Virtual Coffee Break: Learning in times of Covid-19

Millions of children around the world haven’t been going to school on a regular basis for months as a result of the corona pandemic. And since then almost every country has been faced with the same challenging question: how to make it possible for students to learn successfully during the corona pandemic? The virtual learning concept which the Filipino physicist couple Dr Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido and Dr Christopher C. Bernido presented at a virtual coffee break event held by Alumniportal Deutschland in September 2020 therefore couldn’t be any more timely – although the two of them had already developed their concept long before the corona pandemic.

A response to a lack of teachers

Christopher C. Bernido and Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido are both internationally-renowned physicists and specialists in education, who initially developed a learning system for their own school to counter the dramatic shortage of teachers in the island nation. It is essentially based on providing schoolchildren with self-study materials – and with a suitable methodology at the same time. Since then, the ‘CVIF Dynamic Learning Program’ has become very successful across the country, and both Humboldt alumni have been given the Ramon Magsaysay Award (thought of as the ‘Asian Nobel Peace Prize’) for their efforts in creating a low-cost and effective basic educational programme.

Those taking part in the virtual coffee break are interested, and switched on virtually with a cup of coffee in their hands from around the world – including a teacher from Rwanda, a lecturer from Pakistan, a professor at a private university in Morocco, an advisor from Ethiopia, an employee at a university in Germany and many more people for whom this topic has become a priority. Since the corona pandemic began, virtual teaching and self-learning methods have become much more relevant.

Prof. Dr. Christopher Bernido & Dr. Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido

Prof Dr Christopher Bernido and Dr Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido are both alumni of the Humboldt Research Fellowship programme of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, he in particle physics and she in theoretical physics. They were awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for their commitment, both to science as well as for devising an innovative, low-cost and effective basic educational programme under the difficult conditions which exist in the Philippines. They devised a self-learning concept which transformed the way teaching is carried out at the Central Visayan Institute Foundation High School (CVIF). The school’s 2,113 students study according to the CVIF Dynamic Learning Program, the majority of them offline. More than 90% of them completed the last school year successfully.

Learning without the internet

Online teaching has its disadvantage though, explains Christopher C. Bernido, especially in poorer countries. Often more than half of students and schoolchildren in these countries do not have adequate internet access, and in the Philippines this figure even drops to as few as less than one third. Even in richer countries online teaching often doesn’t achieve the intended goals – children are often difficult to get through to, the distractions are too tempting, and communication between teachers, children and their classmates is difficult and time-consuming. As a result, both teachers and students often get frustrated. Understandably, schools and governments are on the lookout for solutions.

This makes it all the more surprising for those taking part in the coffee break to hear Christopher C. Bernido and Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido present a concept which partly advocates a ‘no-intervention’ policy on the part of teachers, and which doesn’t involve virtual classrooms or any other type of video chat. It even works completely offline.

The CVIF Dynamic Learning Program has a puzzle-like structure, and encourages autonomy and self-motivation among learners. Participants develop their problem-solving abilities and critical thinking step by step through activities that fit all on one page. They work their way towards new topics independently – for example calculating a parabola – and in the process use approximate calculations based on what they have already learnt.

They can either pick up or drop off their weekly tasks in person at designated points in their town or download them online. ‘We can turn any schoolchild into an independent learner’, says Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido. Their concept is process-centred instead of teacher-centred. The teacher is gradually made obsolete as a source of motivation, since the average level of intervention by teachers is about 20%. ‘After a while the students develop their own motivation to become more enthusiastic about problem solving, and their confidence grows.’ It isn’t the teacher who determines how attractive a subject is but the subject itself.

Writing and neuroscience

The Bernidos’ concept ensures that students spend a lot of time writing by hand in order to increase their conceptual understanding of the tasks. ‘Writing becomes part of learning, and helps students to become familiar with learning on a day-to-day basis’, explains Christopher C. Bernido. Students keep in touch by phone when they have any questions, or write them down on the task sheets which they then give back to the teachers to be corrected. ‘We don’t need parents to be tutors, we just give students as much help as they need so that they can help themselves.’

The Bernidos speak for about 20 minutes about their learning concept, then it’s the participants’ turn – who can hardly believe what they have just heard. Motivation? Understanding? Support? Christopher C. Bernido makes sure to cover everything in a one-page activity, and points out some of his school’s alumni who have made it into high positions in science and research. He says that there’s just one thing that parents have to accept first, which is that they shouldn't bother their children by asking them to do jobs around the house while they’re supposed to be studying.

Virtual Coffee Break – a new event format on the Alumniportal Deutschland

Since June 2020, Alumniportal Deutschland has held a virtual coffee break once every month, which is an interactive virtual break in which alumni and members of the community can get informed and exchange ideas about a specific topic in a relaxed atmosphere. After a short opening speech it is then opened up to the participants.

The idea was developed by Daniela Becker from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in order to initiate conversations which also involve members of the Alumniportal on topics from the workshops held at the Humboldt Foundation’s virtual annual conference. Previous topics include mobility, education, the environment and the consequences of the corona pandemic. The coffee breaks cover a wide range of topics and the organisers are open to suggestions. The next virtual coffee break will be held on 3 November 2020 on the topic of 'Mentoring: what is it and how can it help me?'.

The number of participants is limited to 20 and those wishing to take part must register via the community. Have a look at the events calendar in the community to keep up to date with news about upcoming events.

author: Sarah Kanning

teaser photo: a student at the Central Visayan Institute Foundation High School (photo: CVIF)

Do you also have a project or a research topic which others might be interested in?

Or do you want to find out more about the work being done by other alumni? Get talking with other members and sign up quickly for the next virtual coffee break – or write to us at redaktion(at) and suggest a topic for next time.

October 2020

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