The World Health Organization defines COVID-19 as the “infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus.” The virus has swept through the globe, affecting 144 countries and resulting in 5,735 deaths as of March 15.
The first case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was reported on Jan. 30. As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines continues to escalate, with a dramatic increase from 10 cases to 33 in a span of two days between March 8 to March 10, and with Department of Health confirming 12 deaths out of 140 confirmed cases as of this writing, several sectors in the private and public settings are forced to respond to the situation by adopting measures that challenge and to certain extent, disrupt, their normal operations. Business sectors, particularly the mall industry, had leading companies Ayala and SM companies announce a temporary shutdown of their operations from March 16 until further notice. This is in compliance with a recommendatory directive from the Metro Manila LGUs on General Community Quarantine that calls for the temporary closure of malls and similar establishments. Government work at the executive branch is likewise suspended with provision for a skeletal workforce, following President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of Code Red Sub-Level 2 which provides the protocol for community quarantine.
In the education sector, classes have been suspended for a month from March 12 in an attempt to flatten the curve, or prevent the virus from spreading further. UNESCO cites educational disruption as an immediate effect of this. This disruption in learning comes with an extra challenge: How to continuously provide and facilitate knowledge given the precarious situation everyone is in, where the virus spreads faster than the government and frontline workers contain it.
ONLINE LEARNING AS A RESPONSE TO THE OUTBREAK
The government’s initial suspension of classes in Metro Manila for a few days, followed by a prolonged month-long suspension in all levels until April 12, came at a time when the current school year for most schools is just about to be completed. Schools that follow the June-March academic calendar adjusted their requirements by canceling some requirements, like the quarterly exams for the basic education unit, in order to wrap up the year.
At the tertiary level, particularly for higher education institutions (HEIs) that have already shifted to the August-May calendar, the suspension came at a time when classes have just begun seven or eight weeks into the current semester. And that’s where the challenge lies. With on-site classes halted due to the outbreak, HEIs are confronted with the task of providing remote but effective ways of learning to its students while giving them a semblance of the normalcy of a regular on-site classroom experience. Scoping the announcements of major public and private universities in Metro Manila indicate a general call to utilize various platforms, provided for by the school or otherwise, that would allow for classes or activities to continue online. These platforms include Moodle, Zoom, Schoology, Google Hangout, to name a few. How HEIs would effectively cope with this in a month is something that needs to be explored, in the short run. In the longer run, it warrants taking a closer look at institutional capacities that support online education for an extended period of time, or as an institutionalized practice in academic institutions. Online education or other modes of remote learning, while practiced selectively by some academics, is not yet wholly institutionalized in the country’s education system. Even in selected HEIs where a system for online learning is put in place, only a fraction of the academic community uses it.
INSTITUTIONALIZING ONLINE LEARNING AS THE NEW NORMAL IN EDUCATION
With more than 3.2 million students enrolled last year at the tertiary level from 2,393 public and private HEIs in the country (Commission on Higher Education, 2019), it is important to ensure that disrupted learning is mitigated. Now is an excellent time for academic institutions to take stock of their readiness to function even in times of a crisis, especially if the crisis takes place in the middle of the school year. Institutionalizing online learning as part of the new normal where education is concerned, most especially after the crisis is over, should draw attention to several factors such as institutional capacity, curriculum design, skills of both faculty and students, and, more importantly, access to technology and the internet.
Moving forward, reinventing education by way of institutionalizing online learning or various permutation of remote education should not be at the expense of the marginalized. If the goal is to reinvent education and provide undisrupted robust education for everyone even in a crisis or disaster, provision of such must not be affected by social class or one’s ability to cope.
Pilar Pajayon-Berse, PhD. is an Assistant Professor at the Political Science department of Ateneo de Manila University.