Reimagining Education in Light of COVID-19

March 29, 2020
By: 
Skilty Labastilla
The spread of COVID-19 in many parts of the world has disrupted the habitus of humans. The things that we have regarded as normal routines – school, work, getting groceries, meeting friends, among others – have been upended because of efforts to contain the transmission of the virus. Formal education is now being forced to adapt to the new normal and there’s a good chance that changes being worked out will be adopted even after COVID-19 is defeated. However, it is important to understand that a reconfiguration of the education system in light of COVID-19 not only considers the delivery and process of learning, but more importantly, the goal of formal education itself in the age of emergency and crisis.
 
In the Philippines, after the president’s announcement of a community quarantine on 15 March, elementary school pupils were preparing for their final tests before schools would close. I have a 9-year-old enrolled in a private school and a 4-year-old who was part of our barangay daycare program. Both of them were supposed to take their summative assessments in school to determine their competencies before moving up to the next level. For our elder child, her school reconfigured both the content and the delivery of the tests in five subjects (English, Science, Math, and Araling Panlipunan and Filipino, which were combined). Instead of asking objective questions that could easily be answered by pupils by checking their notebooks at home, many of the test questions were phrased so as to elicit integrative knowledge from pupils in short essay forms. The tests were emailed to parents, who could download and print the tests for their children to answer within five days. Parents were given two submission options: to put the papers in an envelope and personally hand it to the school guard, or scan/take photos of the papers and email them back to the teachers. The second option was more convenient but there was one problem: one teacher had spotty internet at home and could not receive email, so we just ended up doing the first option.
For our younger child, the test was supposed to evaluate her readiness for the next level, and aside from the usual tests such as letter, number, and color recognition, it would include kinesthetic tests such as ability to button and unbutton a shirt, tie shoelaces, and hop on one leg ten times, among others. That test was altogether scrapped and the assumption (since we have not heard from the daycare worker since) is our daughter will just move up to the next level even without taking that test. I’m sure there could have been ways for that test to be taken at home using technology (similar to the case of our elder daughter but adding video) but since the barangay daycare center is a government facility catering to lower- and middle-class families who might have connectivity problems, it probably was a wise decision to just scrap the test altogether.
 
Inequality also plays a role in the current setup of online learning in the tertiary level, at least in the top universities in Metro Manila. When the quarantine announcement was made, Ateneo was prepared to implement online classes: teachers were being rushed to take lessons/workshops on blended learning and incorporating online technology in their classes. I personally had no adjustment problems since I had been doing blended learning in my classrooms since 2013 (e.g., all readings uploaded online; content delivery is done outside the classroom since I’m not a fan of “lecturing” for the whole duration of the session; incorporating videos, podcasts, games, and other activities to facilitate discussion in the classroom or online; etc.) using Facebook first, then Google Classroom and Schoology. But I am aware that even though majority of Ateneo’s student population belongs to the upper middle class, there are always students who have a hard time connecting online, even in non-emergency situations. So when the University of the Philippines declared that it would cancel even its online classes because of connectivity issues and the volatility of the times, which could impact students’ psychological and emotional wellbeing, it was only a matter of time for Ateneo to do the same, although online learning is still encouraged through asynchronous activities (teachers upload materials that students can use at their own pace and time).
 
Since I teach a course called The Contemporary World, I could not pass up an opportunity to urge my students to document their lives/reflections during the quarantine period by keeping a diary (per entry should have a minimum of 50 words if written, or 1 minute if audio- or video-recorded). Reading the Day 1 entries of some students, I could sense the uncertainty they were feeling amidst the novelty of the situation. Some were thankful that they didn’t have to worry about where to get food, some were social distancing even with their family inside their own homes (I imagine only families with big enough houses have the luxury to do this), but majority expressed a sense of anxiety about not knowing what’s to come.
 
My plan is for the students to use their diary as the basis for their final paper analyzing the modern world using insights they would gain from the course. Even though I encourage them to keep track of the expected readings through the weekly schedule of the syllabus, I am not so gung-ho at ensuring that they really are up-to-date with course content. I am more concerned about how they are doing. So I make sure to regularly ask them about their situations. Teaching content can come later; for now, sustained connections can tide us over.
 
Students of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Photo from ALCADEV Facebook page)
 
Post-COVID-19, the world of formal education I’m imagining is something that not only mixes online tools (video conferencing apps like Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger; annotation tools like Nota Bene; Google Slides) with effective facilitation by the teacher, but also something that fills the need for practical life skills necessary for future emergency situations, what with the ongoing climate crisis and other future catastrophes: first aid, cooking/baking, housekeeping, household maintenance and repair (basic carpentry, electrical, plumbing, automotive), agriculture and gardening, cosmetology, massage and alternative healing skills, among others. In normal times, people who do these tasks for a living are undervalued because society has chosen to reward those who have learned ostensibly more advanced-level skills, but today’s emergency should hopefully force us to see that without these basic skills, higher-level skills would ultimately prove futile.
 
The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.