Distance learning: How RPCVs can stay connected to the places they served

By Adrienne Benson
Nov. 10, 2022

When Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated en masse in March of 2020 due to the global pandemic, they left a huge hole in Education projects in communities big and small around the world. At the same time, those communities were also dealing with the changed face of education under lockdowns and social distancing rules.

The Peace Corps is a flexible agency, and our Volunteers are known for their ability to adapt, so in typical adaptive fashion, the Peace Corps quickly developed the Virtual Service Pilot (VSP), which has since been renamed Virtual Service. Through VSP, participants donate about 5-15 hours a week of their time to engage virtually with projects requested by host country partners. At first, only Volunteers who evacuated due to the pandemic were eligible, the program was expanded to include all returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).

Not that many years ago, the idea of teaching or learning via a computer connecting people thousands of miles apart would have seemed odd. We did it (who hasn’t attended at least one class in something random at YouTube University?) but, as a rule, it was seen as a novelty, not a legitimate means of education. However, the pandemic showed us what’s possible. And, as it turns out, distance learning has lots of benefits.

In the Philippines, Virtual Service implementation is led by program managers. They identify host country partners with whom they then develop the statement of virtual engagement (SoVE). Basically, the SoVE outlines the terms of of the assignment that meets a specific need for technical assistance.

High school building
Distance learning, in the Philippines and elsewhere, is going strong.

Program managers also facilitate documenting the project and ensuring that all the partnership paperwork required by the Virtual Service team in Washington, D.C., is in order. The office at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington recruits for and fills the position. Once the Virtual Service Participant is on board, the D.C. team is that person’s primary point of contact during the entirety of the engagement. While the Participant undertakes their weekly virtual engagements with host country partners, the program managers provide virtual guidance, supervision, and monitoring to verify that both the partner and the Participant are holding up their commitments and responsibilities.

Distance learning, in the Philippines and elsewhere, is going strong — even as Peace Corps Volunteers return to service on the ground in communities around the world. It seems that, at this point, the cat is out of the bag and distance learning is here to stay. As we celebrate the notion of distance learning, lets zoom (no pun intended) back in on the Philippines, where one Participant was recently honored.

Mark Merala was one of the plenary speakers for the Philippine Science High School System's National Teachers' Convention in August this year. Mark joined the convention via Zoom and shared his expertise on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) for personalized education. As an RPCV who served in Mexico and the Philippines, Mark continued his involvement in the Peace Corps and with his Filipino community through virtual service.

For many RPCVs, maintaining a connection to the places they served is a common goal. Most of the time, that connection must be maintained over quite a distance. What better way to keep the connection and continue to contribute than virtually? Distance learning — and teaching — is an excellent option for so many of RPCVs, and the benefits are incalculable for everyone involved.

The author, Adrienne Benson