Can Schools Ace Online Learning in a Pandemic: Transcript of My TEDx Xavier School Talk

I enjoyed my virtual TEDx Xavier School Talk and it was definitely an amazing experience for me! One for the books! I am deeply grateful to the TEDx Xavier School Team who invited me to be part of their amazing lineup of speakers, which included the Vice President of the Philippines, Leni Robredo, and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. The theme was about moving to a new beat of life as we go through the global pandemic and I had the honor to share my experiences and expertise on online learning, representing the new normal in education. The recorded livestream has been tentatively removed so for those who want to know more about my talk, here is a transcript of my talk, “Can Schools Ace Online Learning.”

Can Schools Ace Online Learning (February 3, 2021)

In March 2020, the Philippines joined the world in shutting down schools because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which at that time affected 80 % of the total school population in the world. This meant three out of four students or 1.4 billion students were no longer in the classroom for the usual face to face mode of learning. One year into the pandemic, over 800 million students are still facing the effect of school disruptions due to the community or national restrictions. The pandemic had successfully pushed the education sector to press pause. The unprecedented long-term disruption forced most education systems around the world to design their national education continuity plans in a short and limited period of time. Despite being caught off guard, schools had and needed to hit the play button again even with the chaos and uncertainty that engulfed the whole world.

As an EdTech or digital learning specialist and consultant, I spent some weeks working with teachers and school leaders from both public and private schools. Through my education advocacy platform, empowerED, I was able to connect with more teachers around the country via the online webinars we delivered alongside the Department of Education. Together with some colleagues, I also wrote various reports and guidelines on education in the pandemic and created content, such as podcasts to help teachers prepare and draw their plans on how they can continue to deliver education despite the lockdown. While working with the teachers, it was too obvious to see that the experience was tough and the transition was rapid. There was no time to breathe because schools had to consider variables before they decide on what mode of learning and teaching they will have to adopt for the coming school year. For schools whose students and teachers have the means to access the Internet through their personal learning devices, online distance learning was seemingly the way to go. In online learning, the possibilities were endless because the Internet, along with the educational apps and other online learning platforms, can provide means of connection, sources of information, tools for creating projects, and allow communication despite the distance. Online learning was seen as one of the temporary solutions and alternatives to face-to-face learning.

Online distance learning and online learning are actually two different modes of learning but often used interchangeably because they make use of online learning platforms. These modes of learning are not actually new. In 1989, the University of Phoenix, a private for-profit school, launched its online degree program. In the 1990s, the early pioneers entered the new frontier of online education after the creation and opening of the World Wide Web to the public. Over the decade, online education continued its advancement, most notably on the development of learning management systems which now are in the forms of Schoology, Canvas, and Blackboard among others. Online education’s second era came as the Information Age dawned in the 2000s when the Internet has deeply penetrated every sector of society and entrenched itself in the life of every human who can access it. Social media platforms, online learning platforms, and powerful smartphones and tablets started to proliferate exponentially, making online learning more mobile more than ever. It was definitely learning anywhere and anytime. In the 2010s, higher education institutions in different parts of the world took advantage of virtual learning to provide the public with more pathways to education. Massive online open courses, such as Coursera and edX, grew rapidly, giving the public more online courses to choose from and learn new skills for free. In the Philippines, through the Republic Act 10650, or the “Open Distance Learning Act,” signed in 2014, the University of the Philippines Open University was mandated to lead the charge toward innovation in open online distance education in the country. In UP Open University, one can take an undergraduate or a graduate degree via online distance learning, which means literally studying without going to school physically ever. This short review of online education demonstrates to us that online distance learning and online learning have been with us all the time and it took a pandemic for more schools, colleges, and universities to consider and eventually embrace this alternative mode of learning. But the kind of online learning that we have at the moment is hardly similar to the kind of online education that we saw in the past years. We are in a state of public health emergency that continues to complicate the way our lives turn. Simply put, education is currently undergoing a massive global online learning experiment. 

So, how is the experience so far? We can definitely say that it is not at all a walk in the park. The reactions from teachers, parents, and students were as varied and colorful as the shades in a big crayon box. The numerous memes that came out and got shared on social media are proof of how crazy things have turned out especially at the beginning of online classes.

Some of these challenges touched on crucial parts such as the need for teachers to have more time to design online lessons and learning materials. With zero prior experience or even knowledge about online learning, teachers have to make a courageous leap of faith and a massive deep dive into the unknown, bringing with them a glimmer of hope that things will be better or at least give their students a sense of normalcy. In most of my talks for the past couple of months, I have always used this symbol in describing the work of teachers right now: Teachers are flying an airplane that they are currently building, trying not to let it fall and crash.    

On the other hand, parents at home also found themselves on the same ride. Because this was also new to them, they had no clue of what’s going to happen. With so much doubt and questions, they wanted clarity and some kind of assurance that this kind of learning is as good as being in the classroom. If the school fails to communicate what online learning is, what it demands and how parents should understand it, then the school-parent relationship is in for a great test. 

And of course, at the forefront of the discussion are the students, who are deeply overwhelmed as they adjust to the new environment. Students had to learn new skills that would allow them to connect via video-conference, access learning materials via learning management systems, and answer tests online. Unreliable technology access and infrastructure in the country further contribute to the hurdles of online learning. The absence of the structure and support that being in a physical classroom afforded students also contributed to the student’s negative experience. Another urgent concern that needs to be addressed is the lack of authentic personal connection between the teachers and students. It is ironic that online learning can connect a class together, but might also fail to cultivate personal relationships, which studies have shown could positively contribute to better student achievement. Why is it so difficult to cultivate personal relationships right now? It is not because teachers do not want to or that technology does not allow for it to happen. One recurring answer to this puzzle is that teachers and students do not have enough time to really talk and share about what is happening to them. When the online lesson is done, everyone usually is in a hurry to leave the online class due to exhaustion.

If students continue to experience these hurdles, then the hope of our future, as the great national hero, Jose Rizal would say, is doomed to get lost, feel overwhelmed, and become unmotivated over time. If there are no clear learner support systems to help students manage the change and the demands of online learning, then this massive global experiment will fail.

Yet, because we are learning from our experiences, we remain thoughtful and agile in improving what we have now. Looking at the current situation, there is a bigger chance that online distance learning or a form of blended or hybrid learning, which incorporates face to face encounters in safe physical classrooms if community restrictions finally allow, will still be the reality for a lot of students in the coming new school year. Hence, there is a need to reflect and make reiterations that build on our collective experiences of success and failures in online education. So, what can be done to fully maximize online distance learning? I have three ideas that can help us move better to the beat of online distance learning and interestingly, not all of them are about technology.

But, before I share these three ideas, I would like to come clean with everyone. You obviously know that I love talking about digital learning because it is what I am passionate about in my teaching career. Yet, I also empathize with all students right now who are studying online because I, too, am an online distance learning student. I have definitely experienced what you are experiencing right now. Three years ago, with my busy work schedule, I decided to enroll at UP Open University for my master’s degree in education. There were moments when I did not want to download my class readings, felt annoyed because I have a classmate who commented a lot and asked too many questions in our discussions forums, and I almost felt hopeless because my professor was not replying to my emails or returning the papers that I have submitted. Because everything was done online and I get to do a lot of work on my own or asynchronously, there were moments when I dilly-dallied with the requirements and with the readings in my class. I am not proud of what I did especially in my first year because it came to a point when it became too difficult for me to catch-up with the requirements. So, like what I said earlier, it takes time for students to get used to the demands of online learning, but most of the time, we can actually hack online learning if we use the skills that our teachers have been teaching us since the first moment we stepped in the classroom.

So, the first idea on acing online learning is for our dear students: there is a need to consistently practice self-discipline, time-management, and independence. This is easier said than done but here are some practical ways to do these things. First, remember that where you study affects the way you learn. So, dedicate a well-lit space where you can study well. Sorry to burst your bubble, your bed is not a good place for studying. Then, create a daily routine or schedule that includes showering and grooming yourself before logging in to your classes. These little things actually wake you up and condition your mind that there is a great day of studying ahead of you. Stick to your schedule because this will give you a sense of normalcy. Learn how to manage your time to avoid getting overwhelmed because a crammer in face-to-face learning will definitely cram even in online learning. Last but not the least, when you feel that online learning has taken its toll on you, take time to rest and recharge. Talk to your family, friends, and even your teachers. Do not feel embarrassed to share your struggles. They might even help you make sense of and find solutions to what you are going through.

The second is for parents. Home-school connection and partnership need to be stronger more than ever. To our dear parents out there, we, teachers, would like to connect more with you so that we can help your kids to study better despite the distance that separates them from us. We need your help and support for the sake of your kids at home. This kind of help does not mean you teach the lessons to your kids at home. It does not also mean doing the work for them or still pressuring them to get perfect scores all the time. Instead, we want you to make sure that your kids stick to their schedules, turn up in the virtual classes, do their work at home, and answer their online tests honestly. Let them be students. Let them explore. Let them commit mistakes and help them learn from these mistakes. Most of all, be with them. 

The third idea is for my fellow teachers, thank you for holding the fort, even if that means juggling your teaching time with your own personal time to be a parent for your own kids at home, or using your own personal resources to give each child what they deserve right now. For teachers around the world, this is not dramatic heroism. This is simply another face of what it means to be a teacher right now. This has been said often, but I want to reiterate it-student-centered pedagogy over technology. So, always remember that the best form of learning is that which actively engages students to explore, try out and do something, and reflect. As the school leaders in my school would say, design minimal online learning activities but make sure that these learning activities have maximum impact on the students.

There is one more idea that I want to bring up and it is about equity. The big challenge of inequity continues to haunt all education systems around the world. It can’t be solved easily. There is a need for a systematic solution that would bridge and close the digital divide that we have seen much clearer right now. For me, this starts with demanding bigger funding from the government to support the education system, especially schools in the public sector. What we have right now is not enough. The fight for equity is not just about access to computers or the Internet. There are struggling schools that have no electricity, not enough books for children, or have dilapidated buildings. This fight for equity is close to my heart because I am a product of the public school system in the Philippines. I hail from a far province up north of our country and I can still clearly remember the first time I held a computer when I was in high school and how I easily realized how unequal things were because those who can access a computer and use it for learning can definitely have more advantage in learning more than those who do not have. This inequity is still the reality that a lot of students see and experience right now and unfortunately, the pandemic has made this gap or digital divide wider than ever. So, if we want to revolutionize online education, then we need to fight for equitable access and opportunities for all students.  

So going back to our question, can schools ace online learning in a pandemic? Yes, if we lay the foundation down well and get everyone ready for this new mode of learning. Everyone in the school community needs to move and transition together. No one should be left behind. But most importantly, I believe that schools can ace online learning if teachers and school leaders always remember that the student behind the screen is a person who needs a personal connection. The student might forget what is taught online, but will always remember how the teachers have reached out to know them better and build a lasting relationship that defies the limitations of the virtual classes.

In the coming months, we will still be dancing with the pandemic. Let us make sure that we do not lose ourselves in this crazy pandemonium. In our quest to ace online learning, let us always remember that we are doing this not to simply survive the pandemic, but because now, we know that online learning can further strengthen and future-proof our education system. When we have future-proofed our education system, then we definitely can say that we have safely guarded the future of today’s youth and of the next generation.