Bridging cultural divide through high-tech learning

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[MANILA] PeaceTech, a Philippine-based NGO, and the Department of Education (DepEd) are partnering in a videoconference program to foster understanding and tolerance among youths living in different parts of the country separated by distance, different cultures, religions and even armed conflict.

In its first phase, which started three years ago, PeaceTech showcased videoconferencing at big events in selected areas of the country.

Now, the NGO is targeting schools in the predominantly Catholic region of Metro Manila and those in Mindanao, some 1,200 kilometres from the capital and the southernmost major island in the Philippines. Mindanao has a sizable Muslim population but is wracked by conflict in certain areas.

Dana de Guzman, manager of the classroom videoconference program at PeaceTech, explains the importance of their project in a rather simple comparative terms, if troublemakers are using the Internet and advances in technology to recruit members then why not peacemakers do the same to promote peace and understanding.

Ramon Magsaysay (Cubao) High School in Quezon City, Metro Manila, where PeaceTech’s videoconference program is being implemented.

Grades seven and eight students at two public high schools in the country use the program in both their history and values classes, where they learn good character and manners. At Ramon Magsaysay (Cubao) High School, teachers and students underwent orientation to familiarise themselves with the equipment and the culture of their partner school in Mindanao, the Cotabato City National High School.

Manila teacher, Luzviminda Dela Cruz, asks questions to the students located in Mindanao.

PeaceTech’s program requires a teacher in Manila to lead class sessions with the students in Mindanao. A teacher in Mindanao does the same with the students participating in Manila. The students are graded by their respective teachers whose curriculum is a more interactive version of the one outlined by DepEd.

For Dela Cruz, who does not own a computer and just recently started teaching Asian history after ten years as a Philippine history teacher, video conferencing can be challenging.

“It needs more energy and a lot of preparation,” she tells SciDev.Net. “You have to study hard, study a lot, to be familiar especially with the traditions of the Muslims.”

Dana de Guzman from PeaceTech sets up the day’s lesson plan.

De Guzman is present at every class to assist with technical matters. She tells SciDev.Net that the experience over the past few weeks has been an eye opener for all.

“The two classes really had no idea on what’s what with the other side, especially the students coming from Manila. Like it’s a big deal— ‘oh you have malls also’ — and find out that [Mindanao] is not so different after all.”

Students from Cotabato City National High School in Mindanao speaking with their peers in Manila. Photo provided by PeaceTech.

Local media frequently portray Mindanao as a turbulent area burdened by a refugee crisis, high poverty rates and insurgency. Little is mentioned about its rich culture and beautiful landscape.

In October 2012, a landmark peace deal was signed between the national government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. A bill finalising the agreement is now hanging in Congress, which means there is even greater need for deeper understanding and tolerance across the country.

A group of grade seven students in Manila deliver their Asian history presentation.

Towards the end of class, the Manila students talk about ancient tribes in the Philippines. Just a few weeks into the program and the energy is high.

Dela Cruz says that although “adapting to the program has been hard work, it’s worth it” when she thinks about the impact technology is having in her classroom.

“I observe the students who are very shy before, now they’re very active and cooperative,” she notes. “Now, because of PeaceTech’s program, they’re always prepared and alert.”

De Guzman signing off with the school in Mindanao.

De Guzman says that DepEd has given PeaceTech the green light to expand its program to other schools. What they need now is funding. Among several organisations they are trying to tap is Microsoft, whose software the NGO widely uses.

De Guzman says more young people could benefit from PeaceTech’s program: “There’s so much more to learn.”

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.