Virtual Education: Guam experiments with e-learning during the Covid-19 pandemic that forced schools to shut down

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 The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the shutdown of public and private schools all over the island for the rest of the school year. As classrooms are left empty, Guam schools are prompted to adopt distance education by migrating to digital platform.

 

E-learning has been around for more than 10 years, spawning various online tools and apps, such as Google Classroom, Virtual Classroom and Virtual Blackboard, among others. While still maturing, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the utilization of this technology, spurring a social experiment and uncovering gaps that need to be bridged.

 

On March 30, the Guam Department of Education launched a website to support distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic that will keep 30,000 public school students homebound through the last day of classes on May 22.

 

“We realize that there is a wide variety of learning needs that have to be addressed during this time and we want to give all our students the ability to pursue education and practice their academic and social skills while at home,” Education Superintendent Jon Fernandez said. “We anticipate that some GDOE teachers have already reached out to their students and provided subject matter work, but for those who have not been able to do so, there are still many options that are online and free.”

 

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The website is intended to initially provide useful resources for parents to lead instruction at home. According to GDOE’s announcement, weekly instruction is supported for elementary, middle, and high school students along with opportunities for teacher feedback. The website, according to education officials, is designed for easy access.

 

“Parents and students can choose sites that are focused on their specific grade level from elementary, middle, and high school,” GDOE said. Parents can utilize sites with or without logins and can work on a variety of subjects including Math, English, Art and Coding.

 

“We realize that there will be many options for parents and students to choose from. We advise them to find the ones that will meet their needs best in each individual household and to set aside time in the day for some fun learning as a family,” said Joe Sanchez, deputy superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Improvement.

 

Al Garrido, program coordinator for Curriculum and Instruction at GDOE, noted that distance learning is not a new concept, but the pandemic has prompted the education department to launch the system on a larger scale. “Distance learning is basically trying to teach our students from a distance, or while they aren't physically present in class,” he said. “The lessons are created in collaboration with all of the GDOE schools, their teachers, and the instructional coaches working out of the division of Curriculum and Instruction.”

 

But Garrido said distance learning on Guam will not be purely online since there are many students who do not have mobile devices or internet access at home. For many low-income households on Guam, internet is low on spending priority. According to CIA World Factbook, Guam had approximately 125,328 internet users (77 percent of the island’s population) as of Dec. 7, 2019.

 

Thus, students who have no internet access have to rely on analog recourse. “It also involves hard copies that are available for pickup or delivery and also through the Guam PBS channel,” Garrido said.

 

The Public Broadcasting Service of Guam and GDOE have jointly produced televised lessons as enrichment courses for Guam students. The program is called PBS University. For each 30 minutes, a selected teacher will deliver a lesson based on grade level. For example, a 30-minute segment will be devoted to kindergarten, and the next 30 minutes will be for first graders, and so on. Middle and high schools will also have a 30-minute segments each.

 

“PBS University is a collaborative effort between PBS Guam and the GDOE,” said Frank U. Candaso, program coordinator with GDOE’s Curriculum and Instruction Department.  GDOE teachers conduct the classes through self-recorded lessons filmed in their own homes.

 

Candaso said the purpose of PBS University is “to provide supplemental lessons to continue the learning process at home as school closure has been announced for the remainder of 2019-2020.” He also said there will be three segments per day per grade level, focusing on reading, math, and character development. “We understand that some difficulties have been occurring regarding home instruction and PBS University hopes to provide support to both parents and students through this avenue,” he added.

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For some teachers, the pandemic has become an unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships. The remote education system forces a readjustment of expectations without daily check-ins and in-person interaction. The online learning system requires students to be better at self-discipline and be able to keep track of their homework and time constraints on their own.

 

Julius Cena, an art teacher at JP Torres Academy, laments that some students are not motivated to respond to the assignments he gives them. Distance learning cannot replace the traditional classroom, Cena said. “Virtual education,” he added, “makes learning mundane, which is the opposite of what it should be. It’s supposed to be active, dynamic, engaging,” he said. “The discourse is cut when there computer screens separating the students from the teachers.”

 

Private schools have also embraced remote education. The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School has set up the Mount Carmel School Online Education and Distance Learning, which had been in the works since the beginning of school year 2019-2020. “Rollout was planned for SY 2020-2021, but because of the closure of schools mandated by Governor Lou Leon Guerrero’s Executive Order 2020-04, we were forced to launch much earlier than expected on March 23, 2020,” said David Duenas, the school principal.

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Courses are set up in the Learning Management System, and uploaded with lesson plans, activities, assignments, and instructional videos. Teachers meet with their students live online to facilitate communal prayer, live instruction, Q&A’s, conversation, emotional support, and spiritual guidance.

 

Throughout the school year, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School have numerous fairs, where students must present projects, such as College Fair, Business Fair, Favorite Author’s Fair, and All Saints Fair.  The school is currently preparing for its annual Science Fair, which is typically held with public participation. “We will definitely be meeting virtually to have the students present, but because of the volume of entries, we will have to spread it out over a few sessions. For obvious logistical reasons, presenting a pre-recorded video is an option, but it eliminates the opportunity for the student to orally defend their project, and we really like the students to be trained in this very useful life skill early and often.”

 

The University of Guam has transitioned as well.  When the pandemic hit Guam, UOG shut its doors for classroom instruction, and quickly converted all classes to be online for the rest of the semester. “Faculty converted course material for online delivery and informed students of the new online processes,” UOG professor Manny Hechanova said. “Since 2011, Moodle has been the official Learning Management System (LMS) for the University of Guam.”

 

Hechanova said the faculty will also determine how to deliver the instruction to their students— whether "synchronous" (real-time) or "asynchronous" (not real-time). Most faculty members are using online web conferencing tools like Skype, Big Blue Button (LMS Activity), or Zoom to continue lecture-discussions online and modifying assignments.

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Unlike GDOE, UOG is still grading their students for the semester.  All courses in the current semester are expected to continue with the course objectives and desired learning objectives.  Faculty members are asked to consider the situation and make any adjustments necessary to properly and fairly assess academic performance. The administration is working with faculty leaders to develop special Covid-19-related withdrawal, incomplete, and alternate grading options.

 

Adjustments also have to be made for projects, such as class presentations, which play a big part in the college learning experiences. “If the presentation can be done online and properly satisfy academic requirements, the LMS can support the desired delivery method.  Individual presentations work very well in the online format,” Hechanova said.

 

UOG faculty and students received training to familiarize them with various online learning tools. Students also have the option to attend a “virtual field trip into online learning” to learn more about the e-learning, teleconferencing, and video conferencing platforms their instructors have selected to continue teaching their classes. UOG plans to complete the semester on its original timeline, with final exams scheduled for May 18–22.

 

“Our faculty and staff have been working hard to transform all of our classes to online or to an alternative format,” UOG president Thomas W. Krise said. “We are confident that our students working together with our faculty will ensure a successful completion of this semester.”

 

“Our number one goal in converting all of our courses is the success of our students,” said Anita Borja Enriquez, senior vice president and provost. “We will ensure no student is left behind in finishing this semester. We will do everything possible to support their needs and work with them on any issues they might have.”

 

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