TECHNOLOGY  TRICKLES DOWN TO THE GRASSROOTS  (PART 2 OF 4)

MANILA
, February 25, 2005 (STAR) By Alma Buelva  -  (Second of four parts) Technology has ingenious ways of seeping through a personís life Ė invited or not Ė yet the poor, by force of economic circumstance, remain outside the digital grid.

Extreme poverty relegates millions of Filipinos to the wrong side of the digital divide, a global concern that describes the inequality between people or nations with sufficient access to information technology and those with very little or without.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) reported last year that 15 percent of Filipinos were so poor that they only had less than $1 (P55) to spend a day. For these people living below the poverty line, computing and Internet surfing are unthinkable frivolities.

The lack of adequate infrastructure to deliver basic social services also makes techno-peasants of many Filipinos. Last year, the absence of electricity gripped about 20 percent of over 40,000 barangays in the country based on data from the National Electrification Administration. This literally put people in these barangays in the dark, out of reach by digital technology.

The school system, too, stands in the way of technology absorption. More than 60 towns in the country donít even have a high school and over 42,000 barangays canít offer the required six years of elementary education, ADB data show. This is bad news for many young Filipino students who turn to schools for a chance to use a personal computer and to access the Internet.

As the countryís population balloons, so will the problem of digital divide. To date, the Philippines is the seventh most populous country out of the 35 countries in Asia that online portal Internet World Stats constantly monitors. Itís in the 11th spot vis-a-vis its neighbors in terms of total Internet users who, early this month, was estimated at 3.5 million. This is a much more conservative figure than the 9.4 million Internet users quoted by market researcher International Data Corp. for the Philippines in 2003.

What the usage and population numbers from Internet World Stats mean is that only four out of every 100 Filipinos are able to use the Internet. This low Internet penetration rate means Filipinos who can go online account for only 1.3 percent of the combined population of the 35 Asian countries monitored.

Although Internet World Stats notes a dramatic 75 percent growth in Internet usage between 2000 and 2005, the current numbers are still pretty depressing. Even Vietnam and Thailand which showed up on the radar as the eighth and ninth biggest populations in the region, respectively, fared better in their Internet user ratings. This, despite the fact that unlike Filipinos, most Vietnamese and Thais arenít fluent in English, the Internetís main language.

Hi-tech bayanihan

Several efforts, however, are coming together from the government and especially the private sector to narrow the digital divide. These efforts may be seen as a high-tech bayanihan, the traditional Filipino practice of villagers coming together to help a neighbor literally move house.

This time, however, the objective isnít to physically transfer people and communities to a new and better place but to bring to them the most essential information and communication technologies so they can catch up with the rest of the world.

Following the successful implementation of the PCs for Public High School led by the Department of Trade and Industry, more private companies came forward last month to help in the continued propagation of IT usage in public high schools nationwide. They formed GILAS, or Gearing-Up Internet Literacy and Access for Students, an initiative that aims to extend Internet access to the high schools that received computer laboratories under the DTI program.

"GILAS is the descendant or the next phase of the PCs for Public High School, which will wire the more than 5,000 high schools that were covered in the computer lab building project," Sen. Mar Roxas told NetWorks. "Again, this will be in partnership with private companies and there are more of them now on this project."

GILAS draws support from Ayala Corp. and the Ayala Foundation, ConnectEd.ph, eTelecare, Globe Telecom, IBM Philippines, Innove Communications, Integrated Microelec-tronics Inc., Intel Philippines, Microsoft Philippines, Narra Venture Capital, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., Smart Communi-cations, SPL Philippines, SPI Technologies, as well as the Makati Business Club and the American Chamber of Commerce.

Ayala Corp. president and CEO Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala said GILAS faces a huge challenge to meet its objectives in the next five years as only four percent of local public high schools can connect to the Internet. The project will cost at least P1.7 billion.

Meanwhile, students will not be the only beneficiaries of the computer laboratories. Roxas said the facilities can be opened during weekends to offer IT remedial classes to the studentsí parents and other adults so they, too, can be exposed to modern technology.

"The governmentís goal is to improve the skills of our people, especially in areas where they are lacking, to aid job recruitment," added Roxas.

Tech for the marginalized

In the meantime, a number of big companies are already several years into their respective programs to bring technology to the masses. Good examples are IT giants Cisco Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which have multimillion-dollar global initiatives to provide not just access to IT, but also IT education to the most marginalized members of society.

In 1999, Microsoft Philippines launched its outreach program called Connected Learning Community, which donated computer laboratories, Internet connection and training for teachers and principals in 28 high schools. Microsoft estimates the program has helped 30,000 people.

Four years later, Microsoftís headquarters in Seattle made a commitment of $1 billion to assist those who have no means to afford IT through a five-year program called Unlimited Potential (UP). This program quickly trickled down to the Philippines where the initially identified beneficiaries were Amerasian kids in Subic, Olongapo and Clark, Pampanga, and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) based in Singapore and Malaysia.

Also in 2003, the software giant launched its global Partners in Learning (PIL), a $250-million project to train public school teachers in IT. Local PIL projects are in progress, which should help Microsoft meet its target of training 50,000 Filipino teachers by 2009.

Cisco, on the other hand, launched in 1997 the Cisco Networking Academy Program (CNAP), an e-learning initiative that provides chosen schools and their students with essential technology skills. Its total running fund has reached $247 million with over 10,000 academic institutions all over the world, 145 of them in the Philippines.

Training of OFWs, out-of-school youths

Schools that serve as a Cisco Networking Academy receive free from Cisco a specialized Web-based curriculum that includes not just the major content for courses and certification programs but also studentsí online assessment and instructor training and support. Because Cisco certifications are highly regarded in the industry, CNAP graduates who would take this next step can generally expect to find good jobs in IT.

To date, Cisco counts over 31,000 CNAP enrollees in the country. At one point, they included poor girls from Mabalacat, Pampanga who used to be out-of-school youths until they were admitted to a nun-administered school that became a CNAP partner.

In the case of Microsoftís Unlimited Potential, the first grant dubbed Pag-Asa (Hope) helped Amerasian out-of-school youths who were displaced and discriminated against, especially when the US pulled out their military bases from the country. Some 800 of them are receiving computer literacy training. Microsoft has earmarked $153,000 in cash and software for Pag-Asa for five years.

Microsoft followed Pag-Asa with Tulay (Bridge), the Unlimited Potential program for OFWs. In August last year, Microsoft donated $135,000 in cash and software for OFWsí computer training in Manila, Singapore and Malaysia. Of the total $77,000 cash component, $35,000 went to sponsor the Manila version of the project, while $21,000 each went to Singapore and Malaysia.

Microsoft tapped the organization of Filipino Workers in Singapore (FOWS) to offer its curriculum for fundamental IT courses to interested OFWs working in the island-state. Because 75 percent of the estimated 88,000 OFWs in Singapore work as domestic helpers, the computer training can only be offered on Sundays.

In Manila, Tulay has been extended to more than 3,000 OFWs. Microsoft hopes that through technology training it can help create social and economic opportunities that can change lives, transform communities, and strengthen local economies.

"The Amerasian youths of Olongapo and Pampanga clearly need a lot of support. The OFWs are the heroes of our economy. With more than eight million of them around the world, giving them and their dependents a chance to avail themselves of technology training would hopefully make their lives better and create a huge social impact on the country," said Mae Rivera-Moreno, public relations and community affairs manager of Microsoft Philippines.

Tech for the handicapped

Handicapped people are also among the most marginalized members of the society whose physical conditions deprive them of the use of modern tools. However, companies like IBM Philippines have programs that transcend this type of barrier so those who are blind, for example, can still take part in the digital world.

In 2001, IBM Philippines launched Computer Eyes, a two-week computer training program for blind students from the preschool to high school levels. The program has since been offered yearly, with workshop participants chosen by the Resources for the Blind Inc. (RBI) from around the country.

Visually challenged students learn to use computers by hearing and touch. The computers they use come with sound cards, headsets and special software such as Via Voice and Home Page Reader, a browser reader. These tools help blind students create documents using a word processor in the first week and to surf the Internet and create webpages in the second.

Last year, 20 high school and 10 preschool students participated in the program. To date, Computer Eyes has trained 110 students.

Literacy booster

The Philippine enjoys a high literacy rate of above 90 percent, which covers Filipinos from age 15 and above who can read and write. But this doesnít necessarily mean they understand the computer lingo as experts argue that at least 80 percent of Filipinos are more comfortable speaking and learning in Tagalog or Filipino. In fact, many from this group probably shy away from computers because of the language barrier.

Working on this premise, Microsoft has introduced a "Community Glossary" project that will translate key computing terms into Filipino. This may eventually result in software applications with user interfaces in the countryís lingua franca, and make computing more inviting and friendly for the "silent majority." (See separate story)

Education also found a friend last year in both old and new technologies when Nokia, the International Youth Foundation, Pearson and the United Nations Development Program rolled out Text2Teach in the country. This project makes possible the transmission of educational video materials on science to public elementary schools in far-flung areas of the country using new mobile communication systems and the old, reliable television set-top box.

Under Text2Teach, over 32,000 public elementary students in Grades 5 and 6 can watch science videos to supplement their board-and-chalk lessons. Text2Teach integrates mobile phone communications with digital satellite broadcasting and digital recording technology to transmit interactive video materials directly to the classroom for teaching purposes. Schools only need to send an SMS (Short Messaging Service) through Globe Telecom to Pearson Broadband, the content provider. To date, Text2Teach has benefited some 80 public schools throughout the country.

Amid all these efforts, technology races ahead. Thus, the Philippines needs all the help it can get so that one day IT will no longer divide Filipinos but make them all equal.

(Part 3: ICT infrastructure build-up)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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