30 years of building and strengthening the ‘S’ in ALS

30 years of building and strengthening the ‘S’ in ALS

Philip Purnell

“Assistant Secretary G.H. Ambat commented: ‘DepEd ALS 2.0 would have remained a dream without the assistance of SEAMEO INNOTECH.’ While such feedback is heart-warming, more important are the smiles on the faces and stories of thousands of OSY and adults I’ve seen in my visits to ALS sites across the country, of how ALS renewed their self-esteem, reengaged them as lifelong leaners, opened up new possibilities and career pathways, and helped improve their quality of life.”


SEAME INNOTECH’s support to the Department of Education or DepEd’s Alternative Learning System (ALS) spans over three decades. It began with an idea between the Center’s then Senior Research Specialist Dr. Eligio Barsaga and Napoleon Imperial of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), that real-life experiences are sources of knowledge and formal and non-formal programs should interface. This idea became integrated in the 1990 Education for All Philippine Plan of Action (EFA-PPA) approved by the late President Corazon Aquino as the Philippines’ commitment to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Decade for Literacy. Originally known as the Nonformal Education Accreditation and Equivalency (NFE A&E) System, the ALS built an alternative pathway of learning and certification for out-of-school youth (OSY) and adults who dropped out or never completed basic education.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided a USD$26 million loan to support a five-year Philippine Nonformal Education (PNFE) Project (1994-1999), with USD$26 million counterpart support from the Philippine Government and a USD$1.6 million technical assistance grant from the Royal Norwegian Government.

In 1996, I became a consultant to support the development of the ALS that would continue for over 24 years. When I began my assignment in the DepEd (formerly the Department of Education, Culture and Sports or DECS) Bureau of Nonformal Education (BNFE), the PNFE project was in disarray. The implementation was extremely slow and those tasked to build and operationalize it did not understand “ALS.” Initial efforts to develop a curriculum, learning materials, and an equivalency exam failed. One of my first recommendations was the termination of contracts with three premier universities to develop ALS elementary and secondary self-instructional materials.

From 1996 to 2001, I worked with a dedicated team of BNFE personnel led by Dr. Rosario J. De Guzman to institutionalize ALS, which involved reconceptualizing the meaning of “ALS” and developing a curriculum, elementary and secondary level learning modules, a flexible learning delivery system (with accompanying Manual of Operations), an equivalency testing and certification system and essential management support systems.

Throughout this journey (which significantly accelerated my hair loss), INNOTECH was a partner. In 1998, when INNOTECH supported the Literacy Coordinating Council in developing a new definition of Functional Literacy (FL), I was invited to an FL definition validation meeting. I recommended to DepEd the five dimensions of functional literacy and their indicators to be used as a framework for the new life-skills-focused NFE A&E curriculum. A curriculum development workshop was held at INNOTECH with then Director Dr. Minda Sutaria as consultant (with her erstwhile associate Dr. Nenita Guerrero). With a team of NFE experts, content specialists, and curriculum gurus (including INNOTECH staff — Ely Barsaga, Ophel Veniegas and Debbie Lacuesta), we developed an ALS Curriculum covering Basic Literacy, Elementary and Secondary levels. It was approved by DECS on July 30, 1998 and became the foundation for the development of other NFE A&E System components – the NFE A&E learning delivery system and the A&E equivalency test and learning modules.

DepEd engaged INNOTECH to develop the A&E learning materials, spread over three phases from 1998 to 2000: (1) Development of the Materials for the A&E Pilot test; (2) Revision and Expansion of A&E Modules; (3) Development of Academic-focused  bridging modules (for ALS students wanting to go to college); plus the development of supplementary materials including audio cassettes, videos and a Science and Math kit. I provided INNOTECH technical guidance in developing and quality assuring the materials. I recall spending months camped out in the Research Office with Dr. Sutaria and Ms. Hortensia Benoza, reviewing the materials and sharing stories and laughs. The output was the foundation learning resources of the ALS. As testament to the quality of INNOTECH — developed materials — 20 years later, they are still being used by the DepEd ALS. The program was launched on January 26, 1999 at Smokey Mountain, Tondo, amidst flies, a mountain of smoldering garbage and scavenging families, by former President Joseph Estrada.

The ALS was successfully piloted under the ADB-PNFE project and in 2000 was awarded the UNESCO Noma Literacy Prize for its innovation in non-formal education program design and delivery. The Philippine ALS System became globally recognized as a best practice and has been studied and adapted by Nepal, Bhutan, Haiti, Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR, with INNOTECH tapped to organize ALS international benchmarking study visits.

As a result of my work for the ADB-PNFE Project, in 2001, Dr. Erlinda Pefianco asked me to join INNOTECH as a specialist. It was my pleasure and honor. I have always dreamed of working at INNOTECH as I passed by the Center on my daily commute to DepEd. I felt blessed to work for a prestigious organization with a talented staff and a vision of promoting access to quality education for all.

Joining the Center, I continued to nurture growth and institutionalization of ALS. This included helping write the Government of the Philippines PNFE Project Completion Report for submission to ADB, enhancement of the NFE A&E Curriculum, and capacity building of DepEd personnel on ALS innovations. The ADB rated the PNFE Project as one of its most successful Philippine education projects. I’m proud and blessed for the opportunity to be part of this resuscitation, recovery and redevelopment effort.


INNOTECH continued support the strengthening the DepEd ALS program with the development partners: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Bank, and the Philippine Congress. For two decades as INNOTECH Management Committee member, I continued to serve as and ALS Senior Adviser providing technical assistance (TA) to DepEd, or NGOs (such as the Education Development Center, Creative Associates) and local NGOs in supporting its scale-up and continuous quality improvement.

The Duterte administration included ALS in the government’s flagship projects. Center Director Dr. Ramon Bacani offered the DepEd Team led by Secretary Leonor Briones, INNOTECH’s free technical assistance to help strengthen the “S” (systemic elements) in ALS. This TA in partnership with the DepEd ALS team led by Assistant Secretary G.H. Ambat, and support from the World Bank, resulted in the development of a five-year strategic roadmap for a new ALS version known as ALS 2.0. I continued to support the ALS 2.0 reforms through provision of ongoing TA, including the overhaul of the ALS curriculum to align with K to 12; revision and redevelopment of its policies and implementing guidelines; strengthening ALS testing and certification; proposals for enhanced governance through legislation; and such innovations as online testing, project-based learning, integration of vocational skills training (ALS-EST), micro-certification and enhanced quality assurance systems.

INNOTECH has also provided technical support to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Ministry of Basic, Technical and Higher Education (MBTHE) to use alternative learning modalities including the ALS to uplift the lives of the Bangsamoro people through enhanced access to quality basic education.

INNOTECH was recognized as a Center for thought leadership in alternative education in Southeast Asia. In the 2020 SEAMEO INNOTECH Client and Interested Parties Satisfaction Survey (CIPSS), DepEd Assistant Secretary G.H. Ambat commented: DepEd ALS 2.0 would have remained a dream without the assistance of SEAMEO INNOTECH.” While such feedback is heart-warming, more important are the smiles on the faces and stories of thousands of OSY and adults I’ve seen in my visits to ALS sites across the country, of how ALS renewed their self-esteem, reengaged them as lifelong leaners, opened up new possibilities and career pathways, and helped improve their quality of life.

Over three million OSY and adult learners have benefited from the program. Currently, annual enrolment averages 500,000. These millions of faces continue to be the driving force of my passion as an employee of the Center. The journey of SEAMEO INNOTECH in building and strengthening the “S” in ALS continues. Recently, the Center signed an agreement with a long-standing partner, the EDC, for another 5-year project funded by USAID – Opportunity 2.0 – to lead the capacity building of ALS implementers tasked to enliven DepEd ALS 2.0 reforms. It is also negotiating a UNICEF-DepEd agreement to provide technical assistance to the DepEd ALS Taskforce to capacitate ALS implementers on using INNOTECH’s Mobile Technology for Teachers (MT4T) resources to strengthen safe and responsible digital citizenship.

I will likely be retired from the Center before these projects draw to a close. But the future of the Center’s technical leadership in alternative education is in good hands with the next generation ready to pick up the baton and journey into an exciting new phase of the Center’s history as a champion of inclusive and quality education for all!


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