Second of two parts

IN May, Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) Chairman Prospero de Vera 3rd sparked a furor when he declared that there would be "no going back to the traditional full-packed face-to-face classrooms."

Higher Education (CHEd) Chairman Prospero de Vera 3rd. Contributed Photo
Higher Education (CHEd) Chairman Prospero de Vera 3rd. Contributed Photo

With people desperate for a return to normalcy and an end to the issues that plagued schooling because of the pandemic, the statement naturally drew flak. De Vera explained, however, that the flexible learning track pushed by the CHEd would give schools more options to address the needs of students.

"School administrators are aware that not all can go back to face-to-face [classes] because there are other good options available by combining online and face-to-face. If we say that the only mode is face-to-face and another pandemic hits, we go back to March 2020 and ask everyone to go home again," he said.

"To the groups clamoring for the return to face-to-face, please study what is happening in the rest of the world. Let's pick up the good practices and adjust what we're doing so that the learning of students will not be disrupted."

Ensuring continuity

Under Memorandum 4 series of 2020, the CHEd gave schools and universities more leeway to decide on the design and delivery of programs, courses and learning interventions that would address learners' unique needs in terms of place, pace, process and outcomes.

"It involves the use of digital and non-digital technology and covers both face-to-face or in-person learning, out-of-classroom learning modes of delivery or a combination of modes of delivery. It ensures the continuity of inclusive and accessible education when the use of traditional modes of teaching is not feasible as in the occurrence of national emergencies," the memorandum states.

Distance learning was the norm, however, as the pandemic raged last year. As the medical establishment struggled to cope, not just with Covid-19 but also the lack of personnel, the CHEd earlier this year decided to allow limited face-to-face classes for medical and allied health courses.

Guidelines approved by the CHEd and the Department of Health (DoH) state that while flexible learning is "the most appropriate and safest pedagogical approach during the pandemic, there might be some instances that face-to-face delivery of certain courses is necessary."

While the reopening was not mandatory, higher educational institutions (HEIs) were told to prepare for a "cautious and gradual" return of face-to-face instruction. Priority was given to "selected health-related degree programs regarded as vital in providing additional manpower support in the health system."

Face-to-face success?

As of late August, 118 HEIs have been allowed to conduct limited face-to-face classes. De Vera also recently said that out of the more than 13,000 and 1,000 students and faculty members who had engaged in limited face-to-face classes, less than 1 percent - 41 students and 15 faculty members - contracted Covid-19.

This showed that guidelines set by the CHEd, DoH and respective local government units worked, he claimed. "[It was the] correct decision to start with medical and allied health courses. They are more health-conscious and they are able to observe the protocols," he noted.

De Vera added they also moved to ensure that students are protected with a proposal to include them on the vaccination priority list. As of July, over 80 percent of students and 95 percent of faculty members who participated in limited face-to-face classes have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

The CHEd has since proposed that limited face-to-face classes be expanded to include engineering, information technology, hotel and restaurant management and maritime programs.

"In the next batch of courses that we are proposing to the President [Rodrigo Duterte] to authorize for limited face-to-face [classes], we [will] ask to have them to be included in a subcategory of vaccination group called 'students who are going to face-to-face classes' but we have to wait for an adequate supply of vaccines for that to happen," de Vera said.

More interventions

The CHEd has also ensured that proper curriculum changes were implemented with the shift to flexible learning.

"The commission already approved of the new curriculum changes for degree programs using flexible learning. The experts on the field have gone together, they have reviewed the curriculum and identified which subjects can be done virtually and face-to-face and what are the learning outcomes because of the changes from purely face-to-face to flexible learning," de Vera claimed.

Under the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, meanwhile, the CHEd funded Smart Campus Projects of 89 state universities and colleges worth P2 billion.

"As students slowly come back to their schools, they will have campuses that are equipped with a better internet connection, better internet facilities such as internet rooms that they can use for flexible learning," de Vera said.

Technology offers solutions

At this point, what is clear is that technology will be central to the needed transformation of education. Companies such as D2L and Turnitin are seizing the opportunity and have offered solutions that will make the shift easier for both students and teachers.

D2L claims that its online learning management system, Brightspace, supports pedagogy and allows for a more engaging learning environment

Enabling teachers to "use technologies is a key part in implementing remote learning," D2L director Nick Hutton said. "[I]t does not aim to replace what they do, but to enhance the way in which they teach. A good learning management system can enhance their pedagogical style."

Turnitin's Gradescope, meanwhile, facilitates the grading process via an optimized online workflow and the use of artificial intelligence. Integrated into Gradescope is a plagiarism checker called the Similarity Index, which aims to ensure the originality of student submissions.

With the situation still fluid, the final forms that post-pandemic education will take remain undetermined. Judgments won't also be available until students under whatever new learning systems actually graduate and go to work. The first hurdle will likely be licensure exams, if applicable, and then the nitty-gritty of applying all that training.

Criticism is all but given and quality concerns will inevitably be raised. But then again, these concerns have been raised by every generation.