The post-COVID classroom: When education needs a next normal

By Dr. Benson Tan

"Shifting education online isn’t enough."

As lockdown measures remain in the Philippines, many academic institutions in the country have created online versions of their traditional classrooms—students and teachers now meet through collaboration and video conferencing platforms and use various online tools to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

In the blink of an eye, online classes have become the alternative for both students and faculty in the academe. However, this isn’t new. Some schools, especially tech and higher education institutions, have been investing in education technology or edtech over the past decade. Market research firm Metaari found that investments made to learning technology companies in 2019 reached $18.66 billion globally.

The Philippines, in particular, has its fair share of edtech solutions. It is home to a number of edtech companies, such as Edukasyon and KITE eLearning Solutions, that have deployed their systems to different schools and universities all over the country. One of the reasons why the Philippines is starting to catch up with technologies in education is because of its large and growing number of children belonging in the Gen Z population, who have grown up in the age of social media and mobile apps. Filipinos are also known for spending the most amount of time online, taking up an average of 10 hours a day on the internet on any device, according to Hootsuite and We are Social.

There are still many schools in the country that aren’t as tech-savvy as others, which is why they turn to third-party collaboration platforms that have enough basic features to enable online classes such as Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and more.

While convenient, these tools have not created a big dent in the learning process. Some classes are still synchronous and they follow almost the same processes that were present in classrooms prior to the pandemic. The migration of the education sector online has become too literal—students listen to their teachers through a screen, access materials through file repositories, take exams, and proceed to the next subject with a passing grade.

This process has made others question if these basic online learning processes are as viable as they sound.

Peter Herman, a professor of English literature at San Diego State University, once asked his students to evaluate their experiences with online education and came up with a single conclusion: current online learning processes are not as effective as they seem. One student complained that he or she watched the posted lectures but was not able to learn and retain the information in their learning materials.

“I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down,” another one of Herman’s students said.

In education, what works for one may not work for others, and that remains to be a fact even as the sector moves online. Each student has different learning capacities and requires different learning methods for them to completely retain information. In other words, one size definitely does not fit all in education. The shift online, and other relevant factors, has definitely been a wake up call for academic institutions to reassess their operations, processes, and delivery of quality education.

Mike Luz, associate dean of the Center for Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management, said that there is a need for the Department of Education to achieve higher quality education as it shifts online by reducing the number of topics that students typically take. He explained that the Philippine curriculum teaches too many subjects, resulting in students cramming knowledge and passing their subjects without complete mastery of what they learned.

When it comes to preparing education for the “new normal,” a teacher at a government school in Quezon City expressed that the sector would experience many roadblocks, the first of which would have to be educators going online as well. This is difficult for those who are not as tech-savvy as the younger generation of teachers. She added that even with the proper alternative resources already on hand, the quality of learning might not change contrary to popular belief.

Lastly, according to Love Basillote, executive director of Philippine Business for Education, solely promoting online classes would also not improve the situation as it would take more in-depth preparation to modify the system.

Just as the world is moving towards the “new normal”—a period of reformed processes as we continue to suffer from the effects of COVID-19 pandemic—the education sector, in short, should also move towards that direction as well.

The age of individualized and advanced learning starts today.

Some countries have already begun employing advanced edtech systems to boost its education sector before and in the midst of the pandemic.

In Indonesia, some universities use HarukaEDU, an online learning portal that organizes distance lectures and facilitates student capacities. The company has edtech solutions for individuals and corporations as well, promoting the value of learning regardless of age and status in life. It is used by Harapan Bangsa Institute of Technology, London School of Public Relations, and PPM School of Management, among other things.

In the Philippines, many higher education institutions use various learning systems to enable online classes for their students as well. We at the FEU (Far Eastern University) Institute of Technology, FEU Alabang, and FEU Diliman employ MILES, which is short for Mastery-based Individualized Learning Enhancement System. It is a digitized educational system that is one of a kind as it personalizes the learning experience for each of our students.

MILES takes advantage of Mastery Path and the Mastery Network, both of which create a system that enables students to completely understand and master their subjects and proceed to different subjects that they are fit to take. The system streamlines the education process in a way that students will no longer have to complete all the modules in one pre-requisite subject to take on a subsequent subject.

Aside from these core benefits, MILES evidently provides students the opportunity to study at the comfort of their own homes. As we continue to navigate the consequences of the pandemic, which includes the suspension of face-to-face classes, students will greatly benefit from learning online, especially with a proactive system such as MILES.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, online education provider Topica is partnered with more than a dozen universities in the country. It offers online bachelor’s degree programs for higher education institutions and other online educational products that are augmented by artificial intelligence to create a personalized learning experience for all students.

Apart from its degree and tutoring programs, Topica also handles an online platform called Edumall where users can find 2,000 short skill courses paired with video learning content about various topics such as Microsoft Office applications, programming skills, and lifestyle and edutainment topics.

With these solutions already available in the market, there’s no other time for academic institutions to enhance the learning experience than today. However, some institutions may still be apprehensive about integrating the old with the new, especially as some educators are not as tech-savvy as their students.

Nick Hutton, Regional Director Asia at e-learning platform D2L, clearly explained this phenomenon, saying that some traditional educators, mostly in Southeast Asia, see technology as a replacement rather than an enhancement tool in education. “It is difficult to convince them to change when they have been teaching in one particular mode for 20 years,” he said.

There is also a common misconception that e-learning is only possible fully online. But the reality is, it can be integrated in different learning modes such as blended learning as well.

Times are changing. Technology is already in our midst—it’s now only a matter of grabbing it and integrating it into our systems. While some still prefer face-to-face schooling, we have to accept the fact that advanced online learning will become the norm in the new or rather “next normal”. The education sector had to pivot at such an unprecedented time but that doesn’t mean we have to remain static as we continue to experience the effects of the pandemic.

Dr. Benson Tan is Senior Executive Director of the FEU Institute of Technology.

Topics: COVID-19 , KITE eLearning Solutions , Nick Hutton , Far Eastern Technology , HarukaEDU , Department of Education
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