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SPARKS International Conference goes Digital in 2020, tackles Higher Education in Extraordinary Times
SPARKS International Conference goes Digital in 2020, tackles Higher Education in Extraordinary Times

By: Vicente Santos


By: Vicente Santos


The higher education sector is one of the several industries that have been heavily challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden mainstream shift to online and distance learning has posed difficulties for institutions, teachers, and most especially, the students. As society gradually adapts to the New Normal, it is very important for educators and learners alike to have a developing understanding of the current and forthcoming situations of higher education.

Acknowledging this need, Our Lady of Fatima University (OLFU) virtually staged the latest edition of the annual Synergizing Partnerships in Advancing Research, Knowledge (SPARKS) International Conference with the theme, “Higher Education during Extraordinary Times: Technologies, Trends, and Trajectories” on 15 December 2020.

Held via the video conferencing platform, Zoom, SPARKS continued to bridge thinkers, innovators, and educators from around the globe to discuss timely and significant topics, particularly on higher education amid the pandemic.

University President, Dr. Caroline Marian S. Enriquez warmly welcomed the online participants as she recognized that the times have “accelerated digital transformation.” She shared her expectations for the event, which she hopes will further uplift its audience in fortifying education’s developing new era. “It is our hope in today’s SPARKS Conference that we can do an environmental scan on how emerging learning practices and technologies are being utilized now; how we can push for student success through these technologies; how to avoid pitfalls in the virtual academic space; and how to apply strategies for safe learning spaces,” she said.

With optimism, Dr. Enriquez also encouraged everyone to “create opportunities out of these uncertain times now.”

President of the Phi Gamma Chapter of the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society in Nursing, Dr. Rita Munley Gallagher, likewise introduced her Chapter and gave her well wishes to the SPARKS delegation.

The international conference featured yet another spectacular lineup of talks led by esteemed speakers from different parts of the globe, namely: keynote speaker, Dr. Tony Bates (Canada); Dr. Yasmin Ortiga (Singapore); Dr. Teck Ming “Terence” Tan (Finland); and Dr. Rita Ferrari D’Aoust (United States of America).

Chief Executive Officer of Tony Bates Associates Ltd., Dr. Tony Bates first took the stage with his keynote talk on “Technology and Empowerment in Higher Education,” also noting the impact of the COVID-19 situation. “Students need knowledge and skills to control technology in all walks of life,” he said. To summarize, Dr. Bates expressed his thoughts on digitalization: “I see digitalization like climate change; we know it’s coming, there are going to be bad outcomes if we don’t manage it properly, we don’t have all the time to change, but it’s still possible if we are urgent.”

Dr. Yasmin Ortiga, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Singapore Management University, then introduced her team’s ongoing research on the emigration of Filipino health workers and the current situation amid the pandemic and deployment ban, entitled “Deferred Departures, Unhappy Returns: Essential and Excess Skills in the Context of a Pandemic.” On the stories her team discovered, she said, “It’s just to show that even in the context of the pandemic where people talk about economy and health, actually, all the issues that surround the problems we see are not only about containing the virus; it brings up these questions of skills—how we value skill, how we create certain skills, and how we should utilize them during this time.”

Then, in his talk on “Branding, Digital Marketing and Consumer Behavior during the Pandemic: Transforming Higher Education Challenges to Opportunities”, Dr. Teck Ming “Terence” Tan, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Oulu, Finland, shared insightful branding and digital marketing strategies for universities and institutions amid the pandemic. He also presented a forecast of “key changes in higher education.”

Dr. Rita Ferrari D’Aoust, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University, USA, was the last speaker of the virtual conference. In her session, she tackled “Infection Prevention Strategies and Innovations for Safer Learning Environments,” an important and timely topic as schools look into the possible resumption of on-campus classes. “The question is, how does the education enterprise continue?” she began and then shared how she and her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing navigate the challenges of “how to provide seamless education and how to safely continue clinical education for health professionals during the pandemic.”

OLFU Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Heracleo Lagrada, formally closed virtual edition of SPARKS with his words of gratitude to the speakers, organizers, and participants. “The COVID-19 pandemic, while it poses some challenges which we did not experience in the past, has not prevented the University from organizing this annual event,” he averred.

Truly, learning, collaboration and empowerment exceeds boundaries—the success of the virtual 2020 SPARKS International Conference attests to this.

Rise to the top, SPARKS!