Bridging the digital divide: Tech4ED brings new tech closer to Filipinos

Katerina Francisco
Bridging the digital divide: Tech4ED brings new tech closer to Filipinos
The government's Tech4ED project aims to improve Filipinos' digital literacy and bring online learning and government services closer to the people

MANILA, Philippines – For Maricel Panayas, not knowing how to use a computer was a source of embarrassment. 

So when a community center under the government’s Tech4ED project opened in M’lang, she decided to take lessons in basic computer literacy.

Nagpapasalamat ako dahil binigyan nila kami ng pagkakataon, kaming mga simpleng nanay na mga walang trabaho sa bahay na matuto tungkol sa computer. Madami talaga kaming nakuhang karunungan tungkol sa mga bagong teknolohiya,” she said.

(I’m thankful, because we, simple housewives without jobs, were given the opportunity to learn about computers. We learned a lot about new technology.)

Hindi na kami ignorante. Noon, hindi ako marunong humarap sa tao, nahihiya ako,” she added. (We’re not ignorant anymore. Before, I didn’t know how to face people, I was shy.)

Panayas is a beneficiary of the Technology Empowerment for Education, Employment, Entrepreneurs, and Economic Development (Tech4ED) project, a program of the Department of Information and Communications Technology.

The project aims to set up community centers around the country where out-of-school youth, senior citizens, housewives, and other underserved sectors of society can have access to online government services and learning modules for skills development, digital literacy, and non-formal education.

Since its launch in 2014, Tech4ED has built up a varied mix of members: from students and fresh graduates looking to pick up new skills, government officials wanting to be digitally literate, and housewives and mothers wanting to learn how to set up and manage a small business.

User profiles, top courses

As of March 2017, 1,316 Tech4ED centers have been established nationwide – 400 more than the 864 centers established as of end-2016.

Of the 54,435 members currently enrolled in the platform, 57.8% or 31,490 are women. Most of the members – 64% – are in the below-30 age range.

Students comprise a large chunk of the users, with more than 28,000 currently enrolled in the platform. Government employees, teachers, barangay volunteer workers and out-of-school youth and adults are also among the top users under the project.

 

Most Tech4ED members choose to learn practical skills that they can use to get a job, such as fixing computers and cellphones. Courses under the Department of Education’s alternative learning system, communication skills, basic computer skills, and money management courses are also among the top 10 courses.

According to Tech4ED project manager Maria Teresa Camba, students learn through a mix of guided tutorials and self-paced modules. The English language course, for instance, combines audio and video lessons; students go through the module on their own, accomplishing the audio exercises through their microphone-enabled headsets. The computer automatically grades the students’ performance.

“We get a lot of good feedback because our content is interactive. We have content in PDF form, we have very interactive modules with a combination of audio and visual presentation. The students have fun with it because it feels just like watching a movie,” Camba said in a mix of Filipino and English.

Teaching senior citizens

This mix particularly appeals to senior citizens, who often are hesitant to pick up new skills out of fear of using new, unfamiliar technology.

This, Camba said, is one of the barriers to digital literacy that the project aims to break.

Camba recalled one training session with a group of internally displaced people affected by the 2013 Zamboanga siege. Most of the people in that group were housewives and community leaders, who were very hesitant to learn how to use a computer, scared that they might break it.

Takot sila kasi zero background talaga sila, pero noong nandoon na sila at nag-start na silang gumamit, natuto na sila, masayang-masaya sila. At the end of the training nagbibigay sila ng kanilang mga messages. Umiiyak sila,” Camba recounted.

(They were scared, because they had zero background on using computers. But when they started to learn how to use it, they were very happy. At the end of the training session, when they were giving out their messages, they cried.)

In one Tech4ED center in Quezon City, senior citizens also made up a chunk of the project’s member base.

Manny Fajilan, head of the multimedia and internet services section of the Quezon City Public Library, said they’ve had senior citizens as old as 79 years old coming to their center to learn how to use a computer.

For 4 hours a day, they learn how to use basic computer programs, set up their own email addresses, and set up their social media accounts like Facebook.

“We’ve had a senior citizen who was scared about using a computer, and his grandchildren didn’t want to teach him. When he learned basic computer skills, we were surprised to see him working solo on a Word document,” he recounted.

This fear of technology is common in a lot of centers, Camba said. Some even feel uneasy about going back to a classroom-like setting when they’re already middle-aged.

To help ease this, the Tech4ED team has been creating and posting videos of success stories: people recounting how they got into the platform and what impact their newfound digital skills has had on their lives.

“We told them, if you know what ICT can do, what the opportunities and possibilities are available to them now that they’ve learned how to use a computer. Our center is just the beginning. They can come back, and many do come back for further learning,” she added.

 

Success stories

Out of the many stories from the project beneficiaries, Camba has one particular favorite: how the program was able to have a multiplier effect, starting from one hesitant housewife.

“My favorite story is one in Tanauan. There was a mother of 10 children, a housewife who didn’t finish elementary. When she found out about the center, she trained there and completed her high school equivalency test.”

“Her husband was a part-time carpenter, most of her children were out of school, so she brought them all to the center. Even her neighbors. Now she’s a barangay secretary, and she’s even started college,” Camba said.

Aside from stories of out-of-school youth or fresh graduates finding jobs thanks to their newfound skills, Camba said even the simple skill of learning how to use Facebook can be significant to some of their learners.

“There’s also this one mother who learned how to use the internet and how to use Facebook. She has a son whom she’s not seen for 7 years. She found him on Facebook. When she found him, she hugged the computer,” Camba recounted.

Sustaining operations

While these stories spread through word of mouth and entice more members to join, Tech4ED also faces the challenge of sustainability. The centers are hosted by local government units (LGUs), so the change in leadership every 3 years affect the amount of support that the centers receive.

Camba said there have been instances where the new, incoming leadership did not want to continue supporting the Tech4ED centers because of a change in priorities, or because the project has been too closely identified with the previous leaders. In these cases, the Tech4Ed team engages with the new mayors, with centers eventually reopening after the project has been explained to them.

But other centers are also moving toward the direction of self-sustainability. Some centers, particularly those sensitive and responsive to the needs of their communities, have been able to support their own operations.

The centers in Mauban, Quezon, for instance, are already earning – and paying for the income of their own staff – by producing corporate giveaways. Other centers become socio-economic enterprises of the local government units.

In Carmona, Cavite several barangays have their own centers. The centers there focus on providing ICT to manufacturing companies in the area, offering higher-level courses on computer-aided design, among others. It was also the first LGU to have launched their own Tech4ED building they funded themselves.

LEARNING ONLINE. English language learners go through self-guided content, with audio-visual elements in the content module. Photo by Katerina Francisco/Rappler

Moving toward entrepreneurship

What’s in store for Tech4ED in the next couple of years?

Camba said the program has so far focused on education. This time, they plan to beef up another key component: entrepreneurship. They want to launch 26 centers nationwide solely focused on helping users develop skills for online employment.

This includes teaching learners skills on virtual assistance, web development, and social media management. Trainees undergo two weeks of lessons and 3 weeks of internship with small and medium enterprises. Camba said the internship experience can give graduates of their program a competitive edge in the global online jobs market.

Online employment, she added, can also help jobseekers who prefer working locally instead of going abroad as overseas Filipino workers.

Camba also said there are plans to integrate the Tech4ED platform into the national government portal to be launched in June, so that those who want to access ICT services have the option to access the platform remotely.

“[We want the centers] to be a one-stop place for ICT-related services in the community, so if you want training, if you want to avail of government services, if you want community development on the ICT, you just have to go to that center,” she said. – Rappler.com

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