It’s Not About Online Learning: A Reflection on the “New Normal” in Education (Part 1)

Much has been written about the new normal in the society as the COVID-19 Pandemic continues to spread in different countries around the world. The new normal will involve higher levels of health precautions. Fearing another wave of infections, governments will continue to enforce strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. Digital technology will play a greater role to ensure that essential sectors such as business, banking, health, food services, and communications will continue to run their transactions in order to avoid a possible national economic breakdown. While these are just a few of the possible scenarios that will happen in the new normal, we can, however, definitely say that the new normal is anything but ordinary. 

In the education sector, schools and universities are now scrambling to enable digital and technical infrastructures that will support whatever form of virtual learning that they will most likely to adopt. Right now, online learning has been pushed further and deeper as a solution that addresses the challenges of learning continuity amidst school closure at this time of the pandemic. Video-conferencing, which is being used to replicate face-to-face instruction, has even made Zoom a household name. Access and usage to video-conferencing tools, as well as to learning management systems, have spiked tremendously as teaching and learning continue within the virtual corners of their online classrooms. Online learning has been a great means towards continuous learning. Some schools have done it successfully, while some faced major concerns and issues from students, parents, and even their own teachers. In the end, it seems like the new normal is about online learning and having the digital platforms and tools to support and enable learning. 

Yet, this new normal that is too much focused on technology tools or online learning needs to be reconsidered and evaluated. Can we step back for a moment and think about those who will be marginalized and underserved in the new normal? Can we remind ourselves that our digital and telecommunications infrastructure cannot even decently connect every device in the country to the Internet? Can we wake ourselves up to the reality that not all students, parents, and homes have access to devices at home? Can we pinch ourselves to realize that a lot of Filipino families will undoubtedly use their hard-earned money to buy food and other basic needs that will help them go through the day instead of purchasing data to get online? And the harsh reality is that, even before the pandemic began, this has been the situation for a lot of us in the country. 

As we grapple with and re-imagine the new normal in education alongside the new normal in the bigger society, the following recommendations should definitely be considered as integral parts of the new normal.

  1. “Maslow before Bloom” should be the new battlecry in education.

This pandemic is a litmus test for schools. A lot of schools rapidly transitioned to online learning due to lockdowns that were enforced in a matter of days. Schools did not have much time to prepare and were caught in the moment as school leaders and teachers went back to their drawing boards to plan out how learning should continue despite the school closures. What was forgotten or considered late was the well-being of students who are now at home learning on their own. The pandemic has brought anxiety to families. It separated parents, who are essential workers, from their children because of the fear of bringing the virus home. Some students are also grieving for family or friends lost due to the pandemic. Some parents might not have enough money to buy food and other necessities for daily living, which the kids see and witness at home. Moreover, the sense of isolation from classmates and teachers has disrupted the normalcy of schooling. With these heavily-charged situations, it’s really hard to imagine and ensure that the students at home are ready for learning. Nothing will enter and stick into their minds if they are hungry, worried, and anxious. 

As a society in the new normal, we need to ensure that the basic physical, social-emotional, and psychological needs of students are meant before they can even start learning. Reach out to and check in with students before starting a class. Check in with parents and see what help their children might need. Schools definitely need more guidance counselors or life coaches to help students navigate their emotions and thoughts. More importantly, give students the time to adjust to the new ways of learning. Build relationships with them.

  1. Equitable access matters more than ever.

The pandemic has greatly highlighted the digital divide between the haves and the have nots, which we have been experiencing even before this unfortunate episode of our lives. Now more than ever, we realize that those who have access to a learning device and the Internet are the ones who will greatly benefit from the online learning programs that schools are working on. So, if we know that there are families and students who can’t have a decent access to these digital tools and devices, what should we do then? Even if they have devices at home, what if they also need to share that one learning device with their other siblings who also need to study and catch up with the requirements of their class?

The new normal should advocate for equitable access to online learning. If a school chooses to go online, then the school leaders must have a way to ensure that no student is left behind or barred from learning because of a preference to one mode of learning. Can schools explore loaning devices for student and teacher use at home? Can schools work with local government units in acquiring devices for loan to students and teachers? If schools and parents can’t provide learning devices and connection to the Internet, whose social and moral responsibility is it? On another note, why do we wait for a pandemic to happen and then, seriously strive for equitable access? With or without pandemic, equitable access should always be a goal that is constantly acted upon.

  1. Multiple pathways of learning delivery should be considered in an emergency learning continuity program.

Responding to the pandemic’s effect on schooling, the French Education Minister called for an educational continuity, which ensures that all students, whether with or without access to the Internet, should continue to learn even if they are at home. So, the French ministry of education employed online learning, open education resources, and forged partnership with other key players to ensure that all students are reached. In the same way, Dr. Nadia Lopez, principal in a school in Brooklyn, New York City, in our podcast, shared how learning packets were prepared and given to parents so that their students can continue learning even when they do not have connection to the Internet.

Given the reality of the country, or even schools, in terms of digital divide, the best thing to do is to provide multiple pathways to education continuity. Taking into consideration the context of every student, teacher, and family, those pathways need to address their teaching and learning needs. Aside from online learning, there are learning packets that can be used, which is reminiscent of the correspondence mode of distance education way back years ago. Broadcast stations in regions or localities can be used to air radio or TV programs on lessons being learned in class. With these varying approaches to delivering learning, educators and school leaders should also be opened to re-thinking the purpose of assessments and grades. Are quizzes or long tests the best way to authentically access student’s learning in an online learning environment? Should we still grade them according to our face-to-face learning standards? The basic idea here is, while we aim for multiple pathways to learning or instruction, assessments and maybe even the grading systems will have to be reviewed to serve their main goals at this point of the pandemic.

  1. Better funding, stronger support, and more relevant professional development for teachers need to be prioritized. 

A lot have been expected from teachers at this time of the pandemic. Teachers were expected to become designers of online learning overnight, curate online resources and learn tech tools for their online classes, and re-design assessments that are valid for the rapid shift in education. Teachers continue to work from home while taking care of their own children. Teachers check in with their students to ask them how they are and to provide support and assurance that things will be better. In short, teachers are frontliners, too! They continue to give a sense of normalcy for students and support for parents, who are now experiencing firsthand how the life of a teacher looks like. With all of these expectations, teachers deserved to be prepared and given all necessary funding, support, and professional development to reach the society’s demands and expectations.

Society should demand for a new normal that puts the teacher in a more valued and prominent position, in words, actions, and policies. We do not get tired of being referred to as the most noble profession and we honestly and sincerely love it. We love how our students and parents show their appreciation and gratitude for the work that we do. However, it’s time to demand that the country invests more on training teachers to be more flexible and knowledgeable of the new approaches to learning and teaching, whether online or offline. We need to listen more to their needs and requests as they aim to teach better. We all know that our country’s progress also depends on the quality of education that we have. Hence, a battalion of well-trained, valued, and dedicated teachers can help develop a generation of better and responsible citizens, who can greatly contribute to the development of the society and humanity.

Part 2 of this post will be posted soon.