Internet connectivity and suitable devices for distance learning in an electronic environment

More and more classes and even entire schools are moving to distance learning in an electronic environment. In the coming weeks, their number will continue to increase. This raises the question even more of how online learning will be provided to students without suitable devices or without internet connectivity at home. What are the current developments on this issue and what can school principals, teachers and parents do?

Schools face two types of problems in providing distance learning in an electronic environment: the lack of suitable devices (tablets, computers and smartphones) and the lack of internet connectivity. These challenges existed in the spring, they still exist today.

About internet connectivity

The Ministry of Education took steps to address the problem of internet connectivity in April and May. These steps are partial, but can still be used at this time.

The most systematic solution is the opportunity provided by schools to incur costs for the supply of Internet connectivity at the place of residence of students who for social reasons do not have access to the Internet. This will apply in cases when the present learning process in the school is temporarily suspended by prescription of a competent authority, due to which the education of students is carried out remotely in an electronic environment. This became possible after the Council of Ministers adopted an amendment to the Ordinance on the financing of institutions in the system of preschool and school education, adopted by Council of Ministers Decree №219 of 2017. Schools will be able to pay these costs from the savings made in connection with the introduction of distance learning. The measure refers to the cases in which Distance Learning is introduced.

In the spring, mobile operators provided preferential prices to schools for paying for flash drives and prepaid internet. Many schools have benefited and provided connectivity for the most vulnerable children. The Ministry of Education and Science and mobile operators have agreed on these preferential prices for all distance learning cases, which means that they are still valid.

About the need for electronic devices

The big problem remains the lack of suitable devices. According to the Ministry of Education and Science, between 35,000 and 45,000 students do not have such devices. A survey by the Amalipe Center in March found that in 200 schools with a concentration of students from vulnerable groups, more than a quarter of children do not have devices. In some of the schools this percentage exceeds 75, which makes it virtually impossible to implement online distance learning.

Since the spring, many schools, as well as the Amalipe Center and other NGOs, have alerted to the need to set up a school fund for electronic devices to be provided in the case of distance learning in an electronic environment. The MES has taken two steps to address this issue, the first of which is currently available

  1. At its meeting on October 13, the Council of Ministers decided to allocate BGN 14 million for the urgent purchase of 16,000 laptops for the needs of schools, teachers and students.
  2. Another 80,000 devices will be provided under the European Crisis Response Instrument Covid 19.

The funds provided by the Council of Ministers can be used immediately for the purchase of 16,000 devices. The funds have already been provided to all schools, and the schools receive funds for different numbers depending on the number of students enrolled. This means that a school with 1,000 students will receive 10 times more devices than a school with 100 students – regardless of how many children in both schools have or do not have their own devices that allow effective participation in distance learning in an electronic environment.

An order of Minister Valchev from October 26 determines how much money each school receives for the purchase of how many computers. The order also determines the technical parameters of the purchased laptops. Each school only has to organize the purchase by looking for different suppliers and buying from them computers with the specified characteristics. Unfortunately, it is not possible to purchase devices with lower parameters, although they would be a larger number. For example, it is not permissible for the school to buy 20 tablets instead of 3 laptops.

The order also states that during the face-to-face learning process, the purchased laptops will be used in the classes in various subjects in classrooms. Thus, the computer fund of the respective school will be renewed. In cases of absent learning process, the devices must be provided to students to provide learning in an electronic environment. The order even requires schools that do not have students without their own devices to support other schools with a large number of students without devices.

A similar approach will be used in the distribution of devices received under the React EU program. When purchasing devices from this program, it is necessary to follow a few more steps, which will slow down the process by several months. It is very likely that this will not happen until the middle or even the end of the second school term. At the insistence of the European Commission, the devices will be purchased through a centralized order or orders, and not from individual schools.

As the program includes the purchase of 60,000 devices for students and 20,000 devices for teachers of a similar high class, the Amalipe Center also offered the opportunity to purchase tablets at a significantly lower cost. They will be provided to schools with an identified lack of appropriate online learning devices, and schools will be able to provide them temporarily to students. The Ministry of Education and Science has accepted this proposal and tablets are expected to be purchased with the devices.

These two important supplies of computer devices have a chance to solve one of the important problems faced by the application of distance learning in the second term of the past school year, namely – the lack of computer devices for some students. The purchased devices will be used not only to solve this problem, but also to upgrade computers in schools, as many of them are already obsolete and need to be replaced quickly.

In addition, schools with children without appropriate devices can use the following opportunities:

I. To buy tablets or other devices with the funds for materials they receive for the extracurricular activities under the Education for Tomorrow project. This is a perfectly eligible cost, which is also evident from a message uploaded to the project platform:

“In the current emergency situation and the measures taken for distance learning is justified and eligible part of the costs provided for Activity 6” Increasing the digital competence and skills of students in the form of extracurricular activities (interest clubs and additional activities on key digital skills – basic and advanced, including computer modeling / coding) “, to purchase equipment and devices (tablets, laptops, computers, printers, data cards, Mi-Fi devices, etc.) that are below the materiality thresholds for long-term assets according to the accounting policy of the schools, but in strict compliance with national and European legislation. In this regard, each school must keep all project documentation, including all supporting documents proving their payment. Adequate audit trail should be available for the incurred expenses, including the requirements for storage of the documents under Art. 140 of Regulation (EU) № 1303/2013. The documentation for purchasing devices and Internet packages that should be available at the school is as follows:

  1. Requests for the purchase of devices or internet packages, signed by the heads of the respective clubs and the school principal;
  2. Supply contract with attached offer (if applicable) or report with a proposal for the specific cost;
  3. Primary supporting document (invoice);
  4. Payment order certified by the bank / bank statement or fiscal receipt / import note or expense cash order, proving the payment;
  5. Handover protocols.

Please note that currently in the schools in the country are carried out remote activities of interest on two system projects with a specific beneficiary Ministry of Education and Science – BG05M2OP001-2.012-0001 “Education for tomorrow” (activity 6) and BG05M2OP001- 2.011-0001 “Support for Success” (activity 5). In this regard, double funding should be avoided and duplication of costs for devices / internet packages provided to students / teachers should not be allowed. “

II. To look for donors to provide them with the necessary devices. Some schools, such as the one in the village of Karadjovo, have already done so successfully.

III. In April, the Amalipe Center, together with our partners from the “Tеach for Bulgaria” foundation, launched a campaign “Old devices for a new beginning”, which is gaining momentum. Through it, we have already collected and distributed 800 devices, with which we have supported 76 schools. We expect to support at least that much more.

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