The recent pronouncement of Commission on Higher Education Chairman Prospero De Vera III on having flexible learning as the new normal has drawn public flak and attention. Although he clarified in a different interview that flexible learning means using three modes—offline, online, and blended— many still believe it will end up in having online classes entirely. This likelihood worries and confuses law students especially because law schools are inclined to lean in the same direction. It is therefore imperative to look into the weaknesses of on-screen learning, for it will be an essential component of the mix and match mode of instruction.
One noticeable drawback of distant learning is the lack of a logistics system. Implementing the digital modality should come with it not only virtual classrooms and online infrastructures but also technical assistance and quality assurance. Undeniably, preparations were made before launching the online classes. However, the sudden transition has not afforded law schools ample time to streamline their systems beforehand and develop efficient and viable learning management. Hence, the inadequacy of state-of-the-art technologies and resources, the inefficiency of practices and methodologies, and lack of oversight on the quality of education delivered.
Another disadvantage is the disregard of academic integrity both by students and teachers. Students resort to desperate measures like using double screens, forming coaching groups, plagiarism, and taking advantage of search engines to get by recitations and examinations. Teachers already expect these things to happen and are well aware that such unethical practices are rampant. Sadly though, their leniency towards students on this matter only shows their adherence to the myth that cheating is the new norm and that it can go unchecked. This problem, when continually shrugged off, will have negative consequences on student assessment and, at large, the school’s overall performance in future bar examinations.
More so, the new modality affects the students’ relational wellbeing. Among all, the first-year law students are most affected in this aspect. The first year in law school is a crucial time for relationship building, self-actualization, and the creation of a sense of belonging. The current learning setup deprives students of the needed school atmosphere, such as the chance to have their circle of friends and meet their seniors, whose experience and wisdom could equip them in their study of law. Meeting personally likewise creates opportunities to discuss course contents and make more engagements with peers, whether law-related or not. Now with online classes, all of those interactions are hampered not just for the new law students but also for students from the higher year levels.
To add, learning courses on digital platforms poses a threat to students’ health, both mental and physical. Notably, law schools still retained the usual class load, as if students have the same attention span in classes done face-to-face and online. Reducing oral recitations and including asynchronous classes are supposed to ease the burden of students, but professors seem not to opt for them. The students’ anxiety, stress, and pressure are still doubled because the pace of the lessons, the number of reading assignments, and the frequency of assessments are hard to keep up with. In effect, students subconsciously compel themselves to have health and sanity as secondary even in a time of a pandemic, to respond to the demands of distant learning.
Last and most importantly, online classes have equity issues. Perhaps these were already present even before the pandemic, but the gap between the have and have-nots, and the disparity in access to technology in different areas are now more emphasized than ever. Not all students have the means and resources for remote learning, nor do they have the same response to adjustments, yet they are treated the same. Sure, teachers cannot be blamed for this as there is no way to identify if the student bluffs or tells the truth. Still, this is a serious matter which the students or professors sometimes turn a deaf ear to. Withstanding the same storm does not mean being in the same boat, so a little compassion and kindness in these trying times will surely go a long way.
With the reasons mentioned, the paradigm shift will still stimulate skepticism even if it becomes the new norm. Digital modality is half-baked, and the sudden transition caught both schools and students off guard. Philippine legal education is highly tailored to traditional teaching; thus, it will take time for law schools and students to adjust fully. Nevertheless, law schools, no matter how challenging, should commit to scale up their systems and provide students an online environment that is inclusive and conducive for learning, whether it is theoretical or practical. Also, professors, regardless of age or skill set, should adapt with the changes and innovations in the online delivery of lessons while not shutting one’s eyes to the personal struggles of students and the issue of equity. Lastly, law students should continue to keep their eyes on the prize and let these challenges build them up and prepare them for the future.
After all, this new modality is an uncharted territory we need to traverse. Let us just hold the ropes of another, move forward, and not waver in believing that one day— we will be headed HOME. For the time being, let us thrive to survive.