MANILA, September 12, 2005
 (STAR) Batanes By Arlyn Samaniego - Nearly three decades ago, when Florencia Cielo of Batanes began teaching, she and her colleagues in the country’s northernmost province were in a manner of speaking "all in the same boat." They were all totally dependent on cargo ships to deliver textbooks and other instructional materials that they badly needed.

Ships docked only three or four times a year, Cielo recalls. And because the vessels did not have reliable means of tracking cargo, Cielo and her co-teachers had no assurance that the teaching materials would get there in time for the start of the schoolyear – that is, if they arrived at all.

The alternative was to request fellow teachers who had the opportunity to travel to Manila to bring back the latest editions of textbooks. As they could only afford a few copies, their students would share the textbooks or copy each one by hand, says Cielo, a teacher at Batanes National Science High School (BNSHS).

Such is the challenge of teaching in a place like Batanes, where Cielo was born and raised.

"Malayo kasi sa kabihasnan ang Batanes (Batanes is far from civilization)," she says, without meaning to disparage her home-province.

But the challenge of distance is rapidly being overcome. Today, Batanes is "wired." Cielo and her co-teachers now have access to comprehensive, up-to-date teaching materials – and they don’t have to depend on ships for that.

Recently, Smart Communications Inc. launched its Smart Schools Program at BNSHS, making it the first facility in the region to provide Internet access, anchored on a high-speed wireless broadband connection of up to 488 Kbps. The introduction of Smart Schools was strongly advocated by former Education Secretary Butch Abad, himself a Batanes resident, who supported the program from the time it was inaugurated last year.

"The Smart Schools Program is part of our efforts to make the Internet much more widely accessible to teachers and students of public high schools," says Napoloen Nazareno, Smart president and CEO. "Through this, we are able to set up teachers learning resource centers or augment existing computer laboratories into facilities for Internet-aided teacher learning."

Increasing the aptitude for learning

In addition to the provision of Internet connection, the program supplies online content and ICT training for BNSHS teachers as well as faculty members from neighboring public schools.

"The teachers were specifically targeted for ICT training," says Rolando Peña, head of Smart’s Network Services Division. "While we understand how the program will influence the development of the students, we also didn’t lose sight of how significantly the teachers factor into that learning equation." The emphasis on teacher training is based on that idea that helping teachers embrace ICT will benefit a large number of students.

To be sure Cielo and her co-teachers were familiar with the Internet even before the Smart Schools program was launched.

In 2002, Piltel introduced the Internet in Basco by opening a public Internet facility with 10 computers and provided an initial 50 connections for local government offices, businesses, and residents who wanted to subscribe to the service. Since then, Internet take-up has increased. A significant percentage of schools and offices in Batan and Itbayat, two of the three main and northernmost islands of Batanes (the third being Sabtang), are already Internet-accessible.

With the newly introduced service, the teachers are now able to surf the Internet. This allows them to permanently alter how they gathered their resource materials. Information culled from websites is now used to supplement teaching plans previously rendered inadequate by lack of learning manuals. Aside from this, it has whetted the students’ appetite for learning, especially research-based knowledge.

"The Internet is, indeed, an invaluable resource to us, as it addresses our long-standing problem of learning resource scarcity," says Cielo.

The introduction of wireless broadband Internet access by Smart, however, promises to make Internet access much more widely available at a more affordable cost.

Branded "Smart Wi-Fi," the new service delivers high-speed connectivity through wireless radio instead of telephone lines. This makes it easier and faster to deploy the service. Moreover, the cost is much more within the reach not only of schools but also of offices and homes.

Under the Smart Schools program, the BNSHS gets its Internet connection for free in the first year, after which it starts paying for the service. But the service costs only one-tenth of existing alternative Internet access services and offers faster speeds.

Cielo and her co-teachers are set to undergo ICT training to be facilitated by Smart’s program partner, Microsoft, under the latter’s Partners in Learning program. This will enhance their skills, Cielo says. For one thing, it will do away with what she describes as the "hit-or-miss approach" or guesswork.

With this, she’s confident that access to the Internet and ICT training will make them better educators, equipped to keep in step with – perhaps, even surpass – their colleagues from other parts of the country.

"Now we can say, we speak the same language," she says.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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