• The Pasig Review

Digital learning at the time of the pandemic; academic woes and challenges

Joaquin Villareal

The Age of Digital technology is upon us. It has been for quite sometime now, and COVID-19 simply made it happen across demographics.

Distance learning was an odd concept during the first wave of the pandemic. The idea of learning from home was not what everyone expected to come into fruition. It was a bold, new idea which students and parents had a hard time processing, especially with the fact that it had never been done on such a wide scale despite the availability of technologies.

The fact that the added financial burden to send kids back to school during this time, not to mention the added expenses for a better internet connection and better gadgets, plagued the minds of working parents who were already having financial difficulties during this time. What more, were the teachers who wondered on how they could possibly teach subjects like Physical Education, Mathematics and General Biology from a home set-up. Plenty of challenges were expected beforehand, and now, those challenges have only increased in number.

When the Department of Education (DepEd) announced the concept of distance learning, most people were skeptical and rightfully so. Students were the most vocal against the implementation of distance learning, even up to the present, midway through the year, with students banding together to advocate for an academic break or an end to the semester. This sentiment echoed from small private schools to large universities. This led to two prominent student movements to form, the “Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” and “Academic Freeze”.

Student Movements

“Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” and “Academic Freeze” are two prominent hashtags which were spread throughout social media by students. These two movements effectively divided the student population, forming two separate fronts with differing ideologies.

“Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” pushed for, as translated, a safe return to school. It focused on fighting for a better government response, such as mass testing, lowering of the curve, and plans for safe face-to-face classes. It fought not only for students, but for teachers, administration, and janitors to name a few. It supported the start of school, when it was safe and when everyone would start on equal grounds.

“Academic Freeze” pushed for a complete freeze of the academic year. No classes would be conducted at all. It, however, only helped students, leaving the rest involved in education to be jobless for the duration of the freeze.

The latter movement was at first the more popular option during the early months before school, with the majority of students questioning the effectiveness of distance learning. When the reality hit with the fact that school would continue, “Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” began to gain traction and popularity, being a selfless and noble option as it advocated for all those involved in education.

Despite these movements trending on social media, DepEd ignored the student’s calls and pushed on with the school year.

Excessive Academics

When the school year finally began in September for most private institutions, the main issue at the time was the poor internet connection. Most private schools used online learning as their method of teaching, with discussions being taught through online video conferences, and activities, quizzes and assignments being done through Google Services and Canvas Infrastructure.

Poor internet connection, however, resulted in exams, quizzes, and assignments to be moved or submitted at a different time. Most teachers were accommodating during such times, but on rare occasions some teachers did not consider it to be a valid excuse.

Afterwards, when the school year finally opened for those in public schools, the real issues of distance learning started to come up. While other public schools had students who could participate in online classes, others had to rely on self-learning through modules given on a weekly basis. Bundled with these modules, were activities which were to be collected the following week by the teacher.

The amount of activities given on a weekly basis proved to be too much for students, both private and public. The pressure increased for all, as students had to consistently pass activities each week. Although public schools were instructed by DepEd to avoid exams, some private schools pushed on with their quarterly exams. For public school students who opted for physical copies of their modules, the pressure to pass the weekly requirements overworked them, with most taking a whole day to finish a subject. All these factors led to a mental and physical burn out for students.

The push for “Academic Ease” then became popular, calling for an adjustment to the academic calendar, with extended deadlines and consideration to be given to students. It also pushed for an “Academic Break”, which was a suspension of synchronous and asynchronous classes, similar to a mental health break.

These movements were supported lightly by the schools themselves. DepEd, however, refuses to acknowledge these movements, continuing with its narrative that students want to go to school, and that student resilience would be able to push through.

Tragedy in a Tragic Time

Student resilience would not save the day at all, at least for some students who felt that academic requirements were more important than their lives. This has led to tragedy, as there have been cases of suicide which are believed to be caused by the increased workload. Although DepEd denies the connection, parents of the victims believe that the increased academic work is a factor.

The added fact that two incredibly strong typhoons, Typhoon Rolly and Typhoon Ulysses, devastated the country continuously. The typhoons caused severe flooding in areas, leading residents to seek shelter on the roofs of their homes. In Cagayan, the storm caused what was considered to be the “worst flood in 40 years”. The flooding was mostly caused by the opening of dams to prevent it from breaking. Typhoon Rolly, a supertyphoon, ripped through homes in the Bicol and Rizal regions.

Even as the strongest typhoons of the year were being experienced by majority of the Filipinos, students still worried about their academics. Students panicked, as those with printed modules had lost them in the storm. Others had no electricity, preventing them from submitting activities or joining online discussions. Even as their way of life was being destroyed by a natural calamity, the worry of failing the semester overtook their priorities.

DepEd provided no help, with Secretary Lionor Briones stating that “Halimbawa, nabasa ang module, siguro hindi naman susulat ang superintendent na ‘Basa ang module namin.’ Maghanap sila ng paraan. Ibilad nila, ‘yung iba pina-plantsa,”. This response angered students, especially those in the areas hit hard by the typhoon. It was, for most, the height of insensitivity and of disconnection to realities.

What was worse was that DepEd began insensitively bidding on their Christmas “ham and cheese” amounting to P4.2 million. They later retracted the bid, pledging to use their funds to help those affected by the typhoons.

The Student’s Reality

When you ask a student if they learned anything, they would say no. Students are in a constant state of motion, having no time to digest the education given to them. They are answering activities, only learning what needs to be answered, and when the next batch comes, their mind drifts from previous lessons and the process repeats. It is difficult to learn anything meaningful if the possibility of failing exists during distance learning. Although some schools have implemented a no-failure policy, others are still following the old norms rather than adjusting to the new normal.

Other students though prefer online learning to face-to-face learning, mostly due to the convenience of it. They believe that it is an easier concept compared to face-to-face, having only to wake up, join the discussion, and sleep it off, and if activities were given, they would only need to have a copy of the module to get answers. Skipping school is also easier for most, as the common excuse of “no internet connection” is accepted, sometimes without verification. These students, however, only represent a minority compared to the wider student population.

Student movements are stronger than ever, with the recent typhoons causing widespread social media protest. Students from the affected areas used social media to ask for “compassion” and “consideration” for students affected by the typhoon. Even though students directly affected would be excused, there was worry that they would be overworked due to the requirements that they would miss. Majority of students supported an Academic Break afterwards, so all would learn at the same pace.

Students from universities like Ateneo De Manila and De La Salle called for academic breaks as well, with some even calling for an end to the semester. That sentiment is heavily shared by students of the University of the Philippines, whose calls to end the semester is being considered. Students believe that they should continue the semester next year, so that the university could plan more efficiently on how they would proceed with classes.

A New Year

As the year ends, students are looking at an unpredictable future. Covid-19 cases are down, but still average to 1000-2000 a day. The preference for face-to-face classes have increased, especially due to the success of recent vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Despite the success, many doubt the Philippines can return to normalcy by next year, especially as most are skeptical of taking the vaccine in the first few months. Another reason uncontrollable by the people is that those on the priority list to take the vaccine would be the military and police, with President Duterte stating that “I need a healthy military and police kasi kapag magkasakit lahat 'yan, wala na ako maasahan, wala tayo mautusan”. The hope for a return to normalcy sooner than later seems dim at this point, as the education sector is not likely to get the vaccine as soon.

Distance learning is ineffective in a country like the Philippines. Even technologically superior countries like the United States had students struggling to adjust to online classes. The idea that students can learn effectively through distance learning is nothing but a farce. The lack of consideration from DepEd led many students to believe that the only reason they pushed through the school year was so that their funding would not be pulled. This only added to the anger towards the government agency.

School year 2020-2021 has been declared by most students as a failure, although official estimates from DepEd say otherwise. Students claim that they have learned nothing, instead gaining an increase of anxiety and stress. Even with online discussions, students are unable to focus on their home set-up. Those in private schools are reliant on self-learning, reading through the modules rather than listening to a monotonous voice for an hour.

It isn’t certain on how the rest of the year will go, and whether or not face-to-face classes would be implemented by January. The public trust in DepEd is low, with students speaking out against the inconsideration and lack of perception to the reality that distance learning is a failure. This lack of perception is detrimental to the student’s welfare, potentially damaging their mental stability. It is impossible to declare this school year a success in any way, and if DepEd refuses to acknowledge the reality, it would be the biggest insult possible towards students across the nation.

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