Senators move to strengthen virtual online learning amid pandemic

Senators on Wednesday expressed their support for the creation of a government body that will oversee the effective implementation of open and distance education programs for the tertiary level throughout the country.

Senator Pia Cayetano said such initiative is a welcome development especially since all schools and universities are now struggling to adjust to the “new normal.”

“I very much welcome the efforts and any initiative to strengthen (our law on distance learning education) further, including creating an office that will really be able to maximize the intention of the (existing) law),” Cayetano said during Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate committee on higher, technical and vocational education headed by Sen. Joel Villanueva.

Villanueva’s committee tackled Senate Bill No. 1459 or the proposed “Tertiary Online Learning and Distance Education” which was filed by Sen. Francis Tolentino. The bill primarily seeks to address a void in Republic Act No. 10650 or the Open Distance Learning (ODL) Act of 2014 “by reaching out to students in the tertiary level to make use of virtual learning platforms in times of calamity or crisis.”

Once passed into law, the proposed Tertiary Online Learning and Distance Education Office, under the supervision of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), will be tasked to institutionalize online and distance learning systems in all colleges and universities.

Cayetano said the bill, if enacted into law, will complement the existing ODL law principally authored by the late Sen. Edgardo Angara, which institutionalized open distance and flexible learning methods in all levels of tertiary education in the country.

She helped usher the bill’s passage into law as chairperson of the Senate committee on education, arts and culture in the 16th Congress, drawing inspiration from Filipina migrant workers in Hong Kong who took online classes during their free time.

“At that time, we did not foresee a pandemic. In fact, the use of Internet was just starting…But the point is, we already saw this need as a whole, and I’m very happy that this is in place and is actually in use. It was meant to institutionalize a practice that already existed,” she further stressed.

Cayetano, at the same time, said she also supports the need to improve digital connectivity in the Philippines, in order to ensure the proper implementation of distance and online learning in all Philippine schools.

“I support the concern that was raised about connectivity for the private sector. Let’s see what we can do about that immediately. Because we recognize that they are integral partners in the delivery of higher education to our youth. So that really must be something that we should work on,” she said.

Villanueva, said he too, recognizes the hardships students face, as the shift to online education is difficult in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic. He said this is where the Department of Information and Communication Technology’s (DICT) expertise should come in.

During the hearing, CHED Chairman Prospero De Vera urged the committee to ensure that the DICT will also be able to help smaller private institutions and universities ensure Internet connectivity once the government rolls out its online education programs since they have limited financial capacity.

“Our experience in the Senate as we transitioned to online hearings has shown that the shift is difficult and presents a lot of challenges. Paano pa kaya ang hirap ng ating mga (how much more the hardship faced by our) students and faculty?” Villanueva pointed out during the hearing.

“As you are already aware, we put P3-billion under ‘Bayanihan 2’ (Bayanihan to Recover As One Act) for the development of ‘smart campuses.’ However, we really need to find a way to help small and medium colleges for their connectivity because the DICT only provides support to SUCs and we need to improve on this,” he said.

“The bottomline here is that we all need to be more creative and be more concerned with the plight of the more vulnerable and high-risk stakeholders: our students, teachers, and most especially, small private colleges and TVIs (technical vocational institutions) that are tuition-dependent,” he stressed.

Tolentino said the proposed Tertiary Online Education and Distance Office will not only serve as the lead agency for open distance learning but also prescribe minimum curriculum requirements for online and distance learning.

“Amending this (ODL) Act by creating said Office will eliminate the need for students to take a gap year due to lack of resources or worry about the possibility of being delayed in finishing their studies just so they can avoid the risk of contracting the novel Coronavirus or COVID-19,” Tolentino emphasized.