Reinventing education in a pandemic era

The COVID-19 pandemic struck just when our students, fresh from the Christmas break, were settling back into their classrooms. They viewed the disruption of classes it triggered with a mix of annoyance and relief. They expected classes to resume within a month at most. Little did they expect that this pause would upend not just the rest of the school year, but the whole system of education.

When it appeared that the outbreak was not coming to an end soon, the government told schools that they would have to remain closed for an indefinite period to prevent the spread of the infection. As the school authorities initially saw it, the problem was how to deliver education through remote or distance learning. The focus has thus been on the technology that could be harnessed for remote learning and how to make this accessible to every student.

What we have not begun to examine is the far-reaching effect, not just of the closure of the in-person classroom, but of the pandemic as a whole, on the system of education itself. There has been very little discussion, for instance, on how to preserve the integrity of student performance and evaluation when these are to be carried out remotely. Much less attention has been paid, if any, on the implications of the pandemic on the content of what is to be learned.

These challenges may not seem obvious at first glance, given our fixation with educational technology. These may become clear, however, when we view them in relation to two basic aspects of the education system.

First, education inescapably involves evaluation of student performance. Whether this comes in the form of grades or a simple pass/fail classification, evaluation is intrinsic to the educational process. Depending on his/her performance, a student may or may not gain admission into a school, may or may not be allowed to enroll in a desired course, or, finally, may or may not be permitted to graduate. This entire assessment culture, rooted in the career system prevailing in society, is bound to be overturned by the shift to online learning.

Ateneo de Manila University was recently reported to be dispensing with its annual admissions tests in view of current restrictions. Applicants will instead be required to submit personal essays, as a measure of their readiness and aptitude for college work. This form of evaluation is a step in the right direction. It may be further refined using online interviews, if only they were not time-consuming.

Performance evaluation, of course, happens at nearly every point of the educational process. One can only imagine how difficult it is to ensure its autonomy and integrity when the student works outside the insulated environment of the physical school. Apart from uploading course packs online, teachers will have to devise new modes of assessment that gauge effort, analytical capability, and grasp of concepts, taking into account the possibility that performance can be faked with outside help.

It is easy for some teachers to tell their students that, in the final analysis, grades do not matter as much as the sheer enjoyment one gets from being introduced into the limitless world of knowledge and learning essential skills and abilities. But even the rare students who are nominally uninterested in grades know that the completion of a program of study with above-average grades is crucial to entering a career and progressing in it.

Still, all this change may be secondary to what will happen to education once we come into a full awareness of what it means to live in a pandemic age. I refer specifically to the content of education itself, that is—what is worth learning, what skills acquire higher value, and what sensibilities become more crucial to human survival.

The education system merely reflects the changing demands of society. If we can start to imagine that there is not a single institution, domain, or field of social life that has not been affected in a profound way by the pandemic, perhaps we may be able to understand what radical demands there will be on education.

The education system remains the most important societal mechanism for changing humanity. Its principal purpose is to prepare human beings to live in the future. It fulfills this function by equipping the younger generation with the attitudes, values, abilities, and sensibilities essential not only to the flourishing of civilization but to the very survival of the human species. In whatever form they are, schools are the place in which human society must prepare itself for the existential encounter with the environment. Up to now, the inculcation of ecological awareness has amounted to no more than a polite nod to nature in the form of general courses on the environment. We must do better.

Perhaps no one has made this point more urgently than David M. Morens and Anthony S. Fauci in an article published on Aug. 15, 2020, in the scientific journal Cell. Titled “Emerging Pandemic Diseases: How We Got to COVID-19,” they argue that we who live in this era need “to bend modernity in a safer direction.”

“Science will surely bring us many life-saving drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics; however, there is no reason to think that these alone can overcome the threat of ever more frequent and deadly emergences of infectious diseases… COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”