Plans, Possibilities and Progress: UP academics moving into the “next normal”

| Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

The University of the Philippines (UP) is coming to terms with the fact that we can no longer go back to the traditional modes of teaching and learning. However, this “next normal”is also opening up new prospects, platforms, and possibilities for teaching and learning, which UP is set to explore within the next two months.

A memorandum released by the UP System Office of the Vice-President for Academic Affairs (OVPAA Memorandum No. 2020-68) dated June 19, 2020 states that even before COVID-19, UP was already planning how UP students can continue learning despite class suspensions due to natural hazards, disasters, or social and political eventualities.

“Anticipating many more such suspensions in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, the pre-COVID-19 UP System plan already entailed strategies to: 1) expedite the paradigm shift to lifelong learning; 2) accelerate changes in pedagogies and assessment that include the blending of face-to-face, virtual and experiential course work; and, 3) provide course packs at the start of every semester to facilitate independent learning as a value in itself, but most especially to make up for disruptions in the learning process, among others,” the memorandum stated.

Challenging but exciting

The COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the world merely catalyzed this overdue transformation of higher education in general and UP education in particular. The work during this unprecedented time is challenging but exciting, too, as opportunities open up for higher education institutions, including UP, to experiment with new and creative ways of delivering programs and courses, and to institutionalize innovations that enhance learning. Indeed, the “new reality” has revealed possibilities that were perhaps not as obvious before. Some examples the memorandum mentioned are the following:

• Inviting eminent visiting professors who in the past have hesitated to accept UP’s invitation because they could not afford to be physically away for an extended period of time;

• Inviting experts such as noted literary authors, artists, scientists, researchers, and practitioners to interact with students in virtual class sessions;

• Using uploaded plays, art works, music, TVUP ( panel discussions, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs);

• Offering modular courses in sequence within a semester when feasible;

• Incorporating available virtual reality applications in courses, while ensuring that students without online connections are able to access uploaded works and recorded sessions with experts asynchronously; and,

• Designing common courses collaboratively within a unit or across the UP System, among other possible changes.

For the next two months, UP faculty, administrators, students, and staffwill be working on “new ways of doing”, especially when it comes to: new modes of teaching and learning in the first semester of the new UP academic calendar, AY 2020-2021; preparing the physical and academic infrastructure for remote learning; preparing programs and courses for the possibility of blended learning; and, enhancing and modifying support for students’ academic instruction and well-being.

Modes of teaching and learning

The memorandum stresses that the safety of UP’s constituents is the University’s first priority when it comes to adopting remote learning and/or blending remote and face-to-face learning, if the public health situation allows it.

Because of this, all courses in the first semester will be delivered remotely. Any exemption must be approved by the chancellor of the constituent unit (CU), subject to strict compliance with the guidelines set by the Inter Agency Task Force (IATF) and local government units, and in consideration of the situation of students in the class which a unit endorses for exemption. Remote teaching and learning covers both asynchronous or non-real time communication (e.g., email, Facebook Messenger, Viber groups) and synchronous or real-time communication (e.g., lectures, webinars and teleconferences via Zoom or Google Meet) between teachers and learners. To avoid confusing students, the memorandum has instructed CUs to adopt one or at most two uniform Learning Management Systems (e.g., UP’s UVLE and VLE, Canvas, Google Classroom, Edmodo, etc.).

Academic calendar

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted adjustments to the academic calendars of higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world. UP, for its part, is retaining the semester and midyear system with some adjustments, subject to the final approval of the Board of Regents (BOR).

One adjustment is the shortening of the first and second semesters to 14 weeks and the opening of the first semester on September 10, 2020, subject to student consultation. This shortening of the semesters was approved in principle by the BOR at its meeting on May 21, 2020.

The memorandum notes that the reduction in the number of weeks in the semester will not affect the delivery of content, since lessons will be delivered asynchronously or synchronously, and remote modes of teaching do not limit the time students have to interact with the learning content, the teacher, and their classmates. For students without Internet connectivity, their independent learning will be supported by activity and assignment guides in the course packs, which will be delivered to them in USB flash drives or as printed material.

Physical and academic infrastructure

Physical infrastructure is required to support remote learning.  UP is currently undertaking several initiatives to prepare its infrastructure, including: maintaining its institutional subscription to Zoom for faculty meetings, webinars, workshops, synchronous classes, student group work and interactions; discussing with telecommunication companies the procurement of gadgets, Internet connectivity, support for educational data packs, computer loans and subsidies for financially challenged students and faculty; launching fundraising and resource generation campaigns among UP alumni and private sector donors for computers and laptops for students; and, exploring the use of TV and radio as an alternative to the Internet for areas with poor signals or Internet connectivity.

Initiatives for laying down the academic infrastructure for remote learning include: piloting an in-house developed Library Services Platform and Discovery Service to replace the existing Library System (iLib) that will feature a union catalog of print and electronic resources of all CU libraries and a centralized patron database; subscribing to databases and collections for all CUs; subscribing to Open Athens (remote access platform) for each CU; procuring a Learning Management System (LMS) to supplement the CUs’ LMS if necessary; and, making local and international online educational resources available, among others.

Program and course preparations for remote learning

UP academic units will be reviewing their curricula in light of the move to remote learning this coming academic year, noting the possibility of blended learning in the second semester. The review, which will be concluded by July 10, 2020, will determine the possible sequencing of courses to be offered in the first and second semesters of AY 2020-2021 and the proposed modified midyear.

Some questions to be considered include: Which courses can be entirely delivered remotely and which of these can be offered in the first semester? Which courses should have a face-to-face component and can be delivered in a blended mode? Which courses cannot be delivered either remotely or in blended mode, and what protocol should be set to ensure students’ safety if they have to go to school for these courses? What is the reasonable student load in a remote learning mode? Can the academic unit offer more sections for the course? If not, can the course be offered in a large class with Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Teaching Fellows (TFs)?

Following the review, academic units will then come up with course packs to be distributed to students. The course packs will have the following components: a course guide with detailed syllabus; learning resources such as readings, multimedia resources like video lectures, and other content resources; study and activity guides; and assignment guides.

Student support

In addition to enhancing existing student support programs, the University is instituting two new grants to support the academic instruction of students: Learning Assistance Grants to aid students in need of equipment and subsidy for connectivity service; and Peer Learning Groups and Networks, which are networks of student assistants to support students in remote learning contexts.

Two more programs are designed to ensure the safety, health and dignity of students. One is the Student Wellness System and Networks, which is a network that provides information, referral systems and mental health services to students with additional needs, spanning UP campuses and linking the University with agencies that can support better health outcomes. The other is the Student Helpdesk and Guidance, which is a network of social workers and counselors who can provide academic, emotional, and legal support to students in special circumstances (e.g., domestic violence, working students, legal concerns).

Dialogues with stakeholders

The University held a three-part series of webinar-workshops for faculty members across the UP System on “Taking Stock and Gearing UP for AY 2020-2021” on June 8, June 15, and June 22. Special webinars for faculty on course redesign, design thinking, LMS training and other topics, as well as the retooling of UP administrative staff will be announced separately.

UP also held dialogues with its faculty and students at the CU level from June 29 to July 2. Dialogues with the UP administrative staff, research, extension and professional staff (REPS), and concerned parents of incoming first-year students, will be announced soon.

In sum, the OVPAA memorandum reminds the members of the UP community that, ultimately, all the changes the University is compelled to make within severe time constraints aim to ensure that UP students will continue “to thrive in their learning environment, engage in learning leveraging digital and information technology, learn with appropriate pedagogical practice best suited to their enrolled course, and create through various learning partnerships.”