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Distance Learning: The New Normal In Education



Readiness: The Key To ODL In The Time Of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our lives and bringing a lot of challenges to our era. Aside from being a health crisis, it also caused economic meltdowns across the globe. Companies closed, many people were laid off and unexpectedly became unemployed. The World Health Organization also mentioned that food shortages became a problem during this global lockdown as closures between borders and trade restrictions limited the movement of food supplies from rural to urban areas. COVID-19 is producing profound devastating conditions in our daily lives including in the individual, cultural, public health, and economic dimensions (Ferreira and Serpa, 2021).

Along with all these, schools in most countries were closed to stem the transmission of the virus. Onyema, Eucheria, Obafemi, Sen, Atonye, Sharma, and Alyased (2020) concluded that the pandemic has adverse effects on educational systems including research, academic programs, staff professional development and jobs in the academic sector, etc. These changes were felt not just by schools but also by teachers, students, and even parents. As lockdowns were implemented everywhere, schools were also closed. Educational institutions abandoned face-to-face classes and on-campus activities were halted for the safety of the population (Filho et al., 2021).

To respond to the challenges posed by COVID cases worldwide, schools offered distance learning (DL) as the available learning method in this time of the pandemic. According to Justin Simon (2021), pre-pandemic there were only 6.6 million students enrolled in distance learning but this figure skyrocketed to 400 million due to the spread of COVID-19. Because schools were closed and not allowed to accommodate students in their classrooms, distance learning was offered. DL has now become the new normal in education.

Distance Learning

Distance Learning (DL) is any kind of remote learning in which the student is not physically present in the classroom. The student may be anywhere while learning takes place. Distance learning is educating students online. Over the years, DL has become an alternative mode of teaching and learning (Alsoliman, 2015). It has become another venue for education and instruction.

Though opposed by many, the Philippines’ Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) adopted and implemented a flexible model of blended learning. According to CHED (2020), flexible learning is learning interventions and delivery of programs with the consideration of the learner’s unique needs, that may or may not involve the use of technology. In the Philippines, DL is being offered in two forms: online distance learning (ODL) and modular distance learning (MDL). But most parents and students would prefer ODL, considering and hoping that the interaction between students and the teacher can ensure learning.

DL has become the new normal in education in the country. DepEd (2020), without sacrificing the quality of education, came up with the Learning Continuity Plan (LCP) for the school year 2020–2021. This provides learning interventions that teachers can utilize during the pandemic. This was the jumping board for schools as they offered DL to their stakeholders. However, for this article, we are going to focus only on online distance learning.

This kind of DL can either be synchronous or asynchronous learning. Juliana Scheiderer of Ohio State University simply differentiated the two as follows: synchronous learning is learning from a distance by attending a class virtually on a regular schedule, while asynchronous learning is learning at one’s pace and schedule but within a certain timeframe.

Synchronous learners are advised to attend an online class as if having it face-to-face. They are gathered in a virtual classroom where everybody can interact with their fellow students and their teachers/instructors. Asynchronous learning is different from synchronous learning. Students are given access to a portal where they can retrieve their lessons or instructional materials at any given time of the day. This learning method does not include live video discussion, though recorded videos may be viewed by the learners. However, real-time interaction is not possible.

Though DL has been used for many years already in the education system, its implementation in the time of pandemics may be different and challenging. With the emergence of advanced technology, it is acceptable to say that DL is very promising. However, to fully maximize the potential of this modality, it would be best to identify the experiences of the students, teachers, and stakeholders in this setup, the advantages and disadvantages of this modality in the time of the pandemic, and recommendations to improve the DL offerings of schools. Identifying the experiences of those involved in this modality would allow us to gather the pros and cons of DL. This would allow us to modify our recommendations.

Advantages Of Distance Learning

DL offers a lot of advantages as a mode of teaching and learning. Bijeesh (2021) enumerated some practical advantages of DL such as saving money and time. Most often, the fee for online classes is much lower than for the usual on-campus classes. As students save money because of reduced financial obligations, schools also save money because of less expense maintaining their facilities. Students can also save time because of shorter travel times. There’s no need to be on the road to beat the traffic just to be inside the classrooms. Study materials are available and just need to be downloaded.

Along with the advantages mentioned above, Oxford Learning College (2015) adds flexibility, comfort, and instant updates to the list. Because DL can be student-centered, the learner can control the schedule within the timeframe given by the teachers. Also, one can learn from anywhere and at any time. Online learning can be done in any place, at home wearing comfortable clothes, or somewhere in the rural province, as long as there’s an internet connection. And because of technology, the updating of materials and other online resources can be instantaneous. Support is available by online means to answer queries from the learners.

Disadvantages Of Distance Learning

On the other hand, Bijeesh (2021) also mentioned the disadvantages of DL. He first mentioned the tendency for high distraction. Because students are not in the classroom and are in the comfort of their homes, distractions can’t be avoided. They may be torn between classes and the desire to listen to music, to sleep, or do something else. This can result in poor performance of the students. This challenges teachers to make their lessons engaging, to motivate their students to focus on the lesson. He also mentioned hidden costs and complicated technology. Yes, online classes may save money because of less transportation and materials expenses, but it can’t be denied that there might be hidden costs, like buying software and other computer applications to support the online classes. The technology used may also be complicated. Navigating through the applications used in online classes may also be demanding and time-consuming, especially for younger students and their learning coaches.

In her article on eLearning, Gautam (2020) also mentioned the following as the disadvantages of online learning: technology issues, sense of isolation, teacher training, and managing screen time. When she mentioned technology issues, she meant more than just computer or gadget complexity; she also meant poor internet connection. With the pandemic and DL imposed on all students, the quality of internet connections was tested. Sadly, not all students have access to a strong internet connection. Intermittent connectivity may also lead to poor quality of online learning. This may be detrimental to the teaching and learning process.

Gautam continued by mentioning the sense of isolation. Because of DL, interactions are very minimal. We regard human beings as social beings. Teachers are then challenged to open every possible means of communication with their students to preserve the connection and ensure communication. Teacher training is also on the list of disadvantages mentioned by Gautam. The lockdowns were imposed suddenly and classes migrated online abruptly, but teachers may need additional training to teach online so as to be able to guide their students properly. So to ensure quality education, schools must always offer their teachers technological educational advancement through training and online courses.

Lastly, Gautam mentioned managing screen time as one of the disadvantages. Because students are required to attend their classes online and finish their requirements through their computers or other devices, parents are afraid of this hazard for their children. Thus, teachers must also remind the students to be responsible and mindful of the time they spend in front of their screens and to take breaks. Also, because of the synchronous classes and asynchronous tasks, parents, and teachers as well, are challenged to remind their students to consider physical activities in between, to maintain their health and wellness.

The advantages and disadvantages mentioned above were all based on the experiences of both teachers and students. They were satisfied and at the same time frustrated with DL. But with the data and information gathered, there are many opportunities available to improve this modality taking into consideration that technology is flexible and capable of accommodating changes and improvements. We should also mention the eagerness of teachers to develop their skills because of their untiring dedication to their profession.

Bijeesh, Oxford Learning College, and Gautam were able to mention experiences that are significant as we discuss DL as the new normal in education. They were able to list the advantages and disadvantages of DL being experienced at the time of this pandemic.

To address these issues in online distance learning, what is needed is summed up by the word “readiness.” Readiness, in terms of eLearning or learning through technology, may be vague or broad because of its never-ending and fast-paced evolution. In 2015, after analyzing a number of models, Demir and Yurdugül proposed three models of readiness for students, teachers, and institutions.

The Readiness Models

The readiness model for students consists of six components: competency of technology usage, self-directed learning, access to technology, confidence in prerequisite skills and in themselves, motivation, and time management. The model implies that the student must have computer and technology skills prior to eLearning, must have good study habits and independent learning skills, and must be motivated in attending online classes.

Demir and Yurdugül’s readiness model for teachers includes eight components: acceptance, access to technology, motivation, time management, institution and policy, content, pedagogical competency, and competency in technology usage. Basically, teachers must first absorb the nature of their setup, that the learning and teaching process will occur online or in a technology-driven environment. They must also be aware of the content of their lessons, as well as the methods and strategies they may be able to utilize as they teach in DL. Having knowledge about the institution and its policies is also helpful in being prepared. This may include rules regarding the school’s online instruction.

With regard to the institution’s readiness, there are seven components: finance, ICT infrastructure, human resources, management and leadership, content, culture, and lastly, competency in technology usage. The capacity of the institution to invest in the right and appropriate technology is the institution’s primary concern when it comes to learning and teaching with technology, as they need to invest in their ICT infrastructures. The institution must also be concerned with its human resources, management, and leadership for training and updating.

With Demir and Yurdugül’s models, we can justify how readiness can help address the seven disadvantages mentioned above: distractions, costly technology and apps, demanding online classes, isolation, lacking teacher training, managing screen time, and poor internet connection. Distraction may be avoided if students with the right motivation are focused on learning. This can also be avoided if teachers are competent pedagogically and technologically. Teachers’ well-prepared lessons with enticing activities will decrease students’ boredom in online distance learning. This also proves that teachers are well-trained and prepared to teach online. With all these considerations, the teachers can now help their students manage their screen time and develop study habits. Eventually, students will not find online classes as demanding if they have developed time management skills. More so, access to technology also means access to communication, thus students will not feel isolated if they have open communication with their teachers and classmates. Lastly, students, teachers, and the institution must invest in proper technology. For DL to be successful and fruitful, technology should not be neglected. This will help avoid problems with a poor internet connection, failing devices, and inappropriate learning apps and tools.

Conclusion

To stem the transmission of the coronavirus or COVID-19, establishments were closed, including schools. Thus, the education system adapted distance learning. Distance learning or DL is a modality wherein the teaching and learning processes are happening remotely. Despite the positive experiences of teachers and stakeholders regarding this setup, we cannot deny its drawbacks. Studies found that in DL students may encounter

  • Distractions
  • Costly technology and apps
  • Demanding online classes
  • Isolation
  • Teachers who lack training
  • Problems managing screen time
  • Poor internet connection compromising the quality of education

In conclusion, to be able to avoid these issues in DL, readiness must be ensured. The students, the teachers, and the administration or the institution must be prepared. The closure of schools may have happened abruptly; however, as the schools continue to offer DL they must prepare. Some components in the models presented by Demir and Yurdugül may help address the issues or disadvantages of the online learning setup.

With this conclusion, distance learning can continue as the new normal in education, especially during a pandemic or if a lockdown must be imposed. In spite of the issues mentioned, there were suggested components that can be done differently to avoid such problems. Education can still continue in spite of the fact that it is done remotely.

Recommendations

In our conclusion, we analyzed the seven advantages that were mentioned and we can justify that readiness is the key to all these. And this readiness is the preparation of the students, the teachers, and the institution (the school administration). Thus, orientation for students, training for teachers, and a needs assessment for the institution is recommended, to prepare those who will be involved in distance learning.

First, orientation for the students is an activity that would give the students an idea of how distance learning would happen. They would be aware of the things that they need to prepare for their DL to be successful and fruitful. The institution, through its teachers, would inform the students of the software, applications, and technology tools they would need. Also, this can serve as an opportunity for students to ask questions or for any clarifications about class schedules and the Learning Management System (LMS) that they will use in their online classes.

Second, training for teachers is necessary. The pandemic happened in the middle of the school year. Most teachers were not ready. However, as the pandemic continues and online classes are still utilized, the institution must provide, and ensure that teachers will undergo, training. In-service training seminars were provided even before the pandemic, thus it is not new to teachers. But with the demand for online learning, teachers must be given updated training especially on conducting online classes. These training sessions may include familiarity with hardware and software. This also guarantees that the teachers are capable of assisting their students during the school year.

Lastly, the institution must undertake a needs assessment. Needs assessment is a business tool that allows the organization to determine the gap between their desired output and their current state. This allows the organization to identify what should be prioritized or improved. For schools, this will allow the administration to name certain aspects in the school system that need to be given attention as they offer online classes. The school will then be able to properly orient their students and also train their teachers with the appropriate programs or tools.

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