Cover Story: Distance Learning

    We all know that staying in school is your best bet, but what happens when a pandemic forces us to stay home? In this month’s CoverStory, we take a look at what schools administrators, teachers, and students are doing to cope with the Pandemic, and how they’re adjusting to distance learning. Even during these strange times, the learning can’t stop.

    Education in the New Norm:

    Based on notes from Dr. Michael M. Alba, President, Far Eastern University

    What is the new norm in education?

    Far Eastern University president Dr. Michael Alba sees two distinct phases in the new norm. First is a short- to medium-term covid-contemporaneous norm, to be followed by a more enduring post-covid norm once a vaccine is found.

    He cites an article in The Economist magazine that sees the covid-contemporaneous norm ending as early as September this year for North America and Europe, and January next year for the rest of the world—if all goes well with the Oxford University vaccine, which is the most advanced among the 180 vaccines under development.

    However, at least for the next six months, while a vaccine is unavailable, not just education but virtually all aspects of daily life will be in a twilight zone, an uncharted territory beset by uncertainty, fear, illness, and limited economic activity.

    Covid-contemporaneous education

    In traditional school settings, the physical classroom is an enclosed space with poor air circulation (usually due to air-conditioning), and classes are held over long periods—conditions that have been identified as conducive to the spread of the virus. Definitely, until mass vaccination can ensure public safety, remote learning appears to be the only viable option for continued education. The challenge for educators now is how to offer an immersive, engaging, and transformative schooling experience away from school.

    Fortunately, FEU is well-placed to deliver a quality remote learning schooling experience because, according to Alba: “We were one of the first adopters of the Canvas learning management system in the Philippines and have used it since 2016. Second, through FEU’s institutional subscription, our faculty and students have free access to the Microsoft Office Suite of applications including Teams. Third, we’ve invested on education technology and IT infrastructure. Most critically, our faculty have been extensively trained in digital literacy since 2016, and, for many, the training was equivalent to a semester’s worth of full-teaching deload. Also, since we were already gearing up for big data and predictive analytics, we had the means to explore what would constitute quality remote learning.”

    No one mode fits all

    Contrary to the popular belief that remote learning requires students to have internet access, a computer or a mobile device, there are solutions that take into account the unique personal situation of each student.

    As an example, FEU offers these remote learning options:

    Fully Online. For students with good, stable online connections and computer devices, distribution of learning activities, materials, faculty consultations, and mentoring are 100% online and asynchronous.

    Blended Online. For students who have minimal internet access, learning materials are offered in printed form and in flash drives filled with video lectures, learning activities, and other materials, and are sent to the student via courier.

    A paradigm shift for teachers

    With the shift to remote learning, teachers are faced with the challenge of how to prepare for and deliver their courses in the coming year. Remote learning is not simply digitizing lecture notes, assignments, and exams.

    For one, synchronous online learning, which emulates a classroom setting with students still attending a class taught by a teacher poses many difficulties. First is the attention span of students. Without the visual cues of classmates’ reactions, online classes can be cognitively taxing. In fact, a rule of thumb for synchronous learning sessions is that the duration of a class in minutes should not be more than the age of the student in years. For 10-year olds, an effective online learning session should not be more than 10-minutes. Moreover, without a stable internet connection, it can be a frustrating experience for students who might not be able to follow the discussion.

    Given these obstacles, lectures as the backbone of instruction are no longer feasible in remote learning. There needs to be a paradigm shift about the teacher’s role in class from being “the sage on the stage” to “a guide on the side.”

    Advising teachers to fully embrace a student-centered pedagogy, Alba recommends the active learning, flipped classroom approach where new topics are introduced outside of class hours in the form of instructional videos, digital research, or text readings. Teachers need to pare down learning objectives to the truly essential and organize the knowledge content in modules that can be presented in small chunks.

    Teachers also need to plan the entire term so that the online course is very clearly mapped out, well-organized, and well-communicated. All the instructional materials can be given out at the start of the classes, after which students can have the flexibility to go through the course work at their own pace, with guidance and mentoring as needed.

    Another issue is assessment of learning outcomes. The usual high stakes, multiple choice exams will not work in a remote learning situation as the integrity of the test results cannot be guaranteed. Instead, teachers will need to design authentic assessments such as open book tests with generous time limits, real-world projects, or reflection questions. In fact, teachers should consider ungraded assessments.

    Finally, educators also need to mind their personal well-being, and set boundaries about when they can be reached and when students can expect a response to their queries.

    Despite the challenge of COVID-19, educators must persist in their mission by continually reflecting, innovating, persevering, and, ultimately, applying their learnings to the transformation of education in the post-covid world.

    Teaching from Home

    In this CoverStory article, we take a look at arguably one of the most important pieces of this puzzle: teachers, and what they’re doing to keep the wheels of education turning despite the challenges set by the pandemic.

    To help us out, I reached out to my good friend Tracy Monsod, a Fine Arts teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University, one of the many schools that has elected to switch to holding classes online. Tracy has been teaching since 2013, and like many others in the school, has had to shift to meeting her class online.

    Pre-pandemic, a typical lesson done by Tracy was probably the same as you might remember from your own time in school. She would usually do a lecture for about half an hour, then go into a discussion with the class, after which they would have break out sessions.

    “For the most part, I’ve taught what we like to refer to as “workshop” classes, wherein there’s a lot of hands-on stuff for the students to do. I’m not all that confident in doing heavy lectures, because talking for at least an hour is already very tiring just thinking about it, I do like production work myself! So the workshop classes are my jam,” she shared.

    Given the subject she teaches, Tracy also required her students to submit two major projects: one at the middle of the term, and a final project at the end of the term, with formal presentations of the students’ work, sometimes in front of a panel of experts from the relevant industries, to give fresh, outsider feedback on the work.

    This all changed when the pandemic broke out. “Everything got really confusing and anxiety-inducing,” she exclaims. “Since Ateneo was never really one that did a lot of remote or online learning, it really was a big challenge for all of us to suddenly pivot.” The change involved ending the semester early, and passing all the students—a move that got a lot of attention on social media. While that was happening, Ms. Monsod shared that channels of communication opened up to take stock and figure out what to do next. After careful consideration, the decision was made to move the Intersession (what we used to know as summer semester) to July instead of June.

    “We spent May and June mostly learning the ropes of a new learning management system (LMS) that we’d use in the coming semesters for fully online classes. Several of us underwent ‘training’ (if that’s the word for it) and the hope is that we in turn help train other faculty as well to get used to this new learning environment.” She also shared that part of the preparation was to make the lessons adaptable. “For example, if we were to do video calls as a class and some might not be able to attend, we’d record the sessions and/or prepare transcripts that we could make available.”

    Two weeks into the Intersession, they’re still learning as they go, smoothing out snags, and dealing with the many expected accessibility issues both the faculty and the students are facing. According to Tracy, part of the challenge that she has to face as a teacher in these times is that students can’t necessarily be expected to pick things up at the same pace, so concessions have to be made. There are still sessions that are held all together, and through dialogue with her class, they settled on a schedule wherein they meet once a week, “bring up any questions or concerns regarding the modules I’ve made available for them, or the projects I assigned.” If they need it, Tracy has also made herself available to her students via email.

    Teaching classes from a distance wouldn’t be possible without tech, and fortunately, the department had the teachers covered.
    “The department was aware not everyone might have the hardware to conduct classes online, so we managed to request for some stuff like microphones and webcams. I have a microphone on loan from the department so I could record my lecture videos. I’m trying to learn how to record our live sessions without the use of Zoom or Google Meet (which have built-in record functions) primarily because hosting a call with around 20 other people slows my computer down using those applications. We all agreed to use Discord instead since it holds up pretty well, and…I wouldn’t have to send an invite code every time. To record, I’ve been trying to use OBS with some extra stuff but I have so far failed. I had one minor successful attempt but I can’t seem to do it again.” As with any tech, there’s always a learning curve, particularly when you have a whole class to handle. “Life is hard,” she admits.

    The rest of the hardware is quite standard. As Tracy also happens to be a practicing graphic designer, she uses her personal MacBook Pro and its built-in webcam. Audio is handled by a Samson Meteor condenser mic from the department, and, when it’s necessary, she connects an external screen to her laptop, for more screen real estate. Interestingly, she and her class also use a host of Google services, including Docs, Sheets, and Drive, along with pre-pandemic services such as Slack, and Trello to make coordinating with her fellow teachers. “Tech isn’t new to us, especially the millennial teachers, as we’ve always used stuff like that.”

    A lot of things are, admittedly, more difficult, Tracy shared. The lack of physical presence itself seems to be the main reason for that difficulty. Even with video, she explains, “it’s not the same as being in the same room where you can get a better read of body language and facial expressions, and students can’t just raise their hands when I say something they don’t understand.”

    Thankfully, the school has done their best to make things easier. “Ateneo has been preparing for full online learning for months, and we’re expecting full implementation in the first semester. They have things to help both faculty and students cope with this new system, keeping in mind that mental well-being is just as important. On a smaller scale, our department has been working very hard to make sure everyone is equipped to teach. Since our department is actually quite young, it wasn’t too difficult for a bunch of us to adapt. On top of providing what it can in terms of equipment, there are constant efforts to help each other out in terms of learning the new LMS, planning syllabi that are more appropriate for online learning, etc.”

    There are some advantages to the current setup. Getting ready in the morning is simpler, she says, and there’s no need to worry about the drive to the campus, giving her more time to prepare her coffee, which is an extremely important part of her day.

    All told though, Tracy doesn’t feel like permanently teaching online is sustainable. “Like I said, I’m still a big fan of human interaction when it comes to educating. There are so many things you miss out on when you’re fully online. If anything I think a more blended approach might be better—a mix of face-to-face and online. It’s more flexible that way and takes advantage of both methods. While digital means are great in many aspects, humans are social beings and we need human connection and interaction. It’s easier to engage the class when you’re standing there in the same room making actual eye contact. One-on-one consultations are easier to do when you can step into a quiet room or a quiet corner of the office.”

    Teaching was never an easy job, and the way things are right now, things are even more challenging. “Ironically, while it is technically distance learning, it’s hard to put distance between us and our work since it’s just always there. We need to maintain some sense of sanity, and sometimes that means reminding ourselves that we don’t have to reply to an email at 9 PM, or not having the LMS open in a tab 24/7.”

    Still, Tracy, and countless other teachers like her soldier on despite the hardships, forging forward to continue to mold the minds and hearts of the next generation.

    Home Schooling for Student

    To ensure students can still continue with their education despite the pandemic, the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education have proposed a hybrid learning system for the new school year, leveraging the power of the internet mixed with the guidance of students’ parents.

    While schools and universities have already prepared for the transition, one of the often-forgotten aspects of the transition are the students themselves. To know more about how students expect to deal with online learning, I talked with some students from various learning levels (high school, senior high, college, and post-grad), who shared their thoughts on the impact of online learning affected them.

    Distractions galore

    Technology is convenient in every way. Thanks to the internet, learning resources are readily available for many curious students. But the internet is also a double-edged sword as, besides readily available resources, it also offers a ton of distractions such as social media, video streaming, and many others.

    Both high school and senior high school students found it difficult to focus on the task at hand mainly due to the allure of many distractions offered at home. As for the college student, he notes that prioritizing school work is important to overcome distractions but it doesn’t completely erase it. As for the law school student, studying at home is nothing new, but it was a huge challenge for others who have a hard time concentrating in a home setting.

    Another that changed is the way students interact with one another. While most admit missing their friends in the classroom, they have found a way to still be connected. Most have turned to social media to talk and chat with their friends online. Others, like the college student, have taken it to the next level. According to him, he and his friends have found a way to recreate talking in class digitally. Instead of talking in a separate group chat, he and his friends started playing browser-based party games when the lectures get boring.

    Learning is limited

    Despite studies proving that online learning is an effective learning alternative, all of the students agreed that you don’t absorb as much as you would in a classroom setting. Teachers and professors guiding students and immediately responding to questions have more of impact thanwould have thought.

    The law school student noted that it was business as usual for the last semester, with recitations and lectures moving digitally into online conferences. But the major change was on how they take quizzes, with online platforms preventing students from going back to review and revise their answers once they finish a question.

    Despite transitioning to a digital classroom, he noted that the current system is not conducive to fully absorbing the lessons. According to him, many of his classmates are now considering taking leaves of absence until the situation normalizes.
    School work has become more complicated.According to the students, some teachers prefer to have a scanned (or photographed) work submitted instead of using their respective platform’s quiz or seatwork option.

    Everyone is catching up one way or another

    As the country gets ready for the opening of the new school year this coming August, one thing is for certain. Many students still lack the necessary device and internet access for online learning. According to DepEd, as much as 33% of students have no internet access nor the necessary gadgets for online classes.

    Financial difficulties caused by the pandemic have also forced some families to think twice about enrolling students for the new school year. According to the latest DepEd data, only about 80% of last year’s total enrollees have re-enrolled for the new school year. The added expenses for online learning is believed to have hampered parents’ decisions to enrol their students for the new school year. Even those who already have an internet connection are dismayed to discover that they need additional equipment such as webcams, noise-canceling headphones, printers, and scanners.

    The start of the new school year is a mystery to everyone, even to the students themselves. But after talking to the students, one of the things they most sincerely hope for is a return to the classroom.

    Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE v20n11
    Words by the Gadgets Team

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