Are you for or against flexible learning? Students and teachers weigh in on the issue

Published May 28, 2021, 10:00 PM

by Jules Vivas

Let’s talk about the CHED-proposed new normal for tertiary level education

TECH TEACH A teacher answers a call from a student in need of assistance on distance learning through a hotline program, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, in Taguig City on October 7, 2020 (Photo by Eloisa Lopez | Edit by the author)

Earlier this week, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) chair Prospero de Vera III announced that flexible learning would be the new normal for tertiary level students. The government agency has adopted a policy to continue the implementation of flexible learning for higher education institutions in the years to come. The move aims to prevent the further spread of COVID among the youth and educational stakeholders.

The news drew flak online. #NoStudentLeftBehind trended as students took to social media to protest against the idea. But what exactly is wrong with flexible learning, and why has it been highly frowned upon by Filipinos today?

We gathered students and educators to weigh in on the issue.

“As someone doing graduate studies in a science course, we need occasional access to laboratories within the institutes to conduct our research work,” says Ethan, a graduate student at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. “While some of us are lucky to have components of the research work that can be accomplished remotely via laptops and can be facilitated online, that is not the case for the majority.” In his institute, some graduate students have had significant delays in their timeline as they can’t solely rely on research virtually.

Ethan is convinced that the flexible learning scheme proposed by CHED has many loopholes. “Hindi ito masyadong napag-isipan (very little thought has been put into the flexible learning scheme). What CHED is doing is just stimulus reaction for the current situation,” he says. Ethan has been attending classes on two courses since the COVID-19 outbreak started. “I was already plagued by my short attention span during face-to-face classes. It got worse online.”

Crisanto Cao or Cris from Bulacan State University (BulSu) sees that there are no other options but to fully adopt flexible learning. “We [students] want to be back to normal, to be physically in schools, and to be reunited with our classmates and friends. But should we risk our safety and lives by going outside?” he asks. The idea of normalizing flexible learning did not come as a surprise for Cris considering the poor health care system in the country. He believes that pushing through with physical activities and gatherings may just end up aggravating the situation.

The third-year broadcasting student has embraced the fact that he will be graduating online. Like most of the students today, however, Cris is against online learning. He knows that skills acquired virtually might not be enough and must be balanced with real-life applications.

He has more questions: “Are schools already capable of conducting face-to-face classes?

Is it practical for parents to send their children out to get back to physical learning? The commute or transportation and allowance or baon would also be an extra cost.”

“Kids these days are at the point where they are tired of the pandemic. Most of them were shocked and could not fully adjust to the sudden transition from face-to-face to pure online learning,” says Dr. Glenn Reynon, chairperson of the communication department of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Angelicum College.

NEW NORM SCHOOLING Students start their online learning from home using mobile phones and printed learning modules on the opening of schools in Mandaluyong City on Oct. 5, 2020 (AFP)

Dr. Reynon clarified that flexible learning is not entirely online. “The keyword is ‘flexible,’” he says. It is a combination of both in-person and distance learning or a choice between the two. Flexible learning is defined in CHED’s memorandum order No. 04 as “a pedagogical approach allowing flexible time, place, and audience, but not solely focused on the use of technology… The design and delivery of programs address learner’s unique needs in terms of place, pace, process, and learning.”

“Before COVID, [at Angelicum] we were already employing online and modular approaches. It’s a matter of tweaking and improving our program,” says Dr. Reynon. “And even before the health crisis, Philippine education was already on its way to flexible learning. We should think of flexible learning as an opportunity rather than a threat. It is possible that the kids have misunderstood the concept.”

‘Without the right mechanisms and needed support, flexible learning could widen the glaring educational inequalities in our country.’

Prof. Joey Clutario agrees and counts on CHED to clarify with schools, teachers, and students and their parents what flexible learning entails and how it is not only online learning. “Based on my experience, the online mode has been widely used during the pandemic, and there were many observations about how it widens the gap between the privileged and the marginalized,” says the instructor at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. For him, CHED should examine how the schools are doing right now under flexible learning. “They must conduct a survey on teachers’ and students’ holistic experiences on flexible learning before making decisions.”

As it brings with it many opportunities, Evelie Serrano, PhD is for flexible learning on the condition that the country has the right mechanisms to carry it out it effectively. “Flexible learning may require resources that many of our students don’t have. For instance, having a stable internet connection, which is needed in synchronous learning sessions, continues to be a major problem for students and teachers alike,” says the associate professor and director at the Institute of Governance and Rural Development of UP Los Baños. She explains that a great number of students lack the needed gadgets to be more actively engaged in this “new normal” of teaching and learning. 

Likewise, if flexible learning will be the permanent setup, Prof. Clutario questions whether there is enough stable infrastructure to support the approach, especially in public schools and state universities. He asks how many schools can offer basic online library services? How many schools can support distance education in terms of resources?

From Dr. Serrano’s experience, the students are struggling due to limited resources, and faculty members are still in the process of exploring new ways of teaching and learning. “We are only doing the best we could in and for this flexible learning setup.”

Dr. Serrano emphasizes that while it is necessary right now to facilitate flexible learning due to the ongoing threats of the pandemic, the capacities of learners and educators should be considered. “Government should ensure that they can thrive in this setup should we decide to adopt it beyond the onslaught of COVID-19. Without the right mechanisms and needed support, flexible learning could widen the glaring educational inequalities in our country,” she says. 

“We all understand that the educational system should evolve with the changing times. Ideally, flexible learning should offer new ways we can make the teaching-learning experience work outside the traditional classroom setup. But we should not also totally abandon the time-tested methods and systems,” says Prof Clutario, adding that teacher training and modules are not enough. “We need better support from the government to make this happen during and most especially after the pandemic.”