Philippines 2015
Glimpses of the Future

Star Trek schooling

Tackling local and global problems require multidisciplinary thinking and the schools of the future will adjust by educating students in multiple disciplines, doing away with the confining specializations that are dominant today.

The next decade will see the emergence of technology-enhanced education and multidisciplinary teaching. [photo courtesy of the Fund for Assistance to Private Education]

MY FRIENDS and I were “martial-law babies,” and as we were growing up we were taught contemporary national history whitewashed to suit a dictatorship. It was only in the mid-1980s that we realized corruption permeated the bureaucracy, with the Ministry of Education near the top of the list. Even under well-intentioned appointees, there was no way it could effectively fulfill its constitutional mandate to provide quality education for every Filipino.

Now in my 15th year as an educator, I reflect on the role of the government in this regard. For a decade now I have been helping the Department of Education (DepEd) in international representations, textbook evaluation, teacher training, program critiques, and outreach projects. True, corruption still exists, textbooks are still insufficient, and many teachers are still mediocre. But under the dynamic leadership of the last few education secretaries (some lured from the private sector), momentous changes have materialized in the past years: the revision of basic education curriculum, the creation of the bridge program, the training of public school teachers in top universities, and the cooperation of civic groups in establishing centers and funding scholarships.

Despite 9-11, the Iraq war, and the renewal of the age-old clash between ideologies, the world in 2015 will be virtually democratic. Globalization, with its concomitant magnified pros and cons, will be the norm. The Philippines in 2015 will be a functioning democracy, with concerned citizens, vibrant media, and a more participative government. With patient and rigorous examination of the programs initiated in the 1990s, the DepEd will be able to set an example of what can be achieved when the public and private sectors work together in a linked world. This development will be accompanied by two more major trends in education: technologically enhanced teaching and a growing need for interdisciplinary expertise.

The former is already discernible today. As for the latter, yes, students continue to stampede to nursing schools, but interdisciplinary education has been the trend for the past few years, too. When I was chairperson of the curriculum committee at Ateneo de Manila University two years ago, I would sift through stacks of proposed courses from different departments: communication with technology? Mathematics with finance? Business with information systems? Several proposals were approved, because tackling local and global issues now call for multidisciplinary thinking.

To think that in 1983, my friends had prided themselves on being only the second batch in Ateneo history to pursue double majors in mathematics and computer science. But even then, some of them had felt these combinations were not enough. Those who wanted to be entrepreneurs knew they needed accounting and marketing; others with an artistic bent would have loved to take fine arts and communication. Elective courses were always possible, but everyone was eager to graduate in four years.

Problems still beset the Philippine educational system, but the dynamic leadership of a succession of education secretaries has brought about momentous improvements. [photo by Jose Enrique Soriano]

BY 2015, the possible course permutations will be endless, given the same time spent in earning a degree. De La Salle University Fellow and former DepEd undersecretary Isagani Cruz says that the rise of interdisciplinary education is partly a response to the needs of the labor market. “We will always flock to where the demand is, whether in hospital administration, other areas of medicine, or multidisciplinary fields,” he argues. “As for liberal education, what may be the most relevant is one that is science-based-in short, integration between the classical humanities and the sciences.”

Fr. Bienvenido F. Nebres, S. J., Ateneo de Manila president and a long-time implementer/adviser of international and national education initiatives also says, “Students are starting to realize that they can no longer specialize in just one thing. They realize they have more things to learn. We have management students who take lots of computer courses, fine arts majors who want to have a background in finance. Perhaps the most striking trend I have noted in the last 10 years is the huge increase in career and life options, which is a mirror of the cross-disciplinary trend happening in the world as a whole.”

This interdisciplinary trend, however, is not new. Let’s take the case of science. In 1992, as a response to the aversion towards fragmented learning shared by many of my students, I argued that specialized ivory-tower science was but a reaction to world events.

I wrote in Pantas: the Ateneo Journal of Higher Education, “Little do most people know that modern science has journeyed through the travails of history, and much as it has shaped the contours of our world, is as much a victim of societal forces and historical vicissitudes as, say, culture and music. Much less do people know that the scientific method is not the textbook invention of a group of brilliant 17th-century Western thinkers as much as it is the inevitable response to a stifling, feudalistic, medieval world view-such response accompanied by the expansion of trade, the stirrings of democracy, the blossoming of art in the Renaissance. And least of all do people know that the greatest scientific minds of all time, such as Aristotle, Da Vinci, and Einstein, are those who, aside from an unfettered curiosity and passionate desire to delve into nature, also possess in highest degree a deep love for beauty in all its manifestations and an almost mystical reverence for the divine.”

In ancient philosophy, there are no differences between what we now term art, religion, or science. After all, literally, wisdom has no boundaries. But as the centuries pass, conflicts arise, especially when politics comes into the picture-remember Galileo versus the Church?

Let’s fast-track to the Renaissance: “The far corners of the earth become more accessible, the energy of nonhuman sources is rapidly leashed, and Archimedes’s ancient proclamation — Give me a lever and I can move the world — attains more conviction as the years pass. As nature yields some of her secrets, many more are glimpsed, and science has no choice but to specialize: chemists to delve into the structure of matter, physicists to investigate fundamental forces, biologists to account for living things, mathematicians to append a logical structure to it all. Along the way, recoiling against the otherworldliness of the stagnant medieval view, science gets into various conflicts with religion, and insisting on a uniform method and rigid experiment, it divorces itself from art.”

Such fragmentation could not last forever, though. “As early as the opening decades of the 20th century, the paradoxes of relativity and quantum mechanics have begun to make physicists doubt their traditional view of nature, space, and time. During the middle years, the construction of computers has forced Boolean logic and electronics to transcend their usual realms. At the close, with the rise of catch-all terms like genetic engineering, cognitive science, information technology, workers from various disciplines are at last re-forging communication links thought lost for all time.”

This interdisciplinarity resounds throughout the major human endeavors of today — the human genome project, artificial intelligence, the search for the top quark, environmental preservation, the quest for an AIDS cure, the eradication of world poverty. The most significant questions cannot be solved by a group of specialists alone. Only with the concerted effort of workers from diverse fields will the answers finally come to light.

Some educators see an integration of traditional and online basic education by 2015. [photo courtesy of the Fund for Assistance to Private Education]

FOR SURE, technological advances will loom large in almost — if not all — aspects of our lives a decade from now. In our introductory computer course in 1983, my friends and I had waited impatiently as the technician painstakingly ran our cardboard punch-outs — each the size of regular bond paper — through the machine that occupied a third of the room. Imagine our relief when after 20 minutes, the programmed square roots of several 7-digit numbers did appear.

Today our techie friends proudly display yet another slim cell phone that can extract cube roots (and convert currencies, record concerts, extract emails, among other things). They are initially greeted by polite murmurs of approbation, but soon conversation shifts to other wares — even more portable, elegant, and multifunctional — slated to be on the market in the coming months.

In 2015, just before we turn 50, my batchmates and I will converse through nanophones dangling from necklaces. Those of us with deteriorating senses will opt for hearing aid-phones embedded in our ears. We will be able to conduct business anywhere, as with the click of an electronic pen, infrared keyboards (in several scripts) will appear on any surface. Best of all, we will be able to guarantee that every batchmate — at least those who are still alive — can join in our reunions. Friends on other shores can opt for traditional videoconference, or go cutting-edge with holographic imagery.

In Star Trek, my favorite sci-fi TV series (I once taught a standing-room-only course on its philosophy, physics, and mathematics), Federation cadets graph timelines with a push of a button, compute for warp-space velocities with the aid of robots, play musical synthesizers translatable into machine and verbal language, and undergo training in holo-deck simulators indistinguishable from the real environment. The cadets cannot imagine a world without technology, just as children today cannot conceive what rotary-dial phones are for. My six-year-old son observes with incredulity, “How can you text on this phone, Mommy?”

Though it is impossible for our world in 2015 to be as advanced as Star Trek in every aspect, it is safe to say that specific advances may be possible. For instance, those cool silver needle-less injections Trek doctors wield with such dexterity are already in the prototype stage today-though I believe no one will ever be able to find a cure for the common cold. Computers will become more powerful, electronic devices more integrated, and data dissemination a whole lot faster.

But human (and alien) teachers and mentors play key roles in Star Trek, and they (at least human ones) will continue to be irreplaceable in 2015. Technology is an invaluable aid, but because of our evolutionary history, nothing can replace group interaction, human expertise, and the role of affect in the learning process. Although technological advances will revolutionize traditional teaching, these will not replace it. Various studies conducted on the effects of online learning, for instance, show only mixed results at best.

In the 2001 book Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, educator Larry Cuban finds that even with the ready availability of computers in school, students and teachers use them more at home, with fewer than five percent of teachers integrating computers into their regular class routines. He also discovers that as teachers gain technical expertise, they do not necessarily change the way they teach, and most disturbing of all, there exists “no clear evidence of increased student achievement as a result of using information technology.”

The basis of Cuban’s conclusions is his scrutiny of a preschool, two high schools, and a university (Stanford University) in Silicon Valley, where computer technology has long been a staple of classroom learning. In its heyday, Silicon Valley was touted as the community of the future.

Though Cuban believes that with active teacher involvement in software design, many of the problems with IT-aided teaching can be minimized, he finishes by strongly recommending that professional development for teachers (in areas other than computer learning) be given as much-if not more-focus.

Nebres concurs: “We love simplistic solutions, but often they do not work. In education the fad now here is also to give computers to every school. The problems of teacher training and lack of electricity aside, small children cannot learn through computers alone. How will they know what to focus on? There is too much data-which are the significant ones? Constant guidance from adults is still as important, and in today’s age, it is perhaps even more important than ever.”

Reforms in public-school education have meant more textbooks and a revised curriculum for students. [photo by Jose Enrique Soriano]

MOST LIKELY then, in basic education (grade school and high school) in 2015, teachers will still use mainly chalk, books, and blackboards in the classrooms, although they will also increasingly use white boards, Power Point, and Internet resources.

But Nebres is quick to add that the situation will be different for higher education, especially postgraduate courses. “For master’s and professional subjects, such as MBAs or computer short courses, online learning will most likely exponentially increase in the next 10 years,” he says. “E-learning works for adult education. First, people at this level are self-motivated. They take these courses to garner promotion, make themselves marketable, or simply to satisfy their need to learn. Second, they know what to expect and what to focus on. Third, they can take these courses in their own place and at their own time. The major advantage of e-learning is convenience.”

De La Salle’s Cruz, meanwhile, sees an integration of traditional and online basic education in 2015. “At present population rates, around say two million children born every year, there will not be enough land area to build schools to accommodate everyone in a mere 10 years,” he observes. “Of course schools can be built in rural areas, but then infrastructure such as roads and communication links will have to be constructed, too, and all these are physically impossible to complete within the allotted time span. So we are left with schools in the cities and perhaps congested suburbs. Add to this the fact that doing all these requires a substantial amount of money, which our government does not have. In a few years the foreign debt issue will again crop up. With all these problems, how will we cope?

“Since there will not be enough buildings and teachers,” continues Cruz, “then to serve as many students as possible, we will have to lessen school hours, their presence in the classroom. (This is already the situation today in many public schools that schedule morning and afternoon student shifts.) But obviously a decrease in class face-time is not good for learning-unless a compromise can be made. After say, three or four hours in school, students go home and continue their work online.”

Assignments, projects, and reports can all be done at home or even in malls, the same way adults conduct business in Wi-Fi areas straight from their laptops. Online technology will be as ubiquitous as cell phones are now, and within reach of all sectors of society. (Today, 82 percent of public high schools supposedly have computers, though most are not yet linked to the Net.)

Cruz foresees minimal problems with speed and access, “but teachers should be trained en masse to utilize such technology.” And that, he says, should start now.

Queena N. Lee-Chua, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mathematics and psychology at the Ateneo de Manila University. A TOYM and Metrobank Outstanding Teacher Awardee, she writes a weekly science column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and represents the Philippines on the Governing Board of the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Math and Science Education.