“We are living in a VUCA world,” said Professor Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore on the third day of this year’s recently concluded Philippine Education Conference (PhilEd), a virtual event held last December 1-4.
VUCA is a term that came up often across the sessions, which were attended by private education teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders across the country, and is short for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Nearly two years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, VUCA is an acronym that still holds.
Despite dramatic declines in daily new cases in December, a more transmissible variant is now on the rise in more and more countries — including the Philippines. And for the sector of private education specifically, the pandemic has only exacerbated a teaching crisis that speakers like Dr. Edizon A. Fermin, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the National Teachers College, say has been around for much longer.
What should schools do, then, in the face of a VUCA situation?
According to Dr. Betsy Joy B. Tan, president of the Federation of Accrediting Agencies of the Philippines, we can counter volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity with a VUCA of our own. In her talk on quality assurance during the pandemic, she said, “We can counter volatility with vision, meet uncertainty with understanding, react to complexity with clarity, and fight ambiguity with agility.”
For Dr. Clarita D. Carillo, Assistant to the Rector for Planning and Quality Management at the University of Santo Tomas, and part of the team that helped roll out pandemic-era changes at the country’s oldest university, the way forward for schools today can be summarized into three stages: cope, control, and construct.
To say that today’s health crisis has cost humanity so much is an understatement. Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, member of the Technical Advisory for COVID-19, tried to contextualize the mind-blowing 260 million recorded cases around the world this way: That’s as if every single Filipino had Covid-19 twice over.
But she also explains that it’s more than health and life at stake. Prior to Covid-19, 53 out of 100 Filipino students experienced what experts call “educational poverty.” This is when children’s right to education is limited and they are deprived of opportunities for learning and development of skills. And before 2020, 9 of those 53 were deprived of school altogether. When the pandemic struck, an additional 10 more Filipino students out of 100 fell into learning poverty, as some 900 private schools were forced to shut down operations in the months since.
For schools that managed to persevere, the school year 2019-2020 was a year of rapid, unprecedented change. At the start of the lockdowns, many made the shift to online teaching, and had to quickly roll out plans for its students, teachers, and staff to usher in blended learning and adapt digital tools and technologies. It was, as Dr. Carillo explained, a time to focus on survival.
“It was a bit chaotic,” described Br. Edmundo L. Fernandez FSC, brother president at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde and La Salle Green Hills, and understandably so. There are no guidebooks for surviving a pandemic, after all, and private schools had to learn from their experiences, and fast. This is why the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (PAASCU), itself blindsided by the pandemic as well, had decided to defer all accreditation for one year. “This helped ease the pressure,” said Br. Fernandez, who also serves as PAASCU president, “as [schools] were beginning to find ways to go online.”
After the initial shock, the sector is beginning to look ahead. Now well into the school year 2021-2022 with new guidelines for schooling in the time of Covid-19, some schools have even been cleared to start conducting face-to-face classes once more.
For Dr. Carillo, the way forward is still a balancing act. An important lesson to learn for educators and school leaders, according to her, is to learn what matters and what matters most. Defining non-negotiable values and principles, both for schools themselves and their stakeholders, will help shape how the sector can innovate in the months and years ahead.
As schools begin to look ahead to the future of learning, the first focus of control mechanisms should be the basics.
According to Dr. Ong-Lim, we must learn from developing research and experiences about Covid-19 and schools around the world. For instance, staff transmission is a bigger Covid-19 spreader than student to staff, staff to student, and student to student transmissions, and pose the biggest threat to children. To protect staff and students, protocols must go beyond masks — though those are important, too — and focus on vaccination and ventilation. Open windows for more outdoor air and a central fan system for flowing air are more important and more accessible than investing in filtered air, for example, and schools must also support the vaccination of their community.
“Small or big, it is possible to open up your school campuses safely, and across different regions,” said Dr. Caroline Marian S. Enriquez, president of the Our Lady of Fatima University. Speaking about her school’s experiences with safe school openings across various campuses, she explained that what’s crucial is a dedication to consistent quality management and continuous learning about how current efforts can be improved.
From coping to control, Dr. Enriquez explained that the way forward for schools can be summarized into three questions: Where do you stand? What can you do? And finally, where do you want to be?
For their institution, Dr. Enriquez pointed out how health standards like regular disinfection, contact tracing, staggered schedules, and crowding controls have been key in rolling out a whole-of-university approach as campuses welcome students, faculty, and staff back. This can only be done through constant communication with stakeholders — first, to figure out their needs, and later on to get feedback on developing protocols. Academic setups and structures were also recalibrated, with a mind to control the wide array of variables not just for the pandemic, but beyond.
Sharing about her experiences with UST, Dr. Carillo explained that innovativeness need not be “trailblazing and earthshaking.” The important point to consider is that the solutions schools roll out are able to address the needs of its stakeholders, and help the school achieve its objectives across different areas of concern, such as teaching and learning, student assessment, staff training, internationalization, and quality assurance. From here, schools must develop an emergent strategy, or one in which its leadership is able to learn from what works in practice, and to innovate from there.
As for the development of teachers more specifically, Philippine National Research Center for Teacher Quality Director Dr. Gina Gonong highlighted the importance of a shared framework and teacher autonomy and agency, as laid out by the Philippine Professional Standards for Teachers (PPST). Alongside her was Dr. Fermin, who enumerated the different quality issues teachers face in the pandemic. Teachers, he explained, are at the heart of the solution.
In the area of external quality assurance, Br. Fernandez gave an overview of PAASCU’s initiatives for the Virtual Program Accreditation, an initiative that began this year and will be implemented in the years to come. These come with the 23 new principles-based quality standards, which the organization crafted with feedback from the academic community and with ASEAN, AUN, and CHEd assessments as benchmarks.
Over the next three years, he explained that PAASCU looks to improve its operations and safeguard the quality of the accreditation process throughout the many changes ahead. “As schools begin to open up,” said Br. Fernandez, “It’s important that accreditation adapts to whatever modality takes place.”
And finally, the last stage is one where schools may begin to construct. Not only is it imperative that schools prepare for the here and now of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also for what is to come.
From the new normal, for example, schools must look towards new possibilities.
To determine these choices and lead schools in the road ahead, Dr. Ester B. Ogena of the Asian Institute of Management highlighted the need for leaders of higher education institutions to develop self-determined, lifelong learning. She spoke about the many demands of the fourth industrial revolution, and the importance of failure as part of the learning process. Ultimately, she said that good leaders must offer up two things to the communities they serve: inspiration and results.
For. Dr. Hang Le of Vietnam’s Duy Tan University, meanwhile, new possibilities center on digital transformation for schools, which entails deep and coordinated shifts in culture, workforce, and tech. As the world becomes increasingly digital, especially with regard to crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, digital transformation is no longer optional, and it is an endeavor that will require a shared vision, meticulous strategies, financial support, and a culture of innovation.
But at the end of the day, Professor Tan Eng Chye highlighted that the important thing to keep in mind is resilience for students, staff, and graduates. Speaking from his experiences at the National University of Singapore, he talked about different programs for broad intellectual foundations, interdisciplinary versatility, and flexible pathways to equip students with 21st century skills they need.
Graduates, too, are able to benefit from lifelong learning programs, while staff development is encouraged through continuing education in areas like data analytics and artificial intelligence, as well as different assignments every five years to boost organizational resilience.
Across the different sessions, speakers at the 2021 PhilEd spoke about how a lot of the problems faced by schools have been around since before the pandemic. And while the health crisis has been a catalyst for rapid change in today’s VUCA world, schools must also treat it as a learning experience for ensuring continuity of learning — from coping, to controlling, and finally, constructing — no matter what crisis may come our way next.