER SY: I’ve been doing e-libraries for rural schools since 2014. More recently, in 2018, I was in Bario, Sarawak, Malaysia. I'd been trying to get a seat on a 19-seater turboprop to Bario, and I finally got one after three days! When I got to Bario, I was taken to the house of a Bario-native: University of Malaysia, Sarawak (UNIMAS) professor, Dr. Poline Bala. 

The ultimate fun was at night, when academics gathered by the fireplace, with no electricity. We had a mix of professors from computer science, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy switching codes: jokes-to-serious, serious-to-jokes, sharing research interests in between.

My 2014 version of the eLibrary was cumbersome to carry around. It consisted of an enterprise-grade server, a WiFi access point, and a switch. So as my colleagues were telling me about their project, it hit me: I should take their lead and make everything portable!

Then the subject of “Library in a Box” came up. These colleagues were sharing stories about using the Raspberry Pi platform with the Kelabit indigenous people. I gathered that this UNIMAS project had been going on for years by that time. It was their interim response to the lack of internet connectivity in Bario and many other areas in Malaysia.

My 2014 version of the eLibrary was cumbersome to carry around. It consisted of an enterprise-grade server, a WiFi access point, and a switch. So as my colleagues were telling me about their project, it hit me: I should take their lead and make everything portable!

What was the inspiration behind this project?

Projects such as the OER2Go Rachel Project and Commonwealth of Learning have been implemented in many developing countries where knowledge diffusion and internet connectivity are a challenge. Thanks to the internet, and Commonwealth of Learning (COL)'s documentation, it's now easy to imagine how things happening in places thousands of miles away from us could actually be us. Villages in India getting improved literacy and children being introduced to essential digital resources: these are the images that propelled us to have our own eLearning initiatives.

  ELibrary project implementor in Masbate Jofer Asilum (Photo from his Facebook page)

So far, The eLibrary Project has reached K-12 students and teachers in Surigao del Norte, Cebu, Zamboanga del Norte, Sarangani, Bohol and Masbate. In the province of Masbate particularly, the eLibrary team has partnered with civic group Damgo Naton Masbate, led by Jofer Asilum. Jofer told us about work on the ground.

What can you tell us about the situation of the beneficiaries you work with?

JOFER ASILUM: Some teachers told us that they have to hike a nearby hill to get a cellular signal. In some schools, you need to walk five kilometers to do so. For others, the walk is around 10 kilometers. While the number of cell sites has significantly improved in our province in the past years, it is still an underserved area. People still lack access to cellular signal.

We identified 20 school beneficiaries situated in different municipalities in Masbate Island. Their performance is greatly influenced by their isolated and inaccessible locations, which make the delivery of services difficult. They usually have no libraries, no internet connection, no mobile phone signal, and even lack basic school facilities, such as classrooms. They are situated among the most impoverished communities in the island province.

As of 2021, we have implemented our project in eight elementary and secondary schools. At least 300 learners are enrolled in every school selected. Some schools actually have more than 1,000 learners!

What is the process of developing and installing the Library-in-a-Box?

PETER: It’s all-in-one already. Besides the Raspberry Pi micro-server, all that is needed is an access device — say, a mobile phone with a browser and WiFi module. The pandemic actually amplifies the relevance of the Box. 

Which materials are most needed in the areas you’ve reached?

PETER: KHAN Academy videos on science and mathematics are comprehensive and should be a good base support for K-12 instruction. Classic books are special in that they provide the kids with a window to resources that otherwise might not be ordinarily available.

JOFER: Before the COVID-19 lockdown, teachers in Uson were able to use the mathematics virtual materials in class activities. In Baleno, the teacher in charge of their eLibrary went to the communities and introduced the technology to their learners’ parents. It was well-received, since the lack of internet connection is a huge concern in their area.

Meanwhile, in Milagros National High School, the technology has made English lessons more visual for students, since they encounter ideas through videos.

Now that young people travel miles and face great risks for education, efforts such as the eLibrary Project spell hope. The human right to quality education should not remain a luxury forever. Supporters of our Filipino students and teachers can advance these initiatives and move them even further by calling the attention of the administration to the real needs of the education sector and all Filipino youth.

Currently, the eLibrary Project team is looking for volunteers who can pitch the eLibrary Project to schools, communities and NGOs.To volunteer and learn more, visit library.ph

Photo art by Waynnie Melendres