(STAR) By Ann Corvera - Parents, understandably, are in constant watch over what their children see and whom they talk to on the Internet. But while the home environment can be controlled for the children’s protection, what about once they step outside?

Among other things, it’s easy to dismiss the Internet as a child’s tool for fun and games, with students often seen packed in online cafés, assuming pseudo-identities to fight the forces of evil, or each other through network games.

But when they are in school, learning is fused with the vast potential of information and communication technology, or ICT, as a means of empowering the next generation with skills needed in the 21st century.

Yes, despite the country’s protracted poverty woes, public and private sectors are working hard, hand in hand, to expand the ICT capabilities of schools, involving not only students, but the teachers, principals and the rest of the community, too.

"Leadership, ingenuity and openness to technology" are the key factors, according to Partners in Learning (PiL), a program which Microsoft Philippines undertakes as part of its long-term commitment to empower teachers and students in achieving their fullest potential by providing them with greater access to the latest computer technologies and training on how to use them.

A hundred percent ICT literacy is the target, and this is one of the strengths that propelled Muntinlupa City to bag the P10-million incentive given by PiL for being one of the three most outstanding public school divisions nationwide.

Notwithstanding the known lack of financial resources that public schools in the country continue to face, the Muntinlupa school division of the Department of Education (DepEd), together with the Cebu and Digos City divisions, was recognized recently for its sustainable and innovative ways and plans in integrating ICT into learning.

Even as the DepEd can provide only one personal computer for every 25,000 pupils, as Education Secretary Jesli Lapus admitted, these three school divisions managed to make their ICT centers functional.

Dubbed as "Potensyal: Buil-ding the 21st Century School System," the one-year search took the people of the PiL program to different parts of the country to assess 180 teams vying for the P10-million grant in training and technology to be given to each winner in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao.

Digos City may be the smallest school division among the three winners, but it proved that it could build a harmonious learning environment for ICT.

"Educational advances like innovative teaching strategies, training, seminars and work-shops conducted for school administrators and teachers were helpful in introducing ICT to the division," PiL said of this Mindanao winner.

Digos City is composed of three school districts in 26 barangays, with a total of 760 public school teachers in both high school and elementary levels.

In the recent Potensyal awards night held at the Hotel Philippine Plaza in Pasay City, Lapus highlighted the role of ICT in "empowering economic development," saying that its integration into the education system develops not only skilled but "globally competitive individuals who will form the future Philippine workforce."

Lapus pointed out that although the current curriculum advocates the innovative use of ICT to make learning more interactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative and authentic, there is still no technology-enhanced curriculum available.

While this may be true, the three winning teams managed to make their ICT plans come into fruition, as in the case of the Cebu school division.

In terms of curriculum, 49 elementary schools and two secondary schools are adopting a program called Computer Assisted Learning-Education in ICT, or CAL-Ed ICT, with more than 8,000 enrollees.

This extra large division with a total of 14,000 teaching and non-teaching personnel has five fully functional ICT centers located at strategic places, according to Microsoft’s PiL. The centers are equipped with multimedia and Internet con-nectivity for the training of teachers, administrators and other personnel. And with weekly training, close to 1,200 teaching and non-teaching personnel have so far been trained.

The division also gets help in essential training in programs like Adobe Photoshop, HTML and Web design from the provincial Sangguniang Kaba-taan Foundation, benefiting more than 200 ICT coordinators.

‘Academic powerhouse’

Even with a huge student population of 62,787, the Muntinlupa City school division has "a clear strategic direction for ICT," PiL said.

The division’s edge, it said, lies in its ICT "blueprint" and its key strengths stem from 100 percent ICT literacy of school principals, apart from having 98 percent of its teachers well-trained in ICT.

This "academic powerhouse," according to PiL, prides itself with all its high schools and 98 percent of its elementary schools using ICT in classroom instruction.

Officials of the Muntinlupa division worked on a dissertation entitled "Blended Learning Toward an Information and Communication Technology Strategic Direction" that led to the crafting of the ICT blueprint.

The Muntinlupa division, according to PiL, has consistently been one of the top performers in the National Achievement Test in the National Capital Region in the past three years. It has more than 15,000 teachers and 343 support personnel in 16 elementary schools and four secondary schools.

Microsoft Philippines’ PiL is an initiative to provide schools and students with access to ICT based on learning solutions to empower students with knowledge that would boost their competence and skills, thus enabling them to realize their full potential.

In its multi-phase search for the most outstanding schools in ICT development that began in 2005, PiL began with a pre-selection that confirmed the divisions’ adopted and inte-grated PiL programs, as well as the number of principals and teachers who have undergone training in digital literacy. Seventy-four divisions in Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao were considered eligible for the search.

The top 30 DepEd divisions then proceeded to the second phase of verification and validation where improvements on the selected entries were made.

In the 21st Century School System finals – the third phase – officials of the final 30 divisions were invited to attend a special session in Manila that improved their presentation skills in preparation for the panel judging held last Oct. 25. Here, they faced the judges and presented their documents and materials.

After deliberations, the panel chose the three school divisions with the "most sustainable and purpose-driven documents" on ICT. The top 3 were nominated to move to the fourth and last phase – "Realizing Potensyal" – and were recognized in the awarding rites.

Commitment to digital learning

Like the other school divisions in the country, the winning teams had to deal with lack of resources, including infrastructure. For Team Muntinlupa, PiL said its ICT-related targets and strategies correspond to areas of concern, namely infrastructure and hardware, and human resources capability-building, among others.

Team Cebu shared the same concern about hardware, as it wanted each of its schools to have a computer laboratory as well as full Internet connectivity for the entire province.

The Cebu division also aims to transform computer labs into school community e-centers "for sustainability, instructional materials and software, online courses and training for digital literacy, fluency and integration."

Latest DepEd estimates place "computer penetration" in schools at one for every 728 teachers. "At the elementary level, computer penetration is negligible," Lapus said.

"Our high school penetration is at one computer for every 111 (high school) students, and one for every three secondary school teachers," Lapus added.

Even though the country’s public education system is facing many odds, programs like PiL’s Potensyal have shown how much the private sector can help not only in improving the quality of learning, but in making the public appreciate the dedication of teachers and school adminis-trators to their students.

"In PiL programs like ‘No Teachers Left Behind’ and the Innovative Teachers Leadership Awards, for example, teachers have undergone training that enhanced their skills as educators. Potensyal, on the other hand, reveals how our teachers and school adminis-trators have successfully worked together to implement and employ what they have learned," said Michelle Casio, academic program manager of Microsoft Philippines.

After all, Potensyal’s initiative to help improve the school system is reflective of the commitment of schools and their divisions to better the learning environment of students.

Potensyal was implemented with the support of the Galileo Educational Corp., IT Works, Manila Broadcasting Co., Mobile Concepts Asia, and Smart Communications Inc.

Over the next five years, Microsoft’s PiL program will provide investments in software and over $250 million in cash grants worldwide to deliver technology skills training to students and teachers, and to assist in the integration of ICT into the school curricula and learning system. – With Sandy Araneta

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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