On March 10, when Philippine schools shut to slow the spread of COVID-19, April Garcia’s job was upended.
The 22-year-old had recently become a teacher at AHA! Learning Center, a private non-profit school in Makati, the Philippines’ financial hub.
Instead of explaining words and math problems to first graders in her classroom, she suddenly had to find a way to reach about 80 students over the Internet in a country with meager bandwidth and poor families with few devices to connect.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “How was I going to teach the kids?”
The pandemic has shut schools around the world, exacerbating a digital divide that leaves poorer children with less Internet access falling behind wealthier, more connected students.
The Philippines is an extreme example.
At least 60 percent of households have limited Internet access, according to the World Bank, and mobile Internet speeds are less than half the global average, Speedtest Global Index data show.
Two weeks after the shutdown, AHA decided to deliver lessons using a low-bandwidth version of Facebook Inc’s Messenger because it is free. The problem is, the service strips out videos and photographs.
That left teaching via text as the best option for most poor families with kids at the school, AHA founder Jaton Zulueta said.
The students now follow an elaborate procedure just to keep up. First, they often have to borrow a smartphone and a Facebook account, usually from their parents. Then, teachers send a series of questions via text on the Messenger app. The kids work on the answers, scribbling notes and doing calculations on paper at home. Next, they copy and paste each question back into Messenger and type in their answers before clicking send.
“It was hard at first,” Garcia said.
Some classes, such as math, are much more difficult when you cannot send graphs and other visual aids to explain problems.
“I cannot see the kid and when they have a question, they can get shy,” she said.
Seventh-grader John Limp Arucan, 12, said that math has been especially tough to learn this way.
J.L, as he is known, finds it particularly taxing to calculate answers on paper only to have to type them into his mother’s phone afterward.
He said it was hard to learn without seeing the teacher’s face.
Garcia has turned math drills into games to reduce the burden. Several months ago, she started texting her students a daily math problem using emojis in place of numbers.
There is another issue: Teachers use group texts to send out questions, so when one student answers, the whole class can see, increasing the chance of copying and cheating, she said.
“We decided to be more lenient with the deadlines,” she said, adding that most children do not own their own smartphones and have to wait for their parents to come home to borrow their device. “So we give the kids a whole day to answer the drills.”
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