By Michael M. Alba and Emmanuel S. de Dios
Published in Business World on May 3, 2020
The prolonged suspension of classes, the abrupt ending of instruction, and the schools’ make-do closures of the school year effectively stopped learning dead in its tracks. While interrupted education may seem a side issue in the face of the more existential threats to life and livelihood, its long-term consequences for the nation’s future cannot be ignored.
If not offset, interrupted education causes lasting scars in the form of delayed or foregone human and social development. Interrupted schooling over prolonged periods (notably during the Cultural Revolution in China and from the 8888 Uprising through the 1990s in Myanmar) shows its impacts in high dropout rates, even after a subsequent chance to return to school; enduring decimated education standards and diminished learning outcomes; and a failure to pursue the full potential of higher education. Teachers of pupils with education gaps face the dilemma of either teaching to prescribed standards but risking the failure of their delayed pupils, or lowering standards to a least common denominator — such as what happens with a universal pass or promotion. In the first case, it is the pupil that fails; in the second, it is society and the education system.
The matter assumes particular urgency for the Philippines whose education deficit was already widely presumed even before the pandemic crisis. This long-held suspicion became a glaring fact with the 2019 PISA results, which showed the country’s 15- and 16-year-olds ranking last in reading and next-to-last in math and science among their peers in the world. The patently inferior product of basic education obviously carries through to technical and higher education, which also face quality issues of their own. Such results will only be amplified under current conditions of educationem interrupta with even smaller chances existing to remedy the already-deficient system.
The extent of the problem — which goes beyond the narrow question of what month to start the school year — becomes evident once one realizes the situation is unlikely to improve much even beyond this already-extended quarantine period. Abnormal and unsettled learning conditions due to the pandemic will likely persist until some effective therapy or vaccine becomes widely available (one to two years being the best guess). Until then, periodic outbreaks and lockdowns in smaller or larger areas of the country remain a real possibility, as already happened in Singapore and Japan, and education institutions must deal with the constant threat of an aborted learning experience. The looming prospect in the meantime is that whole cohorts of Filipino students will receive an education that is diluted, delivered fitfully, and pockmarked with learning gaps.
School owners and administrators are currently still struggling to imagine how the New Abnormal in education might look, specifically how to create a resilient learning environment that maintains standards — or better yet raises them — without sacrificing student health and safety.
The option that represents the least disruption — and which is a persisting view in some official circles — is to wait things out until an acceptably low level of community risk has been attained and then simply to resume the accustomed mode and scale of in-person mass instruction. An important concession even in that situation, however, is the need to undertake massive testing for the virus or its antibodies among students. The biggest downside of this strategy though is that it keeps teachers and students in suspended animation for an indefinite period and therefore abdicates responsibility for the problem of diminishing quality due to interrupted education. Nor is it forward-looking enough to anticipate future disruptions from similar disease outbreaks and calamities. Finally, there is a question whether students and their parents — despite the promise of testing — will feel assured enough to venture into schools amidst uncertainty. Such schemes have been proposed elsewhere (e.g., the US) and may be practicable in small residential schools in college towns where a limited and mostly stationary population can be regularly tested and monitored. The bulk of Metro Manila’s colleges and universities, however, are commuter schools with highly mobile and socially heterogeneous populations. The consequent frequency (and cost) of the testing required to ensure minimal students’ health and safety is sure to strain the capacity of both schools and government. This makes such an option impractical and ineffective — as well as uncertain in its health assurance.
We think the wiser course of action instead is to take the pandemic crisis by the horns and use it as the opportunity to use distance (i.e., not always physically in school) learning — both online and asynchronous — as a second mainstream mode of delivering education. Expanding this capacity seems to be the only recourse that will address the immediate need of resuming a safe learning experience, as well as build the resilience needed against future disruptions. It is curious that the report “An avalanche is coming” [Barber, Donnelly, and Rizvi 2013] appeared some years ago warning traditional universities of the existential threat posed to them by online, distance, and self-paced learning. Most school administrators at the time regarded the idea of MOOCs, blended courses, flipped classrooms, microdegrees, etc. merely as attractive tech-driven options to be considered at a more convenient date. Yet here we are. And as it turns out, distance learning is no longer an option but a necessity.
For both private education and public policy to seriously consider this option, however, some misconceptions need to be cleared up. And though there are many, three seem especially relevant where — as in most public education — the students have heterogeneous social backgrounds and financial capacities.
First, distance education need not always require a hi-tech capacity for delivery but can be adapted to the circumstances of individual students. While live learning, with an instructor giving feedback, may be ideal and will almost always require a tablet, laptop, or desktop with a good bandwidth connection, other options do exist especially if one considers asynchronous learning (i.e., not involving live communication). For example, pre-developed content may be regularly delivered over television, e-mail, or even periodically retrieved physically from schools, to be studied by students who may then be assessed individually and regularly on what they have learned. As a halfway measure, scheduled visits to physically distanced computer classrooms may give students regular access to online material or tutorials while minimizing exposure to disease. In the meantime, efforts by the government and the private sector should continue to give students cheaper, faster, and in-residence internet access. This may be done through public subsidies or agreements for concessional rates between school consortiums and telecommunications firms. The larger point, however, is that even in the worst case, no particular technology (or the lack of it) should be permitted to interfere with the possibility of education. Technology must serve education needs, not vice versa.
Second, while a major investment involved in distance learning is certainly IT infrastructure (e.g., internet cabling, bandwidth, and learning management systems in schools and internet connectivity from students’ homes), an overlooked cost is the development of content and the training of faculty. Content, for example, must be organized and parsed to be deliverable in distinct modules corresponding to specific learning objectives (e.g., a TED talk is never more than 18 minutes long). On the other hand, teachers should allow each student to absorb this material at her own pace, i.e., learning strategies should be self-paced and allow for individualized paths to mastery. “Chalk and talk” and “rope-a-dope” lectures give way to helping students perform specific tasks and projects to achieve outcomes that demonstrate their competency. The new set of skills (including proficiency in e-learning tools) that will be required of the faculty amounts to no less than a complete mental reset and may represent the biggest hurdle and investment of all.
Finally, it is important to view this refocus not as a stopgap or an exigent response to crisis but as a permanent fixture of the academic environment henceforth. The shift to distance — and increasingly online — learning is a chance to step back from the one-size-fits-all mode of mass instruction and move towards the pedagogical ideal of matching teaching methods and goals to a student’s strengths and weaknesses to help her attain mastery relative to standards.
Indeed, now may be the occasion for schools to take the leap to personalized learning [Marzano et al. 2017] that not only rationalizes traditional academic content delivery but also seeks to develop agency and metacognitive skills in students. Defined as “the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative — the opposite of helplessness” [Ferguson 2015], agency would empower students to own their learning goals rather than be passive recipients of instruction. And metacognitive skills (such as goal setting, staying focused, pushing beyond one’s comfort zones, having one’s own standards of excellence, etc.) would provide them the resources to exercise agency that leads to self-efficacy and independence.
This is not merely a “visionary hope.” A growing number of private schools, colleges, and universities, for example, have begun their transformation journeys in their use of learning management systems that can track progress of their individual students by task, by subject, by teacher, and through time. This type of information allows faculty to observe a student’s incipient learning problems and address them both holistically and in a granular way.
The real danger is that not all education institutions see the need for such changes — for lack of skills, content, equipment, and most of all vision — so that the educational system runs the risk of enlarging the gap between those that are well and less provisioned and between those moving towards resilient education systems and those staying put in traditional ways. This turn of events will serve to not only diminish the quality of our human resources and restrain our socio-economic development, but also widen the already gaping social and economic inequities in the country.
Barber, M., K. Donnelly, and S. Rizvi  “An avalanche is coming: higher education and the revolution ahead.” London: Institute for Public Policy Research. Available here: https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/FINAL%20Embargoed%20Avalanche%20Paper%20130306%20(1).pdf
Ferguson, R. (with S. Phillips, J. Rowley, and J. Friedlander) . “The influence of teaching beyond standardized test scores: Engagement, mindsets, and agency.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.
Marzano, R., J. Norford, M. Finn, and D. Finn III . A handbook for personalized competency-based education. Bloomington, Indiana: Marzano Resources.
Michael M. Alba is president of Far Eastern University and Emmanuel S. de Dios is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines. Both serve on the board of the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center.