School closures have been one of the most massive forms of mitigation that states and societies have undertaken to flatten the coronavirus curve. As a major form of social distancing, it entails the complete shutdown of school and university campuses from students and workers and a shift to online learning as well as online operations, which became an emerging practice in few places.
The pivot to technology-enhanced learning and teaching, as pandemic-response is a crucial shift in practice undertaken by educational sectors, worldwide. Yet, to a host of East Asian states like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, the sudden move to online platforms in the early weeks of February, was part of larger pandemic preparedness planning that their governments and institutions have embarked on as part of their experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.
With the present coronavirus pandemic, responses from these states are adaptive of prior experience in battling a health security threat. Hong Kong’s school and university closures were first resort actions, imposed with other restrictions as early as January, when the news on the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China broke out. And even with this early intervention, the Hong Kong government at present remains inclined to delay school resumption beyond April 20th. As early as February, on the one hand, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education announced its guidelines for school cancellation based on two or more detected cases of the coronavirus.
The impact of the coronavirus presents to many of us a “momentous moment” for reflexivity. This writer takes this as an opportunity to organize some thoughts around an embedded shift to an integrated information-communications and technology (ICT) and in-person program and course delivery for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and schools as part of the preparedness planning to mitigate disruption in education.
In the context of a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, extreme climate and weather changes as well as infectious diseases, will permeate our normal lives. A far-off example is typhoon Lando (Koppu), which happened in 2015, led to the cancellation of public schooling for 14 days in Region III of the Philippines, a country in which typhoons and floods have impelled local chief executives to suspend schooling as a first response. Developing appropriate and planned responses to school closures, especially when prolonged, should be part of the educational sector’s agenda. As we live with future epidemics, it has become an imperative for this sector and for private/public actors to consider serious investments in infrastructure and know-how on online teaching and learning. In the Philippines, this serves as a call to the corporate social responsibility of the private sector in the public telecoms industry.
As a member of the academic community myself, I believe that our shared experience in prolonged school shut down due to the coronavirus has changed the rules of the game in education provision and administration. There is no turning back from the new teaching/learning modalities and practices that we have uncovered or enhanced as a result of our mixed responses during these extraordinary times.
Relevant practices of our East Asian neighbors, particularly from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are worth looking at. A crucial one is contingency planning, that Hong Kong HEIs institutionalized as a safety net for prolonged school closures due to natural and man-made disasters including disruptive socio-political events. Hong Kong HEIs prepared for school stoppage as early as November-December last year in view of the mass university protests against their government’s controversial extradition bill. Another example is the mandating of online training with retesting as a requirement of faculty onboarding. This has paved the way for some 1,000 courses offered in Singapore Management University to move to the online format at a rapid pace and at very short notice. Furthermore, the establishment of a central repository and centralized instruction office, that the University of Hong Kong has undertaken, enables online teaching of faculty who can access curated videos, lecture capture and other forms of innovation. In National Taiwan University (NTU), online training is extended not only to faculty but to teaching assistants of courses with an enrollment of at least 100 students. NTU also launched a “digitalization plan” for transforming in-person to online courses. It used a staggered timetable for implementing the shift to online platform with prioritization for courses with large student enrolment.
Because online educational tools and platforms are designed to realize a basic human right to education, private educational institutions should strive to be at the front line act of dismantling barriers to technological access. Globally, common concerns of students and faculty, including those that represent the concerns of middle to high income universities in my country, revolve around the following issues: limited access to cell signals, lack of high speed internet, dependence on mobile gadgets, limited availability of devices at home and a lack of computers.
How may HEIs respond? In addition to adapting practices and policies that work, we may consider to evaluate which of the ones we have undertaken during this extraordinary period we need to retain and improve on when things have settled down. A common and insightful practice that extended beyond my own university and country is flexible online learning. Self-paced learning, when applied during these extraordinary times, takes into consideration the students and faculty who are in need to gradually transition to a new mode of course delivery. In Hong Kong, where privacy (or the lack of) is the context of a university learner, the pace of learning is literally a decision to be made in terms of the time and space to engage in learning in less than ideal offline environments. Flexible online learning arrangements also involve a prudent use of synchronous tools and platforms and a preference for asynchronous modes such as Google Docs, Google Classroom, etc in order to cater to marginalized groups with intermittent or no internet access.
HEIs in the public and private sectors should collaborate to build a sustainable program that promotes student centered, flexible and self-paced learning accompanied by robust technological systems. When adopted in normal times, tech-enhanced learning promotes collaborative-independent, lifelong and creative learning. When disaster strikes, a robust technological infrastructure and know-how will empower teachers, learners and administrators alike to realize a common objective based on inclusive education and undisrupted learning.
Alma Maria Salvador is an assistant professor of political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.