After two years of holding classes remotely and online, some universities in Metro Manila will open the academic year 2022-23 on Aug. 15 and gradually return to in-person and onsite learning. Once again, a reimagination of “class,” “class activities, and “learning” is needed.
When classes were abruptly halted in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 emergency, schools were forced to shift from in-person to remote-online learning mode. Teachers like myself had to reconfigure course designs to accommodate the new way of teaching and learning.
In the strategy design courses I teach at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, one of the knowledge fundamentals is “empathizing,” or understanding contexts, worldviews, norms and conditions of people who should benefit best from the object, processes and systems, or experiences being designed.
This is done by having conversations with and listening to people and making inferences about their needs, feelings, thoughts and aspirations. In the case of redesigning class activities, empathizing is about understanding the students and teachers, the primary characters in the classroom.
At least a dozen students and teachers from six universities in Metro Manila and Pampanga, who had been involved in limited in-person classes since July 2021, recently narrated stories that may provide benchmarks for a “new” reality of getting formal education in a pandemic context. Here are some of their experiences and how these may help shape course designs for the coming semester:
Class size, crowded classrooms
At the University of Santo Tomas, only 15-20 students attended the in-person class to ensure physical distancing. For larger classes, students formed groups that attended in two batches–the first met face to face (F2F) for a week, while the second did “asynchronous” (individual pacing) activities. They alternated roles every week.
In other classes, students were chosen at random (raffle and lot draws) for F2F and remote and online attendance. It turned out, however, that those who had high grades went F2F and those with grades below the cut-off went online.
One student said the class was divided into small groups, and each had a designated time slot and classroom to use for the day.
“We started our very first limited F2F under the BS Physical Therapy program in June 2021. We called it ‘pre-internship’ because we were lumped together with the medical and nursing students,” the student said in Filipino.
“Our classes were only half-day because the staff needed to clean facilities for those in the afternoon schedule. So as not to crowd the classrooms, there were rooms designated for students taking this pre-internship program.”
The teachers said having small classes and giving lessons per batch meant too much work for them. One lamented: “Due to the limited number of students in F2F, I needed to divide my class by batches. I had to teach the same lesson/module thrice a day for the three batches of students.”
However, another viewed a small class size positively: “I can focus on the students, guide them. But it’s also really tiring that you have to repeat the lessons per batch.”
Quarantining, missing class work
Students of Ateneo de Manila University and UP missed out on class, internship, fieldwork or practicum activities because of quarantine periods and protocols. For instance, one female student who declared having Covid-like symptoms had to follow the 10-day quarantine period and missed 10 days of practicum.
“It heightens our anxiety,” her classmate said. “How do we make up for missed class activities?”
At UP, those staying in dorms must comply with the health rules based on the guidelines set by dorm management. One cited this case: “When we went to the province to vote last May 9, we were required to undergo a one-week quarantine period upon our return, so we could not join our field activities.”
Dealing with the virus
The students feared that the probability of contracting the coronavirus was high now that they had to go to UP Diliman and to Holy Angel University and Angeles University Foundation, both in Pampanga.
“We may get the virus while traveling, commuting.”
“Since both students and their teacher should wear face masks in the classroom, our voices were muffled and we could hardly understand each other. We had to take off the masks though we were aware of the risk and noncompliance with standard health protocols. Other classmates seemed uncomfortable with taking off the masks.”
“Rooms are not well-ventilated, and the space is not suitable for maintaining social distancing measures.”
“Access to school facilities was a problem; many were closed or not allowed for use, such as the canteen and cafeteria. We had to eat outside campus and be exposed more to potential virus carriers.”
Teachers spoke of the volatile, uncertain conditions in the gradual transition to F2F learning. Pushing through with the limited approach meant experimenting on how to balance teaching and learning effectiveness, everyone’s well-being, and compliance with health-specific rules and standards.
“We didn’t have a viable schedule, even if planned ahead. It would always be interrupted by changes in the rules of the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Diseases) and guidelines of the DepEd (Department of Education), apart from the class suspension due to typhoons or disasters.”
“We are always monitoring the surge in Covid cases. Of course, we don’t want our students to be exposed in school.”
“We had to modify, adjust and innovate in our conduct of the field practicum. We initially thought of adopting the ‘bubble’ approach, but many lessons would inevitably require interaction between students and faculty outside the bubble.”
While many teachers tried to and were creative in reconfiguring the learning structure, approaches and their techniques, one student commented: “Same methods as those used prepandemic. We were still obliged to submit many requirements even at the height of the pandemic when classes resumed after the enhanced community quarantine was lifted. But when typhoons, power outages or similar situations occur, profs become lenient; no explicit expression/sentiments about adjustments on their part.”
While the teachers’ and students’ experiences illustrated problems, tension points and challenges, some positive insights were given:
“Despite limited F2F, we all had our practicum. I feel motivated to learn more because we are now hands-on in our lessons, unlike before when we were online and case studies from others’ experiences abound. Now, we experienced these ourselves, even though they were limited.”
“The hybrid/blended approach — combining online and F2F modalities — is a good strategy for becoming flexible in course delivery. It’s also OK that we are given the option to choose online or F2F meetings …”
Per the stories, though few, perhaps it might not be a question of modality (F2F, online, blended/combined) that was perceived as a problem, but issues related to “going to and being in school,” such as transportation, study spaces, places to eat, dormitory, etc.
These conditions determine the extent of exposure of students and teachers to other people and, therefore, the probability of contracting the virus.
The students’ positive views about in-person learning collide with their continuing fear of infection and the capricious or contingent conditions related to campus life amid the pandemic.
Limited F2F modality or the gradual return to in-person learning approach is still evolving. While guidelines are in place and education institutions are setting up systems and structures, “what might work best” will be felt in the “classroom.”
Transitioning from pure online to limited F2F classes requires a reimagination of the learning process, system and experience in which both students and teachers are actively involved. This collaboration, or co-design, may ensure that course offerings are aptly shaped, academic standards and learning objectives are followed, and safety protocols are observed and practiced despite the pandemic restrictions.
Matt Wamil teaches communication and education strategy design at UP Diliman’s College of Social Work and Community Development. –Ed.