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Distance learning and teaching

A circulating video for laughs shows an enthused Filipino science teacher holding a class online and tackling the subject of condensation. He brings out a “caserola” (with no water in it, it seems) and a portable stove to show how the process comes about. He has not even started the demonstration when a barrage of “HM?” and “how much?” begins appearing on screen. “This is not online selling, this is online learning,” the teacher protests with much irritation amidst the noise of falling pots and pans, “at hindi po binebenta ang kalan!” (Laughter.)

Trust the Filipino to make funny the serious but seemingly untenable propositions such as how to proceed with the holding of classes in the aftermath of a long nationwide quarantine, and while the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of coming to a halt.

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Education officials have strewn about words to describe the kind of learning they have in mind in this pandemic time—blended, alternative, distance, remote, online, home. No different from the discombobulating modified, expanded, modified-expanded, enhanced, general, modified-enhanced-general, extreme, and what-have-you for community quarantines. Why didn’t these quarantine enforcers think of using numbers instead, like how typhoon intensities are classified? But I digress.

In the not so distant past I wrote about the University of the Philippines Open University’s (UPOU) distance learning.

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UP’s distance learning has been around since 1984. There was this Diploma in Science Teaching for those who needed to upgrade their science teaching skills while they were neck-deep in teaching. Much earlier, in 1964, UP had initiated the first school-on-the-air program.Only in 1991 did then UP President Jose Abueva create a committee on distance education with a well-oiled structure and system of delivery, the reason being that there cannot be distance learning that is good if there is no distance teaching that is good. It was important that effective teaching tools, instructional materials, as well as connection with distant students be in place.

And so in 1995, the UP’s Board of Regents approved the resolution “establishing the UP Open University as an autonomous member of the UP system.”

By the way, we are talking tertiary level here. In the beginning the target were the professionals who wanted to study but could not leave their work places, like the architects who needed to upgrade their knowledge and show proof of continuing education in order to renew their licenses. Teachers were definitely among UPOU’s primary targets.

Distance education should not be equated with the so-called correspondence schools which do not have learning centers and tutors. UPOU’s learning centers in strategic areas in the country provide tutors from the university’s faculty to whom students can go as a group at scheduled times. There are group discussions and exams. The tutor, who must be a specialist in the field and accessible to the students, is a key figure in the learning process. That was without a pandemic.

With advanced technology, distance learning and communication among tutors and learners are even faster, easier. But, says Dr. Celia Adriano, former executive director of UP’s Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services, the technology is only a tool. Of utmost importance are the teachers’ own skills in imparting knowledge and values. Hence the need for teacher training on how to teach effectively and, in these times, how to use the technology available. A tall order for teachers, indeed.Are our Filipino teachers prepared to teach, and are students prepared to learn despite the sudden turn of world events that has affected everyone in this world, bar none? Is our education system equipped not only for the tertiary level, but especially for the lower levels where basic learning takes place?

Schools “open” for classes, teaching, and learning begin in August or two months from now. Enrollment is supposed to be ongoing this month of June, even while everybody is wondering about the hows of it all. And whether or not…

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