In defense of educational standards and the UP Open University

IF there is one thing that I can agree with Sen. Maria Imelda Josefa Marcos, it is her concern about ensuring that educational standards should be met as we migrate to a blended learning approach, where one of the main, if not the major, learning platforms for many is online learning.

However, this is matched with a caveat that the senator from Ilocos Norte may still carry with her the pervasive and implied biases of many against distance and remote learning. Many people still doubt the efficacy of learning outside the physical classroom. And the issue here is not just the cost, but whether students can learn without physically interacting with the teacher and without seeing a physical white or black board.

Indeed, for people used to physical classroom settings, the experience of learning remotely, either through the internet or through television and radio, would appear incomplete and perhaps unsatisfactory. The same goes for modular learning where students will only interact with printed materials delivered to them, sans the teacher giving classroom lectures and readily answering questions. There was a time when people looked down on those who obtained their degrees from correspondence schools, and until the imperative of a pandemic made the experience mandatory for most, online and open learning environments have always been dismissed as an inferior alternative to face-to-face learning.

As Senator Marcos has indicated, the challenge to educators and educational institutions is to maintain the standards for learning, lest we turn our educational system into places where real diplomas are actually earned, but they might as well be fake. And while we can certainly understand the apprehensions of many, this is a challenge that is not totally insurmountable. Actually, the burden is less on the teachers and schools than on government and legislators such as Sen. Marcos, to provide not only the funds but the enabling legislation and policy environment to ensure quality learning, even if it would be in alternative platforms.

Any educator worth his or her mettle would always defend educational standards and would always frown upon anyone who would taint this by giving or receiving fake, or even real, diplomas that are not hard-earned. Thus, Senator Marcos should go beyond reminding us to maintain our standards and should help us deal with her fears that we become diploma mills.

If Senator Marcos would like to ensure that any future public servant like her can proudly display his or her earned diploma as one that is not just authentic, but with quality as proof of learning, she should help educators and educational institutions by passing laws that would upgrade the connectivity, capacity and readiness not only of schools and universities, but of students and parents.

This would include, but not be limited to, enabling universal access to a reliable, fast and free internet not only in schools but in public places all over the country; requiring all TV and radio stations to have an educational channel and ensuring that local government units down to the barangay (village) level will have community radio and TV channels; providing free tablets to all students and free laptops to all teachers; and revising existing laws and policies that retard innovation in the delivery of educational services.

It would also help if enough support will be given to educators, from salary upgrades, to continuous capacity building. The state cannot afford for teachers and private schools to be constantly vulnerable to market forces and force majeure. There is a need to subsidize teachers displaced or schools closed because of economic collapse or calamities such as pandemics.

It is instructive that our policy-making process be based on evidence, instead of unverified rumors or allegations, or unwarranted fears and prejudices. People are relatively unfamiliar with remote learning that what we need is not the noise made by allegations and innuendos, but by the certainty of information backed by data. It is here where Senator Marcos has come short, when she made allegations against the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU), which stemmed from reports from provinces that UPOU was not sharing its materials for distance learning.

UPOU Chancellor Melinda de la Peña refuted this claim and enumerated what her university has done in pursuance of its mandate provided for in Republic Act 10650. Had Senator Marcos visited the website of UPOU, she would not have missed the fact that UPOU has been sharing its materials for free, and its skills and resources in capacitating other schools to deliver distance and remote learning.

Since 2013, UPOU has implemented its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) where over 100 free online courses have been offered. In addition, since 2017, there have been at least 12 certification and micro-degree programs in distance learning offered through the MOOC. UPOU has also maintained a UPOU Networks where its vast collection of open educational resources is made publicly available. Since 2016, UPOU has conducted training programs for several educational institutions to help them build capacity to offer their own distance education programs through technology-enhanced and technology-enabled mode of instructional delivery. And these efforts and initiatives have intensified even more during the lockdown.

It is certainly disconcerting for any educational institution, or for any educator, to be accused of being stingy or “madamot” in sharing educational and learning materials, more so if the work was funded using taxpayer’s monies. The challenge not only for UPOU, but for all educational institutions, whether public or private, is to become enablers of affordable and accessible education.

The challenge to legislators like Senator Marcos is to fairly acknowledge the efforts of those who do their share in ensuring these. The legislators should pass enabling laws that support this new learning environment. One area is to revisit the intellectual property and data privacy laws and refine these to become enablers in the context of the new demands of the new educational landscape brought upon us by this pandemic.

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