Joshuas Experience: What it means to have an online classes on the countryside
Hello everyone! I'm Joshua Pocaan, an incoming third year college student at De La Salle University here in the Philippines and I am currently taking up Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. It is an honor for me to share with you my experiences on this platform. As we all navigate this new normal and as we shift to an online world more significantly, I would like to share about my life amidst the pandemic, and specifically share about how I am dealing with online education.
I am living at a dormitory near my school in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. But when the lockdown (dubbed as the community quarantine) was announced on March 16, I immediately travelled back to my home in the province--in Albay, Bicol, 500 kilometers away from Manila. It was in the middle of our second term for the academic year and everything was uncertain. Everyone was expecting that the lockdown will only last for a month, so I thought of this time as a midterm break. Our university already has an online learning management system (Canvas) but we only use it as a submission platform and not for delivery of instruction. So, I really expected that this will be a break from a stressful term. However, as the number of COVID-19 cases rise, so does the extension of the lockdown period. With this, the inevitable has come. The University, just like other schools in the country and even in other parts of the world, is forced to shift to an online mode of learning to continue our term.
Distance between home and my school.
Being stuck in the province seems to be a great life for those who wish to escape the fast-paced city life. But in reality, it is difficult especially if you need to stay connected with the world. Internet infrastructure is not reliable in the Philippines. In fact, there are 4000 users per cellular tower in the country compared to the ideal 100 to 200 users per tower, which says a lot that the infrastructure available is congested and lacking. As for my case, the nearest cellular tower to our home is 5 kilometers away. Equipped with my mobile phone internet connection and added with a challenging terrain, climbing upstairs and staying on the rooftop at my grandmother’s house is necessary if you want to have an internet connection. That is what I needed to deal with to complete the last four weeks of the term. Luckily, I finished the term with good grades.
This is my grandmother's house which I climb up to the rooftop to have an internet connection. The arrow point where I sit as this is the optimal position that I should be to get a decent signal reception
This is where I sit, at the rooftop of my grandmother's house
This is the view from the rooftop at my grandmother's house. This is where I get to have signal for the internet. Look how the terrain can significantly attenuate the signal.
This is our home, just a short walk from my grandmother's house.
Here is the view of the shoreline, which I get to enjoy everyday without the internet.
A view from my grandmother's rooftop
You may ask why I did not get a prepaid Wi-Fi or even get a postpaid internet plan. There is only one internet service provider in our area and they do not offer any postpaid plan because our address is "too remote". Thus, I got prepaid Wi-Fi for PhP 999.00 (~$10), but again, getting signal is difficult. I needed to do something because I cannot take my third term for the next fourteen weeks staying all day on the roof under the heat of the sun just to take my classes. So, that's what I did.
I needed an antenna for my prepaid Wi-Fi so that I can get a signal without the need to get on the roof. It was quite difficult to find one, but I managed to find an antenna seller on Facebook from Mindanao, another major island in the Philippines 700 kilometers away from where I live, for PhP 3000 (~$60) and took the risk to buy it. Thankfully, the antenna arrived after three weeks, and I finally managed to get a better internet connection.
Distance between our home and Mindanao.
Here is my dad, installing the antenna for the prepaid Wi-Fi.
Internet connection speed.
Yes, that's the speed I've been working with for the last 14 weeks in the daytime. With this speed, I can watch videos at low resolution loading for 10 minutes. Or, join a video conference for class only in audio without seeing anything that is being screen-shared by the professor. Honestly, it's way better than the speed that I get from the rooftop. Sometimes I just choose to work at night until sunrise so that I can keep up with my lessons. When there are quizzes, I ask everyone in the house to disconnect from the internet just to make sure I get all the bandwidth. It feels like I'm living in the 90’s when there's a need to announce to everyone at home to not use the phone because someone's using the internet. Not that we had the internet as early as that. There are also times when the internet is fast and stable, but it’s only for a short period of time.
Aside from the internet problem, there is also the unreliable power service in our province. There was not a week without power interruption, worse that it is unannounced. It makes me feel uneasy throughout the term knowing that power may be cut-off anytime, during a quiz or a lecture. In fact, it happened to me a lot of times that I needed to get back to my usual routine of climbing up to the rooftop to submit my quizzes or continue the lecture.
Given that situation, I tried to explain to my professors whenever I would pass my work late. There are some who understand my situation, and some of those who don’t. I sometimes try to argue with them and tell them how difficult it is to deal with this kind of internet speed and power interruptions, but they keep on insisting that I should do something with my situation -- even if I gave them the complete context of what’s happening.
Thankfully, I finished my term with flying colors, with only one subject deferred that I can complete until next term, which will already start on October 19. I got a deferred grade for the subject because I was unable to take a long quiz because of internet and power interruptions. Thankfully, everything is fine now since my professor gave me another chance to take the exam. This experience made me realize more that our country was never ready to implement online classes for everyone as the internet infrastructure is not prepared to take the sudden spike in the demand. To be honest, I am still privileged enough to even take online classes despite the difficulty of my situation. I get to continue my studies, and have the chance to finish my degree on time. However, a lot must be done by our government and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to fast-track the expansion and improvement of their reach so that everyone can be given equal opportunity and access to education. Students do not deserve to be troubled over something that the government and companies should be providing to everyone.
To give you some perspective, internet penetration in the Philippines, which is the percentage of internet users for the whole population, is only around 71% compared to neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore with over 80%. Translating that number, almost 30 million out of 100 million Filipinos do not have any form of internet connection which deprives them of opportunities. This number is also as large as the public education sector, which unfortunately 26% of them are the only ones connected to the internet. Access to devices (e.g. smartphones, laptops, computers), which most of the students do not have, is another major issue. There is also still a need to help prepare teachers adapt better as they are also struggling with this shift.
The Department of Education also adopted an alternative mode of learning--through modules. Learning modules were distributed from the schools and parents will be responsible for the students' learning. This is especially challenging for parents who also don't have the capability to teach their kids and for parents who are working. My brother is currently in the 8th Grade, and I can see that he is also stressed out studying the modules. He would sometimes cry over a module because he was unable to understand the lesson. So, when he needs help, I stop my own work and try to teach him. There are also times when the internet is fast enough that I give him YouTube videos which he can follow through for his modules.
Although the modular learning for my brother is manageable for him, there are a lot of reports in the news that students are overwhelmed with the workload. I can say this is also true, especially that I am required to be always connected to the internet. There are times when you have done multiple assignments and then in the middle of the night, your professor posts another task that is immediately due the following day. It’s as if there is no line between school hours and rest hours, and that just because we are at home for our education means that it’s the only thing we need to do. As much as some of the professors allow late submissions, the amount of workload creates a huge amount of backlogs. The university gave us a week of independent learning, which somehow became an academic break for some. But for me, this is not really the case as I am taking major subjects which are heavier than the usual subjects. These are subjects that are expected to show up in the board examination for chemical engineers. Thankfully, Pathways is always there to check up on me, not just for academics but also with my mental health as challenges faced by students are not only limited to internet connectivity and power interruptions.
Studying in the province can be really relaxing and conducive for learning as it can be really quiet, even during day time. I study in our small balcony, and people in our small barangay (neighborhood) always check on how I am doing. They seem to be amazed that I am here in the province when they know that I am studying in Manila. You can see it in their faces, especially the elederly, whenever they see me talking in front of a screen. I can go to the shore easily and walk around our barangay since fortunately there are no Covid-19 cases in our barangay and the whole municipality. Strict implementation of the protocols are actually only carried out in city centers such as Manila.
Although the surrounding is relaxing and conducive, reliable services are lacking in the province, especially in our area. The reality is that these services in the countryside were never delivered as quickly as they have been delivered in the cities. The sparse population is one factor. These unreliable services are what gives me constant anxiety as I always worry if I will be able to finish all my work on time. Additionally, services in the province can also be really expensive. I pay almost PhP 3000 (~$60) a month for internet expenses. Luckily, the support I get from Pathways and Aiducation has helped me get through.
The people in the barangay, my brother getting stressed out over a module, my family supporting me in my studies, and Pathways are what pushes me to overcome these challenges. I should be able to get through the term as I am privileged enough to have a professor who actually teaches real time. I don’t have any modules that I need to work on by myself, without the guidance of a teacher. I am supported by a loving family and Pathways, and I get to finish my studies on time. This experience has taught me to work with and make the best of the resources available around me. However, it is important to note that the privilege of being connected to the internet and having online classes because of the pandemic should not be a privilege in the first place but a basic necessity for every Filipino and every person around the world.
As of writing, it has been 214 days since the Philippines was put on lockdown. But even though this is the case, I decided to move back to the city to be able to get a more stable internet connection. This is because by October 25, I will be starting my thesis term. It will be very difficult as movement will be more limited than what I am used to here in the province. This pandemic has shown the shortcomings not just of the government, but also companies in providing a reliable service for everyone. Additionally, this has also shown how we are left behind by our neighboring countries severely because of the lack of sense of urgency and the need to adapt by our government to the digital world. I just hope that the government will see what is really happening, and go beyond their egos of not listening to what science is telling us to do. Without that, our country will be dealing with this problem for a long time. For now, I hope that the ease of movement in other countries continues and that the COVID-19 situation will not become as worse as ours.
Just my tip to those who are dealing with the same situation as mine: try to be as calm as possible when there is a power outage or unstable internet connection. Panicking and being frustrated over this cannot do anything aside from making yourself more stressed out. I understand that we’re humans and it’s valid that we feel these things. However, this problem is much bigger than us and a collective effort must be done to solve it. If possible, try the alternative ways that are available to you. Seek help and also give help if you can. Ultimately, the most important thing is to stay safe and follow protocols. We’ll all get through this, together, someday.
How about you in your countries? How has been the situation for you? I’d like to hear how you are dealing with the pandemic, too.
Stay safe everyone!
Breakfast with my family.