Bridging the digital divide for indigenous communities: PLDT, Smart tech-based IP initiatives underscore inclusive development

The Smart-backed Dynamic Learning Program will be used by IP learners in Sarangani - 1

Digital services provider PLDT and its wireless unit Smart Communications, Inc. (Smart) are showing the world that innovations can help make more people appreciate indigenous peoples (IP) heritage, while empowering remote communities through digital technology. 

Providing relevant digital tools  

In terms of helping ensure that IP learners would not be left behind amid the new normal of education, social outreach arm PLDT-Smart Foundation (PSF) recently donated tablets, Smart LTE pocket WiFi kits, and Smart Load to Barefoot Philippines. The UNICEF-affiliated youth organization for children’s rights works with an indigenous community of Aetas in Katutubo Village, Porac, Pampanga. 
  
PSF’s donation will be used for the community’s communal gadget area, where students can use the devices in rotation, by batches.  "Kami ay nagpapasalamat sa PLDT at Smart na nagbigay ng mga gadgets; makakatulong ang mga ito para sa aming virtual classes (We thank PLDT and Smart for these gadgets that can help us during our virtual classes)," said Lady Anne G. Duya, an IP learner from the Katutubo Village.  
   
A similar initiative under Smart’s flagship LearnSmart program is School-in-a-Bag, which deploys portable digital classrooms designed to support distance learning, even in remote areas without electricity and internet connectivity. Specially designed for online learning under the new normal, each water-resistant backpack carries 20 student tablets that are pre-loaded with educational content, a teacher's laptop, a pocket WiFi kit, and more.   

Smart employees deliver School-in-a-Bag to Ayangan Elementary School - 1
  
One IP beneficiary of the School-in-a-Bag is Ayangan Elementary School in Mayoyao, Ifugao. School-in-a-Bag packages for the said mountain school were funded through an employee fund-raising initiative called Smart Saturdays. These were personally delivered by the Smart Mountaineering Club and employee volunteers, after a 10-hour drive from the Makati head office to Benguet followed by a three-hour trek.   
   
Network supervisor Arvin Arcilla said he was glad for the opportunity to put his skills as a mountaineer to good use. “Since their main problem is accessibility, I wanted to help bring educational technologies to them.  We are all excited about what School-in-a-Bag can contribute to the education of these IP learners,” he says.   
  
Other IP communities who have benefitted from the School-in-a-Bag program include Monicayo Elementary School in Mabalacat, Pampanga and Sinaka IPEd Elementary School in Anticala, Butuan City. Overall, PLDT, Smart and various donors have deployed 300 portable digital classrooms to DepEd schools, which have helped bridge the digital divide for more than 80,000 underserved students and over 2,000 teachers nationwide.  

Supporting innovative teaching strategies 

Teachers from School-in-a-Bag beneficiary communities are also trained on the CVIF-Dynamic Learning Program (CVIF-DLP), a pandemic-resilient strategy that supports home learning and works in various online and offline delivery modalities. In Sarangani province, where 180 of the 320 public schools serve some 60,000 IP learners, the Department of Education’s regional division will be implementing CVIF-DLP in various learning modalities – Radio-based Instruction (RBI), Learning Resource on WiFi Hub for Expanded eLearning in Sarangani (LR on WHEeLS), and Modular.  

The Smart-backed Dynamic Learning Program will be used by IP learners in Sarangani - 2
   
Calay IP School, one of the pilot sites for the implementation of DLP for IPEd, will use indigenized and contextualized Learning Activity Sheets along with other IP schools. “Ang among mga kabataan diri bisag dili sila makaadto ug eskwelahan, makakat-on gihapon sila pinaagi sa radyo ug nagpadayon ilang pagtuon (Even though the students cannot go to their schools, learning still continues with the use of radio),” Dante Calay Sr., a community leader of Sitio Puting Bato in Malapatan shared about how the Smart-backed learning strategy has worked for them.  
   
Developed by Ramon Magsaysay laureates and world-renowned theoretical physicists Dr. Christopher Bernido and Dr. Ma. Victoria Carpio-Bernido, CVIF-DLP works in all primary and secondary academic levels, as well as in the Alternative Learning System (ALS), and targets the entire spectrum of learners, including Special Education students. “We’ve supported the CVIF-Dynamic Learning Program for over 10 years now because it provides concrete, tried-and-tested solutions to the problems faced by the education sector,” said Stephanie Orlino, AVP for Community Partnerships at Smart.    

Harnessing technology   

Young members of an IP tribe in Davao and Bukidnon can learn more about their language and culture through a mobile innovation developed by Smart with education stakeholders. The first tribal app of its kind, the Matigsalug app features songs, dances, and language of the Matigsalug tribe based in Marilog District in Davao City. Made to teach young IPs basic literacy, the app also allows anyone to learn and appreciate the undiscovered Matigsalug culture.  

IP learners using the Matigsalug literacy app
  
Another LearnSmart IP app is Gnarè Blaan, which carries interactive alphabet and number exercises and educational games depicting the culture of the Blaan tribe of Southern Mindanao. Developed in partnership with the local government of Sarangani, Gnarè Blaan is the 10th app in Smart’s roster of award-winning mother tongue -based literacy innovations. Others include Bahay Kubo (Filipino), Kaalam (Cebuano), Ta’allam and Tahderiyyah (Arabic), Kaaram (Waray), Katao (Inabaknon), Singsing (Kapampangan), and Sanut (Ilokano), all available for free on Google Play. Literacy apps for the Tagakaulo and T'boli tribes of Mindanao are also underway.  
  
“Developers of these advancements are committed to heritage preservation for the present and future generation,” said Darwin F. Flores, Head of Community Partnerships at Smart.   

IP learners using the Gnare Blaan literacy app

Economic revival through digital tourism 

Aside from education initiatives, PLDT and Smart also implement programs that help spur economic growth for IP communities.    
   
An innovation developed by Smart in partnership with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the KulToura app is a mobile travel guide to the Philippines that promotes culture and heritage, including those of IPs. “The KulToura app aims to give both tourists and students a better appreciation of Philippine culture and heritage. We hope to invite more travelers to explore our beautiful destinations while learning about the stories behind these places,” said NCCA Chair and National Artist Virgilio Almario.   
   
The digital tourism initiative is a collaboration between Smart, NCCA, the Department of Tourism, tech startup Innopub Media and partners from various LGUs for the creation of mobile guide apps and e-guides, and the installation of interactive tourism markers at selected landmarks and attractions. The markers feature QR codes and NFC chips that can download detailed information about the site onto one’s smartphone.  

Upskilling for sustainable livelihood  

To help provide equal livelihood opportunities for IP communities, PLDT recently announced that they will be conducting digital trainings for the Sinaka Eagle Bagtok Napunagan Kayupaton Association (SEBNAKA) IP community in Arakan, North Cotabato.    
  
Women in the said community will be part of PLDT-led webinar sessions to equip them with digital knowledge and skills for day-to-day activities. Participants include members of the Community Conservation Sew Mates Enterprise, backed by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). Trainings led by PLDT throughout the years have helped these IP women learn arts and craftsmanship, which resulted to the creation of the iconic Philippine Eagle plushies sold during PLDT’s selected CSR activities.
PLDT program for Arakan women    
“Sa tulong po ng webinar series ng PLDT, mas madadagdagan pa ang aming kaalaman at mas marami pa kaming matututunan. Mas malaki rin ang posibilidad na maibenta namin and mga produkto namin online upang magkaroon kami ng karagdagang kita (Through the help of PLDT, we will have additional knowledge and more things to learn. There will also be more possibilities for us to sell our products online to help us generate additional income),” said SEBNAKA leader Mercy Panawad.   
   
Aside from facilitating the digital trainings, PLDT will be donating 12 refurbished computers to the participating IP communities and their respective barangays, both for livelihood and education purposes. "Through these webinar sessions, PLDT empowers the Arakan women community to navigate the new normal," PLDT Community Relations Head Katherine Diaz De Rivera said.       

Rebuilding after calamities  

When Taal Volcano erupted late 2019, longtime IP residents in the coastal areas of San Luis town in Batangas bore the brunt of the eruption, with homes and sources of livelihood destroyed.   
  
Smart provided around 70 Aeta families or 300 individuals with pawid (nipa palm), sawali (bamboo mats), and other housing materials that they could use to build their new homes as they moved from the seaside to the town’s mountainous areas.   

Empowering all IP communities  

As the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the need to support IP communities, PLDT and Smart are committed to help the Philippines attain the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG #4: Quality Education, SDG #8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth, SDG #9: Innovation and Infrastructure, and SDG #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities as key areas.  
  
For more information on PLDT and Smart’s CSR programs, visit www.pldtsmartfoundation.orgwww.pldt.com and www.smart.com.ph.