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‘Fixing’ social media? (Part 1)

I spent an entire week in Siargao some months ago, before the pandemic became a big thing. And while it may as well be the closest thing I’ll have for one this year, it wasn’t a vacation. Or at least, it wasn’t mostly fun and relaxation. I was invited as a facilitator in ColLaboratoire 2020. With pristine blue waters and colorful horizons as backdrop, I was assigned to work with a handful of fellows whose task was to cover the challenge of fixing social media. It was a peculiar theme, implying that social media as we know it today is somehow broken. But is it?

Try as I might, much to my own annoyance, I could not help but constantly think about the need to ‘fix’ social media amidst sunrises, sunsets and inviting waters.

As the fellows went about their business coming up with some project proposal to enact this fix, I found myself weighing the question on my own. It occupied my mind that entire week. On one hand, social media has been the ground upon which some of the most egregious displays of bad behavior have prospered. It has provided a platform for malicious intent with a reach not thought possible a few decades ago. On the other hand, at its base, social media is essentially just a means to an end. It’s essentially the same argument as something like gun control. And I think it’s apt. After all, social media in recent years had been weaponized in the sense that it has been the venue with which people are being heavily influenced en masse. For example, while I cannot prove it, there is word that the Duterte campaign and subsequent administration employed a troll army to muddy the waters not just for the benefit of Duterte and his supporters, but just as importantly, the detriment of his opposition. The documentary, The Great Hack, thoroughly tells the story of how Cambridge Analytica clandestinely mined personal data from Facebook users and used it for the benefit of the Trump campaign in 2016 without the knowledge, let alone consent, of said users. And I don’t want to start on how social media has become the main battlefield of an on-going Culture War. I’ll save that for later.

Perhaps it would be prudent to figure out what being broken means in this context. To me, being broken means being shattered into multiple smaller pieces, to the point where a thing can no longer function as it was meant to. So, in that sense, is social media broken? I’ve tried coming up with a simple answer and failed. Asking other people’s opinions yielded various answers. It occurred to me that people look at social media differently. Or perhaps more accurately, people focus on different aspects of social media when they talk about it. That means I had to deconstruct the question in order to come up with a clearer answer. I hope you can bear with me on this.

When I think of social media, I see three aspects to it.

  • the concept of social media
  • technology
  • users and content

Social Media as a concept

When we see try to define social media, we immediately think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, Discord, Tiktok and the like. But these are social media platforms (which we’ll get into that later). What social media is at the conceptual level has often been taken for granted. Trying to come up with a definition without doing a Google search will require significantly more effort from most of us. Do a Google search and you’ll still have to deal with several ways of defining it. The first article cited by Wikipedia wasted no time defining social media as something that employs mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content (Kietzmann and Hermkens, 2011). It’s ambiguous, making it possible for just about anything operating under the Web 2.0 paradigm qualify. The same goes for derivatives of this definition. But perhaps it’s just as well, if it’s important to hold on to a definition that can remain valid for a long time in the face of rapid technological obsolescence.

Now, let’s assume that the above definition is generally accepted. I would argue that for social media, as a whole, is to be considered broken, it should no longer be able to function as stated. Is that the case? I don’t think so. Concepts can be flawed, but they’d never come even close to getting applied in real life if they were really broken.

The technology of social media

Again, the platforms are what people tend to think of first at the mention of the term social media. Platforms, like any other piece of technology, can and will break at some point. Also, platforms, like any other information system, are always subject to purposeful attempts to compromise system stability and data from the outside. We popularly identify it as hacking. I personally prefer to call them attacks.

Indeed, websites, including our favorite platforms deal with attacks on a regular basis. For example, while rare, we experience crashes in Facebook. I forget when exactly, but there was this one time late at night when it just stopped loading for a number of minutes. I actually froze with eyes on the monitor and fingers over the keyboard and mouse, not knowing what to do. Then I just laughed at myself a moment later, telling myself, you soft and whiny idiot... Just wait patiently and it’ll be fine. True enough, Facebook went back online shortly thereafter. When I checked my newsfeed, lo and behold… a bunch of angry and frustrated posts greeted me. I could only smile and shake my head. Facebook has, of course, been subject to far serious incidents, such as the data breach back in 2018, which reportedly affected around 50 million users. On a different front, a huge scandal erupted in 2015 when Ashley Madison, an adultery site, was hacked and compromised the personal information of over 30 million users, much of which were leaked in public. The most recent high profile incident, as many of us know, is the Zoom fiasco. As an online teacher and student, Zoom had already been important to me early on, as it provides powerful videoconferencing capabilities through free or reasonably priced professional accounts. It didn’t surprise me one bit when its user base ballooned in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. I won’t get into the technical details in this blog. Suffice to say that accounts were compromised. Uninvited users were able to intrude into meetings (coined as Zoombombing). And at a time where distrust is at a high level, Zoom was forced to admit and apologize for its data being coursed through China, claiming it was a mistake committed in their scramble to cope with the surge of their platform’s usage.

I can probably dig up many other cases, but I think the above are enough to prove the point that social media as a technology works as it should. However, it is and probably always will be vulnerable. I think that’s an important distinction to be made. Any IT expert can tell you that such is the nature of any information system in existence. While you can build it as sturdily as you can, it will inevitably have problems at some point. The good news is that with competent people working on a soundly designed system, solutions are likely to be formulated with relative expediency.

Users and content of social media

Here’s where it gets messy.

The Web 2.0 paradigm under which social media operates still works as it should, as evidenced by the plethora of platforms available to us. However, regardless of whether or not you believe the concept or any specific platform is technically, it is undeniable that there are any issues in social media that need to be dealt with. And yes, there are a LOT of them, some of which continue to have a huge impact in our lives as netizens.

This is where things get really messy, and as I thought about it more, I decided it would be a good idea for me to stop here for now and dedicate an entire blog for this part next time.

Please stay tuned!

References:

Kietzmann, J., & Hermkens, K. (2011). “Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media”. Business Horizons (Submitted manuscript). 54 (3): 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005

Lord, N. (2017). A timeline of the Ashley Madison Hack. Retrieved from https://digitalguardian.com/blog/timeline-ashley-madison-hack

Morris, D. (2020). Zoom meetings keep getting hacked. Here’s how to prevent ‘Zoom bombing’ on your video chats. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2020/04/02/zoom-bombing-what-is-meeting-hacked-how-to-prevent-vulnerability-is-zoom-safe-video-chats/

Neal, D. (2012). Social media for academics : A practical guide (Chandos information professional series). Oxford: Chandos Publishing.

Obar, J., & Wildman, S. (2015). Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue. Telecommunications Policy, 39(9), 745-750.

Perez, S., & Whittaker, Z. (2018). Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data breach affecting 50M users. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/28/everything-you-need-to-know-about-facebooks-data-breach-affecting-50m-users/

Wood, C. (2020). Zoom admits calls got ‘mistakenly’ routed through China. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-zoom-data-2020-4

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Learning journal excerpts from the last three months

For the second module in my PhD programme, one of the activities was to write a learning journal. I wasn’t sure how to handle that. Some in my cohort took a rather analytical approach to it. But I was one of those who took a less formal style. At the end of the module, I shared some excerpts, which I am pasting here in this blog:

July 4: As of this writing, I am tasked to write a literature review paper. I’ve never done one before, so this will be an interesting experience. But hopefully, I won’t be as clueless as I was with the autoethnography paper in the first module…

— As it turned out, I was.

July 23: … never before have I been bothered so much by health issues when it comes to writing. For two or three weeks have been dealing with migraines, sinusitis and tinnitus… It has been extremely difficult for me to focus…

I didn’t get hospitalised. But I had grossly underestimated the effect of hearing issues. On top of that classic ringing sound we associate with tinnitus, any sound I hear gets partially washed out by what I describe as someone peeing on the toilet from different angles… all day. I can sort of tolerate it now, but I had no idea it would affect me that badly these past few months (I need to go see a doctor again…). I didn’t even want to listen to music or play guitar. It was awfully depressing.

July 31: … not happy with [my draft]. I just hope Alex and Daniel doesn’t get too confused with the whole thing, lol.

— They were very kind despite seeing all the flaws. And of course, so was Sue. I couldn’t incorporate all the suggestions to my final output, but their guidance was extremely helpful. And yes, a draft below the minimum word count did help. I do feel a little guilty because it felt like I was gaming the policy.

September 12: I’m going to miss the deadline, probably by a day or two. Looking back now, I am second guessing my decision to try something new (literature review on MOOCs) rather than play to my strengths (mini-project continuing my work from Module 1). Regardless, it has been a great learning experience.

— I probably should qualify why I ended up being late. The most basic way of putting it is that I needed to write my assignment more like a literature review! I had to scale back on context and overhaul everything to make more sense than before. And the only way I thought I could do it is that instead of discussing how my home university’s framework in handling MOOCs would stack against what is being done everywhere else, it had to be turned upside down. And since we’re thin on published articles about our work, it made better sense to do a review on one major aspect of developing MOOCs and draw out what my university (or any other institution for that matter) can learn from others. The inclusion-exclusion criteria helped a HUGE amount and gave me more direction. But I only figured how I wanted to do this late in the game. I could have sent something sort of incomplete like in Module 1, but I didn’t think I’d get a passing grade this time.

It was a brutal three months and I’d probably do things a bit differently if I had to go back. But like in my excerpt. It was indeed a learning experience which I won’t soon forget. And if anything, when I go back to studying communities of practice, I think I can figure out how to be more effective in my research. 

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Educate before you advocate

These past few weeks, I found myself in face to face forums and discussions about green living. I wouldn’t be motivated to attend of my own accord. But I did so to support my wife, who was part of these talks. She is currently into conducting natural hand dyeing workshops, which would be a fascinating topic for another blog. But today, I’m writing about the open forums where people had a lot to say about green living in general. And I bit my lip for the entirety of the talks.

The wife’s first conference presentation since Hanoi in 2016.

Back when I was a graduate student taking up Environmental Science, I often wondered why my professors weren’t really part of any environmental advocacy movement. They did extension and consultancy work. But they’re never at the forefront of any advocacy, which to my limited exposure and mindset back then, seemed like a no-brainer.

I thought about joining Greenpeace Philippines, but never got around to actually doing so. The reason for my being deterred seemed pretty shallow, though. I just happened to arrive late for their orientation. Traffic wasn’t good and I got lost trying to find their headquarters. By the time I found it, people, most of whom were much younger than me, were already filing out. I talked a bit with the guy who probably facilitated the orientation, but that didn’t amount to much. Maybe he was tired and didn’t have much patience left for some late-comer. Maybe he saw me getting off my old gas-guzzling 1991 Mitsubishi Galant and wasn’t impressed. I don’t know why I expected a warmer reception. But not receiving it cast a wet blanket over my enthusiasm. And that was it. Almost.

Despite that, I still regularly visited the global online forum of Greenpeace. There weren’t a lot of actual volunteers among them. But a lot of people from all over the world visited, which I found exciting. I was eager to be more aware of what’s going on outside my backyard, so to speak. However, as time went by, I noticed tension among its constituency. Much of the activity in the forums was generated by a minority of alarmists and pseudo activists. Moderates such as myself simply tended to go with their flow. While on the other end, were the supposed trolls, contradicting the alarmists. I still haven’t forgotten how a particular Norwegian dude kept posting about his refusal to subscribe to the popular sentiments and how tasty whale meat was. Boy, were the alarmists triggered. At first, I found the whole thing distasteful. I didn’t understand why he even bothered. But in the end just shrugged my shoulders snickering to myself. He was a bona fide troll and not worth taking seriously.

I also had my own tussles in that forum. For example, one time, someone started a photo contest, which I eagerly joined. It was simple enough – send in pictures of birds. Now, I wasn’t much of a photographer back then. This was my pre-DSLR days and I knew next to nothing about photographic exposure. But I was confident enough to say that my work back then could hold its own against anything else that were submitted. I lost. Do you know why? It wasn’t because my pics were bad. Well, they’re not that good by my current students, but trust me, the others I saw were worse . It’s because the judges and the rest of the vocal members didn’t like that one of the birds I shot was tied to a perch. They immediately assumed the birds in my pics – a Philippine Hawk-Eagle, a serpent eagle and a kestrel – were pets. I explained that they were in a bird sanctuary, so I was able to shoot up close. More importantly, these birds were being taken care of with the intention of being re-introduced to their habitats. It hardly mattered.

I got myself in another argument later. I don’t even remember what it was about. But I was calling for a less-lopsided and more evidence-based discussion on whatever environmental issue the topic was. Remember, I was still an impressionable environmental science student at the time. All I got for a response was this rant that didn’t even address my point. Then it finally occurred to me… much of the vocal crowd were driven by emotions, rather than a scientific or factual understanding of how the environment works. I suspected that I was in the virtual presence of arm chair activists, judgmental vegans and neoliberals – the makeup of what we know today as the social justice warriors. They hated people like me. This was all but confirmed through interviews with former Greenpeace members I read, including one of its co-founders. I just got tired of the constant hatred for humans, so I logged off one final time and didn’t look back. We can’t come up wth sensible solutions to dealing with environmental issues in contempt against humanity. Like it or not, we ourselves must factor in the solution and therefore cannot be ignored. It’s been years since I have intently browsed through the Greenpeace website.

Dr. Patrick Moore

Little did I know that this was but one of many battlegrounds for the prelude to the post-Gamergate culture war that we are experiencing today. It certainly changed the way I think about global issues such as climate change and how I approached any sort of discussion. And then and there, I understood why my professors weren’t big environmental advocates. We have a different calling – to properly educate people by making them aware of the many sides to each issue and let them make up their own minds. And yes, that includes us, too. There is still so much we do not understand about this planet. Saying anything definitive about how and why there is climate change is something I will leave for people better than I.

Now, going back to the Unconference, I kept quiet because while I definitely have my perception and opinions, I didn’t know these people. Where they come from is easily apparent. But how they are as people… I didn’t know. I wanted to avoid any risk of starting arguments with strangers. I had no intention of making a scene while my wife was in front of everybody. But I will say that such discussions can be helped immensely if more people well-versed in the known science are part of it. The Google search engine is an incredibly powerful tool, but I don’t think we should rely solely on it for knowledge. At the same time, the scientific community could do a better job spreading the knowledge. There is never a shortage of studies in universities. But how much of their findings actually trickle down to the general public? Papers are published exclusively in journals which, aside from people doing research themselves, hardly anybody would read. And even then, many of these papers are behind pay walls, which I honestly, would not bother with unless my university already has access.

Academics and scientists doing local grassroots work need more support and exposure. While I’m not saying there is a total disconnect, the divide is certainly significant. And in some cases, it’s toxic. Smart-shaming has unfortunately become a thing, likely a negative reaction to how some of the more intellectually gifted people behave. As they say… with great enlightenment comes great arrogance. I see it a lot in the Internet and it is miserable. But it is a relief to see that it’s not like that in my immediate physical reality. That’s why there is still much relevance in face to face open forums. You can’t beat the sharing of knowledge and experience that happens in them.

I would like to see the divide bridged someday. Advocacy needs to be tempered by balanced thorough knowledge and academic pursuit guided by positive purpose. I get the value of being emotionally driven, but without the proper compass, it can be a dangerous path to take.

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Grinding in isolation

Every now and then, I write something for my blog which snowballs into a huge personal rant that exposes me emotionally in manners that I might regret. I end up not posting these blogs. Even before I started typing this, it somehow felt like this was going to be another one of those. But I really want to have something new in my blog. This is, after all, my birth month. So, I will try my best to frame this into something that might be relevant to students, colleagues, friends and family who might actually spend time reading. I’m also going to break them down into parts with headers. That way, people can just read the parts they’re interested in and ignore the rest.

My birthdays… they are almost always depressing. Reasons vary each year. I never look forward to it, even when I was young. Anything nice that happens right around it, to me, is happenstance. It’s why I don’t like making a big deal about it. I almost never do anything special for myself. Contrary to what a few people might be suspecting, I still don’t believe I’m clinically depressed. I want to avoid even the remote chance of insulting those who actually deal with depression on a daily basis. But there really are days, like these recent ones, where getting through each day is such a chore, I wonder why I bother getting up in the morning.

This gloom is not what I want to write about, though. Instead, I would like to remind myself of the things I have set out to do and how I intend to have something to show for. And there are a lot to write about.

My studies

I am now six months into my PhD studies at Lancaster University. And there are at least another 42 to go through. I am lucky to have been allowed by UPOU to focus on this. But those first six months were rough. I didn’t feel like a real student until last month, with all my non-academic issues finally resolved. And even then, I do feel isolated from everyone else until now. It has had a significant effect on my academic performance. It’s funny. In my previous stints as a student, I found working with groups challenging. I was a bit anti-social and tended to keep to myself. Today, I find that behavior a liability.

My brilliant cohort at Lancaster University, all of whom are halfway across the world from me.

As of this writing, I am tasked to write a literature review paper. I’ve never done one before, so this will be an interesting experience. But hopefully, I won’t be as clueless as I was with the autoethnography paper in the first module, for which I just received my final score. Yes, I passed. I got a score that’s actually a bit higher than I anticipated — nearly earning distinction. That’s the good news. But I could have done much better, like many in my cohort. I found a critical flaw in my work. Fixing it would have allowed me to do a better job at tying everything more neatly. I only realized that literally hours before the deadline, so I unfortunately submitted and had no choice but to simply brace myself.

Again, I passed. But it wasn’t satisfying. Frustrating, yes, because I was on that line between doing good and doing great. But I’ll live. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Looking back, I’ve always been a slow starter. I’m never among those who make the best first impressions. But I always make it to the finish line. And that’s where I intend to be after 42 months.

At work

I realized that I’ve never really taken the time to read my colleagues’ papers. The good news is that my studies have given me a compelling reason to finally do so. And I’m going to start with IJODeL this month. I will also willingly attend a round table discussion on how UPOU will proceed with its MOOC-related endeavors. As long as it can be tied into my studies, I will always be open to do something here and there at work, even if I am on study leave. Just no administrative work, please.

My affiliations

I’ve been neglecting my affiliations with communities that I am supposed to be a part of. I probably should tie these loose ends. I can’t attend ICEM this year in Memphis, but I have to find a way to ensure my joining next year in Portugal. I still intend to help bring ICEM to the Philippines at some point because I believe there is a huge potential for a productive partnership with UPOU. I don’t even know if SEAD still considers me as a member. If I am, I’ll have to find a way to be more active. If not, the least I can do is thank Angelo Vermeulen for the opportunity to be part of it before I move on. On the other hand, I will always be a member of the UP Animal Science Society. I can never completely let go. I worked too damned hard for it when I was in college and then some. But I will have to ask for my brods and sisses’ pardon if I continue to lay low. Many of them, I consider friends, but I’m too out of place, as far as profession and even mindset are concerned.

My courses and students

I thought I would miss my classes. Perhaps in those first few weeks after stepping away, I did. But now, I fully realize how much I needed a break from it. The stressful grind of repetition was already getting too much for me to handle without compromising my sanity. I was admittedly distraught back in January and February. I was in the middle of dealing with my paperwork for Lancaster University and I felt there was a legitimate chance my enrollment might get suspended (which is a long story). I was also still coming to terms with the shortcomings of the last project I had undertaken with my current and former students, The Digital Collective.

However, I will promise that The Digital Collective will be revived. I’ve even started posting in its Facebook Page again. The process will be slow, and I doubt I will get all of the old band of students back together for this. But there will be progress. That, I can promise. I still believe it can do some good in UPOU. And the thing is, my continued pursuit of this will actually help me with my own studies in the coming years, as I had come to realize through my autoethnography PhD assignment. The best part of this is that I’m actually looking forward to it. Again, I don’t expect most of my former volunteers to return. But I do hope at least a handful of them will. We have at least one major production assignment to get back to.

We’ll be getting The Digital Collective back on track.

Finally, I need to find time to make revisions to my manuals in Photography and Audio. The courses themselves, I believe I’ve been able to let go, for the most part. But the manuals are mine and ensuring their relevance will always be my responsibility. Initially, I had hoped to release a community edition of these manuals with the help of The Digital Collective. But it’s become apparent that in order to accomplish anything related to these manuals in a timely fashion, I have to do it myself.

Personal interests

Photography has sort of taken a back seat in my life. It doesn’t excite me as much as it did before. Going out to shoot has become more of a chore, even during my most recent travels in Finland, Taiwan and England. So, it’s strange that in spite of that, I still think about acquiring a full frame DSLR camera. It probably won’t happen anytime soon. But still…

While I haven’t regressed, it feels like something’s missing in my most recent photography.

I think I’ll be able to get by without selling some of my guitar gear, which is a relief. Aside from the sentimental value of those actually worth selling, I really don’t want to go through the actual process of having to sell. My overall previous experience hasn’t been good. I don’t want to add to that. Well, actually, I have sold something – an LAG acoustic to one of my nephews. I sold really low. But hey, that’s family. I also wanted to make sure that he gets the best out of how much his dad is willing to spend. Not that this particular guitar is the best ever, but it is good enough to make learning how to play more pleasurable. The problem with cheap pieces of shit guitars is that they aren’t well made, painful to play and poorly intonated. All of them take away from the total enjoyment a person gets out of playing music. And following that same logic, I doubt I’ll hold on to the RJ mini-guitar I bought last year. My son deserves to play on something better, should he actually develop an interest in playing later on. I don’t think it’s worth selling, so who knows… I might give it away.

My nephew is the new owner of this one.

What I would like to do right now is to finally sit down on work on the songs that I’ve had in my head since I was a teenager. If I can sit down and record two of them this month, then I’ll be pretty happy. They’re not hard to play, so I’m not worried too much about my guitar chops (or lack thereof). It’s the singing which I dread. I haven’t been a decent singer since my 20’s. I’ll just have to see if I can still do anything presentable with my vocals. I would also like to record the short sound and music clips I had intended to make available through The Digital Collective — things people in UPOU can use.

I’ll be squeezing these little audio projects in while studying.
Result of the mix above.

I’m also starting to get back into reading books again. By this, I mean materials outside the required readings in my PhD. I already have a huge backlog thanks to Humble Bundle. Them being eBooks doesn’t make things more conducive for reading, but they are pretty convenient. I’m currently halfway through Sword of Destiny from The Witcher series and started with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I’ll get to the design books from Humble Bundle after.

I should seriously remind myself that, after some refreshing and brushing up, I am still an environmental scientist and ecologist. I’m never going to be able to do that within UPOU, but maybe I still can somewhere else.

I haven’t done any carpentry recently. The house is in need of a bunch of repairs and modifications, which I think I can do on my own. I just need the funds.

Family

Aidan’s progress, while not insignificant, remains erratic. One of his school’s teachers said something important a few weeks ago. The child will have bad days, yes. But so will the parents. I’ve had so many this year and I hate myself for having them. The slow grind of repetition and erratic development gets to me everyday. Any father of an autistic child would understand. Any loving father of an autistic child would find a way to soldier on.

His compulsion to act on his curiosity is relentless, which a parent must match with patience and vigilance to keep him (and everything else!) safe.

Perhaps I’m feeling the grind more, not just because Aidan is getting bigger, faster and stronger, but also because I have attempted to take some of the load off from my wife. She has finally started anew doing her own thing, with her workshops. I’m still heavily involved, though… as financier, driver, porter and babysitter. Just a bit more than I initially bargained for, to be honest. She also has found herself in an environment-conscious crowd, which was what spurred memories of mine as an environmental science student. Maybe one day I will engage with that crowd more actively. But for now, I’ll be staying in my lane. More autonomy for my wife from me would also be nice, I think.

Vanni at the Green Unconference at Taguig last June 8.

I’ve also started preparing to bring my family to the UK next year with me for maybe a month. It’s a bit challenging as my income decreased significantly when I went on study leave. I can barely get by as it is. But next year will be the best time for them. I’m fairly sure I already have the plane far covered. But if anyone has tips on how to make the actual stay cost effective (the accommodations alone will be murderous), I’d love to hear them.

Closing

This is a lot. I’d be surprised if I manage doing them all within the year, let alone this month. But hopefully, the learning experience, as well as the reward of finishing these tasks, will be incentive enough for me to get up from bed during those bad depressing days.

I write not to ask for sympathy, advice, or any sort of assurance that tomorrow will be a better day. But I would like to somehow be better connected with you. All these things I plan on doing or getting back into is pretty much a reaction. Going on study leave to purse a doctorate degree online has brought about a sense of isolation that is not quite like anything I’ve experienced in the past. I’d like to combat that. And I would be grateful for any help.

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Digital Collective Autoethnography Study Blog 3: Peer feedback

I was able to get a few of my cohorts to provide some highly valuable feedback regarding my one-page proposal, which I posted here.

The level of discourse has so far been higher and more focused than what I have grown accustomed to in my own courses at UPOU. Limiting discussion posts isn’t something I would enforce myself, but I can see the benefits, provided the entire class is all in. But I digress. Below are the highlights of the feedback I received.

The concept of change management

As far as I know, the Digital Collective project is the first of its kind in UPOU. There is certainly nothing of its kind within the BAMS program. The idea of students themselves being a resource is not exactly new, given our efforts towards ePortfolio-based learning. However, students becoming active participants towards the production of new resources and the betterment of existing ones is entirely new. One can argue that this would undeniably bring about major changes to how we approach learning. I had focused acutely towards the production aspect of the project. I may not have given enough care for the human element.

Directly inviting/recruiting participants vs. volunteerism

I realize that self-motivated active volunteers are arguably the best kind of participants one could have in a project such as this. But such people are exceedingly rare in UPOU. That is why I went with the other approach. However, I had not thought much about how hand-picking participants would pose its own set of potential issues. Did it cause participants to see it as more of an obligation because they somehow felt like they owe me something, rather than an opportunity to enhance their learning experience in the university? Did they see it more as a distraction to their studies, rather than a means to actually be of help to it?

Dissonance of perspectives between me and the participants

As an online teacher and with experience managing the BAMS program, I have an opinion of what the community needs in order to thrive. That said, I remember my assumption that students would agree with that opinion cracked the first time when I discussed the BAMS program’s trimestral schedule. I hate it. But much to my surprise, there is an indication that majority of the BAMS students might actually prefer the trimestral schedule, rather than the conventional semestral schedule of UP. While I still disagree with them, looking back, I do understand why. Beyond ourselves, we as teachers/administrators need to account for the needs of the students and the university. Students, on the other hand, only need to look after themselves. And when the popular primary goal is to graduate at a quicker pace (something I do not share), as currently allowed by the university, then yes, the trimestral schedule could potentially allow that.

The point is, with all of my preaching about how the Digital Collective benefits everyone in the UPOU community, I did not seriously broach the question of whether or not the participants honestly cared as much as I did, or at least care enough to want to be a part of the project long enough to provide a meaningful contribution.

Facilitating vs. Managing

According to a cohort:

From my understanding of what you’ve written, you were not facilitating the project but managing it. To facilitate the project is to remove the obstacles for students to run it themselves, and I think this follows from the point about ownership. OER is (are?) excellent for autonomous learning, though it is something that needs to grow organically.

An excellent point. My purpose was to facilitate, however, what I did was management work. But to my partial defense, I believe it was necessary, as the project was an entirely new thing for everyone. I had to be particularly hands-on at the beginning. Letting go of the project to allow the students to run it themselves was an end goal. Unfortunately, we failed to meet that goal. I honestly don’t know how to allow this to organically grow in an ever-changing online community. That’s why I don’t think I can do away with managing the project. On the other hand, I probably should have had a conversation with the students about them taking over at some point.

Exploring student motivations

As already alluded to, I should have been more conscious about the motivations of the participants. Sharing motivations really was a one-sided affair, with me seeing little more than fairly passive agreeing by the students. I need to understand their personal motivations and agendas better, so as to allow students to better align their needs and wants with the project. It will help them develop that sense of ownership that is crucial for their sustained involvement.


I had been given a LOT to think about. I am impressed at how much my peers were able to catch just be scanning through my one-page proposal. In the coming months, I am going to find out just how valid these points are and how they can help answer what are to be my finalized set of research questions. And perhaps by then, I can think about rebooting The Digital Collective project.

Hopefully, I’ll still have people with me when the time comes…

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Digital Collective Autoethnography Study Blog 2: One-page proposal

We were required to submit a 500 word proposal. Below is my submission, word for word, along with paraphrases of our professor’s comments.


Enhancing student engagement in an online university: successes, failures and how to move forward

Submitted February 17, 2019
ED.S821: Research Methods in Education and Social Science Settings: Philosophy, methodology, techniques and tools

For the past few years, I have been working on and off with an idea to leverage technology and know-how learned in class to enhance student engagement and benefit different sectors in the university. I was allowed by my office to start a project to test the waters, so to speak. The project was centered on the idea of student co-creation of content that they can add to their portfolios, and at the same time, share the content as open educational resources (OER) with the greater learning community in my university. The goal was to build a self-sustaining community that can enable co-creation that will span multiple cycles.

I hand-picked a group of students whom I believed would be deeply interested to lay the groundwork for the project. Unfortunately, getting even those students to buy into the idea and then actually do work had proven to be more challenging than I had expected, leading to the project stalling at its infancy.

In light of the setback, I would like to look back to the efforts exerted by myself, as well as colleagues and students who were on board at the time. In intend to find answers to lingering questions in my mind:

  1. Have I overestimated the worth of this project to the students? If so, how much incentive do students need to take more active roles? (A more exploratory question, rather than one that can be answered by a simple yes or no.)
  2. What were the roadblocks that students faced in trying to participate? (Being an autoethnography study, the central focus needs to be me, rather than the students.)
  3. Was my approach ineffective? If so, how can I improve as a facilitator? (Our professor remarked that this may be too personal and difficult to draw out useful information from. On the other hand, I had a peer who finds it interesting. As of this posting, I still not need to further understand what our professor meant.)

Admittedly, at the time, my main focus was on the production aspect of the project. In my faith towards my hand-picked volunteer students, perhaps I had unwittingly had not paid as much attention to their circumstance as I should have. This study ought to provide an answer for that. It would especially be a huge oversight as nurturing a learning community is something I had studied in the past. I will most certainly have to revisit that.

A subjectivist approach will likely be taken. However, my suspicion, or to a certain extent, fear, is that this would be a good fit for attempting to apply complexity theory , as the subject project, is a (pseudo)community of individuals with a diverse array of circumstance which need to be accounted for. I will still have to study this intently before finalizing.
As far as data collection is concerned, my likely course of action will be to interview as many of the involved students as I can. I just need to come up with proper questions. It may require a significant amount of effort, but the group wasn’t that large. I think it’s doable.

Autoethnography will undoubtedly be an effective tool for this study, due to my role as the main proponent of the stalled project. Detaching myself will not be possible. How it moves forward still depends on me and how I deal with the other moving parts. I will be dealing with matters of human perception, behavior, and interaction which might be best presented through narratives.

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Autoethnography study blog 1: The Digital Collective

So, I’m nearly a month into my PhD studies. I started off pretty good, then got derailed by a bunch of things and am now trying to catch up. I’ll manage that, but I just had a thought. The depth and structure of the discussions we are expected to participate in class has been challenging, even by my standards. And now, I just realized that each post is actually substantial enough for me to re-post as a blog here, especially with the nature of the discussions at the moment. I wasn’t quite expecting to get into autoethnography, but it has proven to be intriguing. And it will definitely help me produce material for my personal website.

In this post, we were asked to write about a difficult or uncomfortable experience at work or school in the past which I would like to study further. Hahaha… I have quite a selection. But the most intriguing of them is my recent efforts in establishing the Digital Collective, which has definitely led to a high level of frustration and disappointment. I wasn’t expecting to get more mileage out of the experience so soon. But lucky me…

Below is my post word for word…

It was actually late last year, just before the start of the program, where I had a profound experience. I had been teaching in my university for more than 10 years, half of which I have spent dedicated to an undergraduate program, BA Multimedia Studies. Unlike in graduate programs, many of my students were quite young, ranging between 16-25. My belief is that they had needs and concerns which weren’t necessarily important for older students anymore. They need, or at least they claim to need causes and interests to foster, which are related, but not necessarily ingrained in their program’s curriculum.
So, I had this idea the channel their energies to help fulfill their wants, while at the same time, practice the knowledge and skills they have learned from their program, while at the same time, allow their output to benefit the greater learning community of the university. Hence, the birth of what I called the UPOU Digital Collective.

I had it all planned out, down to the part where it will eventually factor into my PhD studies here. This was actually my pitch during my discussion with one of the faculty members prior to applying.

Anyway, one of the key steps was to get a select group of students together — those whom I felt I could rely on. Our task was to produce an initial set of multimedia content as a proof of concept, as well as to map out their future tasks and what they need from the university to fulfill them. So, I worked to get a budget to get these students, as well as a handful of alumni to convene face to face for a two day workshop. I did my best to make clear what the expectations were, to which they agreed to. I also consulted with them to ensure I was meeting their own expectations and the project can fit into their own agenda, if any. I thought I did. It was tiring, and yet it felt fulfilling. I thought I had succeeded and my project was on its way to a successful start.

I was wrong.

I hardly heard anything from them again regarding the deliverables. It was particularly disheartening because I gave them everything I could. I know it’s not right for me to do so, but I even harbored thoughts of betrayal because I trusted them and perhaps it did not help that I believed this would impact my own studies. I was like… well, now what!?

At best, it was a major roadblock. At worst, it was a complete failure. But perhaps I can salvage this and write about it in Module 1. I would like to have a clear understanding of what happened. I cannot relate this with any specific principle or theory right now, but I would like to figure out what I did wrong, or did not do enough of. How can I do a better job at engaging students and motivate them well enough to produce, whether or not the project has a direct impact in their grades. As much as this was a downer, I still refuse to believe that this is simply the nature of our undergraduate students and we as teachers and mentors cannot do anything about the whole thing.

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Congratulations to the BA Multimedia Studies Class of 2018

This is the last batch whom I will be marching with, at least for a while. As I look at this picture, most of their faces felt unusually familiar, perhaps more so than previous batches. Obviously, I know all of them. But the sight of them elicited emotions not quite like last year.

And then it occurred to me… some of them were students in my MMS 100 class. That means they never had anyone else as their program chair. Even though Diego was already the one who marshaled them to the ceremony, I was the one who did the most in guiding these students through BAMS.

Some of them were students in my earliest classes in BAMS. One of them I even distinctly remember proctoring for when he took the UgAT all those years ago. A few of them were my baptism of fire in dealing with the difficult issue of mental health. I would like to think that while my record isn’t spotless, I was able to do more good than harm to them.

Each of them have stories of adversity and success. I know many of them and not having the right to tell is almost painful, because I am so proud of these people. It was good to finally see them switch their Sablay to the left shoulder.

The personal highlight for me here as that I had four advisees graduate this year, which I believe the most I’ve ever had so far. Gimson was honestly someone I almost gave up on. But that would have been a crime to do to someone who himself would not. For whatever he lacked, he made up for with determination. Jewel, Igie and Shari, on the other hand, were a curious case for me. The first time I knew them, they were kids to me — just about the same age as my eldest nieces. They did a LOT of growing up these past two or three years. It almost felt weird standing by their sides tonight and regard them as young women moving on with their lives after UPOU and BAMS. I’m going to miss teasing them like I did my own friends back in college.

Last, but not least, is again, Shari. Seeing an advisee earn Latin honors is always a matter of pride for me. And to see her up there as the only one who did it this year… No, I won’t take any credit for it. She pretty much did it on her own. But getting there wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Much like what happened with Aia last year, there were a few… loose ends that needed tying. Once again, I was asked to look into it and write an endorsement, should I choose to fight for her case. I will share with you the ending statements of my letter to the University Council:

“On another note, Ms. San Pablo was directly under my supervision in a number of courses, as well as her special project. All throughout, she had shown above average aptitude, diligence and initiative – hallmarks that I look for in a UP student. And it is with this faith in her for which I laid out the above explanation. Thank you…”

Some of them I will continue to be interacting with, mostly through here in the UPOU Digital Collective. While they may never really regard me completely as such, it will be interesting for me to be with them more as peers or even friends rather than as students. But for the others who will be really moving on, I truly hope they succeed in whatever they set out to do. And I hope the BAMS program has helped them prepare.

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Presenting the UPOU Digital Collective at ICEM 2018

Hardly anything went according to plan. I’d decided on attending ICEM 2018 the moment  it was announced. It was just as well, as with anything that involves a trip to Europe, you need to prepare well in advance. I already knew back then what I’d be presenting. However, circumstances would not permit me to do what I needed to do in a timely fashion. I had to focus on the curricular revision of the BAMS program. I had to be part of a Business Analytics course writing team. My classes were unusually large. The funding I needed wasn’t coming. There was always something. My project ended up losing steam, stalling for several months.

My visa application, which I wrote about here, was probably the only thing that really went my way. I wasn’t able to properly book my flight and accommodations as I did not receive my grant in time. More importantly, this was the first time I headed to a conference without a full paper on hand. And it sucks that I failed to submit something ICEM could consider for publishing. And up until a day before my session, I wasn’t even sure what I’d be presenting exactly. I had no results to show.

 

The UPOUDC website is nowhere near being ready.

 

My plans for the UPOU Digital Collective is, by far, the thing I have been most passionate above as far as my recent work in the university is concerned. And rather than immediately seek out my friends in ICEM, there I was, in a room at the Hotel Metropol in Tallinn, Estonia, cramming for my presentation, not really knowing what to include. I hated it, not just because I was cramming, but also because in my unpreparedness, I wouldn’t be able to present my project the way I wanted.

I did come up with an idea, though. I couldn’t show any results. But then I realized that instead of that, I could take a retrospective approach. Student co-creation and collaboration was actually not new anymore in UPOU. I myself have had experience with it dating back to when I started teaching. In fact, up until that point, I had taken for granted that with projects such as Biomodd and the UPOU Community Site, I had actually been into it early on in my academic career. I hadn’t always been successful, but even in failure, there were vital lessons that I learned which are worth looking back into in the hopes of avoiding them as we go forward with UPOUDC. I ended up having more to say than I would have thought.

 

ICEM seems to cycle between big and small conferences, which I suppose is more a function of the partner institution. This one, due to a few good reasons I’m told, was fairly small, at least in terms of attendance. There could not have been more than a hundred who attended at least at one point. The floor plan of the venue also felt a little awkward.

That said, what more than made up for the shortcomings was the actual quality of the attendance. While a little daunting in the past, it felt pretty good, surrounded by brilliant and like-minded people from all over the world willing to listen to what you have to say.

Estonia itself is an intriguing country. My province, Laguna, in the Philippines, has more than twice as many people in less than half the land area. Tallinn itself, I think, is quite sparsely populated for a capital. I didn’t get the chance to see the countryside, so I can only imagine how it looks. In any case, they are world leaders in education, right up there with Finland, Denmark, Japan and Canada. Their GDP per capita is also more than three times as high as that of ours. But the way the people from Tallinn University put it, they sort of consider themselves a poor country, of which I couldn’t help but smile. While I concede that I may be ignorant of their history and what they went through, all I could think of was that these guys should have a wider perspective on the matter. Conditions probably weren’t that good back when they were under the Soviet Union. But seriously, even though it is obvious they still have some work to do, when you’ve got people from Finland, a country they look up to, asking how they maintain progress to be right on par with them and with the momentum to have an apparent chance of surpassing them, it can’t possibly be that bad.

 

My session

My presentation went surprisingly well. Ironically, I ended up having twice the number of slides I would usually have for a 15-20 minute presentation. It had been years since I found myself in a session full of attentive people, nearly all of which were my seniors in either or both age and stature. I predictably went over the allotted time, but my peers were gracious enough to allow me to finish and even ask questions and offer suggestions. Someone from Hungary even recognized Biomodd, saying he was familiar with what the Biomodd London team has been doing recently. It has also been a while since I’ve been really engaged in a conference. I learned quite a bit in those three or four days. Already, I am thinking of how I will move from then to the next three or four years. Establishing and maintaining a persistent environment for co-creation is definitely something I will have to be into for a good amount of time. With enough luck, I’ll succeed. If not, the least I can hope for is to understand what works and what doesn’t, so others will have a better chance of succeeding in the future.

 

Maybe someday, ICEM, or at least some of its members, will make it to the Philippines. I believe there is a lot we can learn from them. These are people with extensive experience with technology and the ways of integrating them to the classroom, physical or otherwise. At the same time, maybe a visit can give them a better perspective of how things are in this part of Asia and reach an even greater audience. I would also like to see more of its members work in their respective institutions. The thought of these things are exciting to me. Which is weird… this is work — something I have wanted less and less off over the past few years.

For now, I go home knowing that we are on to something in the UPOU Digital Collective. It’s time for me to focus on it and see how my work on the project can carry over to my studies starting next year. Perhaps next time, whether it be in Memphis, Tennessee or Portugal, I’ll be able to show the results I had wanted them to see last week.

 

 

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A decade in UPOU

I’m not here to preach about how you should always persevere and never quit, that tomorrow is a better day, or that God loves you and will always be with you, going ra-ra with fluffy pom-poms and all that. If you know me at all, you would know it would all be bullshit, coming from me.

To my recollection, I have drafted at least four resignation letters, the most recent of which is less than a year old. And yet… earlier this week, I had this plaque handed to me by my superiors.

I started with utmost gratitude. I had not distinguished myself an exemplary student since sixth grade. As far as I knew, UPOU was banking on my potential because I had very little else to offer based on what credentials I had back then. But maybe some of my dad’s attributes had rubbed off to me — enough to help me become a competent teacher, at least. Maybe they were able to somehow able to account for intangibles, since some of the decision makers knew who I was personally. Whichever the case, the point is, UPOU took a chance with me, and I will never forget that.

At my third year, I had already started to believe that I did not have what it takes to make this my career. A college teacher, sure… but a faculty member at UPOU… that felt like a different thing altogether. It still does. There were challenges, difficulties, sacrifices and outright burdens which I had not expected to take on, let alone carry long-term.

At my sixth or seventh year, I had to make a conscious effort to change my approach to work. I had shifted to survival mode. I had to drop the notion of aspiring for awards and taking part of the more glamorous parts of the job. It had let to harboring less than positive thoughts towards everything, as everyone else seemed to be getting all the attention. But it allowed me to march on.

At my ninth year, I felt the need to make another adjustment, and start thinking about my own advancement — whether it’s in or out of UPOU. And it is now, that I have begun to think more clearly of what I need and want to do. I still won’t be distinguishing myself in the university, but I am slowly getting back into doing things that I want to do.

It seems contradictory — that I have to act more selfishly in order to figure out how to do better in a job that is, for all intents and purposes, public service. But whatever. It’s working.

I managed to survive.

That is probably what this plaque symbolizes for me — resilience — ten years worth of it. No one else with the same career path within UPOU has ever lasted even half as long. And while I still do not have nearly enough optimism needed to happily look forward to the next day of work, I can tell you that I can get through it.

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MMS 173: Self Portraiture Exercise

Note to readers:

I did this exercise way back in 2013. Unfortunately, I lost my original write-up for the whole experience. Fortunately, my actual photos, both the unedited and edited versions, remain in my possession. Those are what you will see below (unless stated otherwise). The narrative, I have done my best to reconstruct from memory.

 

There is one personal rule that I have always abided by as a teacher. I would never, ever, subject my students to any task or requirement that I had not gone through myself. That actually backed me into a little corner when I started believing that requiring that students do honest to goodness self-portraiture was a good idea – that anyone who has been in my class would at least know how to do better than the usual selfies which litter social media on a massive scale. The thing is, I don’t like having my picture taken either. I don’t like being in group pictures. And I certainly had never taken self-portraits, not the way I would want my students to.

So, it’s either I forget about this idea, or put in the work myself before talking big to my students. Your reading this article will probably be a clear indication of the choice I made. Besides, I’m always game for the chance to take students out of the comfort zones, even if it means I have to do the same.

I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fond of dark, moody themes in just about anything. This was my chance to apply that to myself. I then set up my black background and my studio lights. But after taking a few trial shots and thinking about it some more, I decided that it was not the look I wanted. I needed to be more low-key. So, I put the lights aside and settled with my small portable LED pack. Back then I did not have the means to set up my flash gun off-camera the way I wanted. So I had to rely on continuous lighting, which means I would have to contend with slow shutter speeds and high ISOs. Hopefully, I could sit still enough throughout this session.

The good news is that I had the space to make use of my Nikkor 50mm/1.8D with my Nikon D7000. I could use my remote trigger while the camera sat on the tripod. But I wouldn’t be able to see what I’m shooting on the fly. Repeatedly having to aim, pose, shoot and then run to the camera to preview the shot would have made it a long night for me. Luckily, I came across digiCamControl, a USB tether software that supports Nikon cameras. I can control the camera with live view engaged from a laptop which I would have in front of me the whole time, significantly speeding up my process.

 

Equipment Used

  • Nikon D7000 body
  • Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D prime lens
  • Z96 LED light panel
  • Laptop with Digicamcontrol Pro
  • 2 tripods
  • black muslin cloth background
  • electric guitar as prop

 

Headshot

The idea for the headshot was simple – I’ll be facing the camera up front and aim the light source diagonally towards one side of my face. The reality of the matter turned out to be more complicated. I ended up taking dozens of shots. I was starting to doubt if I could pull this off.

Headshot diagram

 

I tried several poses. I didn’t like how most of them turned out. But I was able to pick three whose results I liked.

ISO 400 ; 1/8sec ; f/5.6

My camera was having a hard time focusing with the whole room being so dimly lit, forcing me to work with slow shutter speeds. It’s a good thing I managed to hold still. At the same time, that small light was pretty hard and intense.  You can even see behind the black muslin background, even with the intensity dialed down. But I could work with this. I didn’t want to do a lot of editing. Against my own vanity, I opted to leave the blemishes of my face alone or maybe even accentuate them.

I only needed to do two things: accentuate the blacks, dial down the highlights and add more warmth. No sharpening was needed. A little bit of blurring might have been of benefit, but I didn’t bother. Cropping to a 4:3 ratio was my final step — trimming down the background and providing more emphasis to my profile.

 

The only thing I would have wanted to improve upon here is the highlights of my hair. The hard light really harshly emphasized the white streaks on my hair. A reflector on the other side of my face would have also helped balance out the highlights a bit.

 

Freestyle

I wanted a picture of myself holding a guitar. The question was how. Again, I tried a number of things. Then I was suddenly reminded of the album cover of U2’s Rattle and Hum and thought how cool it looked, with Bono aiming a spotlight over The Edge. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to do the exact same thing. But I can take inspiration from it.

 

With the camera in the same spot as before, I’d be facing the background diagonally, with my light aimed slightly towards my left side. The hard light which I had an issue with while taking my headshot, worked wonders simulating a spotlight aimed at my upper body and the guitar’s neck. The hard shadow on my hand seemed like a nice touch to augment the effect, as well.

ISO 1600 ; 1/10sec ; f/3.2

I got a shot that I thought was perfectly framed, which was surprising given how I was shooting. Maybe it helped that I was literally looking at the laptop while I was posing so, I was really seeing what I was going to get, at least composition-wise. But there were issues which I felt required some retouching.

 

Spots that needed fixing

First, I needed to increase the exposure value a full stop to recover some brightness. After that, I proceeded with working on the issues. Visible folds on the background, a stray thread and a speck of dust — they all needed to go. The folds would disappear by blackening the frame, like I did with the headshot. The rest would also be easy fixes. Quick dabs of Photoshop’s healing brush tool removed those nicely. And again, as before, warming up what colors were present added life to the frame.

Final edit (2013)

2018 Note

I was happy with this back then. But looking at it now, I don’t think the highlights are warm enough. And the reflections on my hair is still too harsh.

Final edit (2018)

Today, I would go with an even warmer look. And then I’d use a paintbrush tool over my hair to decrease the overall exposure one whole stop. My face is still a bit shinier than I would like, but it’s something I can live with (then again, by 2023, who knows?). Overall, it’s significantly easier to look at now, don’t you think?

 

Conclusion

I did the shoot in one sitting. But between conceptualizing, setting up, shooting and packing up, I spend several hours. And then I spent more hours during post production. It’s more work than most of my students will realize. It was also a test for my confidence and self-esteem. Like most other guys, I look at the mirror every morning thinking how good looking I am. But the reality is that I don’t believe that, and I start thinking the opposite whenever I see a camera aimed at me. This is a challenge for me, for anyone, on many levels. And that is why, more than ever, I believe this is the most important assignment I can ever require in my photography class.

This walkthrough obviously does not cover everything. It’s not supposed to. So, if you are one of the students in my class, I urge you to head back to the course site and raise any comments or questions in the discussion forums. Because I will expect more details from your assignment than what you see here.

Good luck!

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BAMS Class of 2017 introspection: trusting the process

The graduation ceremony of July 2015 was a crucible.

Just over a year earlier, I had moved out of the Diploma in Computer Science program. I also stopped teaching in the Master of Information Systems and was told my services were no longer required in the Diploma in Land Valuation Management programs. With a bit of reluctance, my entire being as a UPOU faculty was thrown in the Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies program to continue what my predecessor had started and bring more stability to its foundation and facilitate its moving forward.

I faced the challenge head on, working harder than I ever did before and ever thought possible. It was tough on me. But it was no cakewalk for anyone else involved, either. Restoring any semblance of order required clamping down hard on any bad practices which we had unwittingly perpetuated in the past. The structure of the BAMS program by itself is riddled with issues. Workarounds had to be employed, especially at the beginning, just to keep the whole thing running. But its management became progressively more difficult as the years went by, as the workarounds slowly turned into common practice. All the while, graduation rate continued to be awfully low and attrition rate felt like it was high and still rising. For sure, the resident population kept accumulating. Everyone involved at UPOU knew it had to change. And it was going to be my most important assignment.

Again… it was HARD. Students had to be straightened out and made to understand that following the rules was important. And I took out just about every approach I had on my playbook to at least have a chance to succeed, from playing nice, to being brutally honest, to copping the terror prof persona as best as I could – anything to get the students to buy into the process.

I knew that it would be years before I’d be able to see results. But knowing that provided no comfort to me in July 2015, when only five BAMS students graduated, and none of them attended their own graduation ceremony. For seven straight years, I had a role to play in the ceremony – as university marshall or as program marshall for DCS. There was always something. That year, I didn’t know my place. Of course, I ended up marching behind the faculty marshall. But it was a strange and depressing feeling. I wanted to just skip the whole thing after the obligatory pictorial session with the officials and go home.

My Sablay, with the obligatory decor

In all fairness, it’s hard to blame the actual graduates back then. There were only five of them, and I did know that at least two of them wanted to be there, so much so, that one of them made it a point to attend the ceremony the following year. But that didn’t stop me from using this incident as fuel to the fire. There was no chance in hell I was going to let myself experience that day again.

It became obvious, that our system of managing things wasn’t the only one that needed fixing. There is a whole damn culture among BAMS students that needed a little tweaking. That’s when I started directly challenging their mettle, whether it’s about academics or what it means to be an Isko. I intimidated a bunch, angered a few, and prompted a few others to ignore me. But I do believe enough people started to listen. Because even though I’d openly complain and go on my occasional tirades, I would like to think I was endearing or amusing enough so people would keep listening and not get tired of me.

That was all that we needed. Sowing even just a few seeds can yield plenty given enough time. We just needed to keep tending to it. Trust the process, as they say. Did I mention it was hard? I constantly harbored doubt, wanted to give up multiple times, and asked to be replaced as BAMS PC at least twice. I had always had tendencies towards introversion. I had sporadically felt pangs of anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. But never did I think seriously of it until then. Perhaps what I felt for students with mental health issues was not sympathy, but empathy. It was a scary thought and I started to worry if it was affecting my judgment. I couldn’t afford mistakes – decisions being made impacted peoples’ lives, at least as far as academics went. But our process never stopped.

The number of graduates finally reached double digits at ten in 2016. And that time, some of them came. I will not even hide how relieved I felt when I finally marched as BAMS program marshall. And now, in September 2017, BAMS produced one of the largest number of graduates in the entire campus at 25, with 20 in attendance. And among those 20, are two who finished magna cum laude. This is unprecedented and I can’t help but feel proud of the moment, and proud for the students who were part of it.

However, I will not take credit for singlehandedly raising graduation rates. At the heart of this achievement is the work that all these students put in. They didn’t do it for me. They did it for their families and their careers. They did it for themselves. I only helped in showing them the way. Neither will I fail to acknowledge the help my colleagues at FICS provided for these students. Not once did my fellow faculty members come and tell me they didn’t want to teach in BAMS anymore. They never faltered in their willingness to gut it out in BAMS with me. This wouldn’t be possible either without our support staff and how they shouldered the processing of the paperwork which I have always had trouble keeping up with on my own.

The work is far from over. There is still a lot of students that need to finish – a lot more who have issues that need sorting out. So, why am I writing as if the story has ended?

The simplest answer I can give is that my time managing the program may or may not be coming to an end. Right now, I don’t know if I will be there next year to lead what would hopefully be a contingent even bigger than the one we had just now. If I am, then it’s all good. But if not, I step out knowing things are now better than it was when I stepped in and it is poised to get even better long after. I find comfort and a sense of achievement in that.

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An open letter to the UPOU BAMS Class of 2017

I didn’t realize until now that I haven’t really done so publicly yet. But I would like to congratulate not just our two magna cum laude graduates. Having one honor student in the program is a privilege already. But having two in a year considering the population… that is amazing. However, it is not just them.  There are 25 people who earned their BA Multimedia Studies degrees this year, all of whom deserve just as much recognition.

To our topnotcher…

Aia Magpusao, yours was a special case, of which you know full well. But what you may not know is that when your case was being presided over, I was “requested” to write a letter that addressed your underloads. It wasn’t clear how they wanted me to do it, so I just academically wrote down the details as far as I knew. They sent the letter back, pretty much saying na kulang daw sa puso. So fine, I gave them freaking heart…

Puso, to me, meant adding this paragraph to my letter:

Lastly, let us suppose that all of the above are still not enough to justify our overlooking of the underloaded trimesters. I would finally like to appeal to you purely based on the merits of her performance as a student. The GWA speaks for itself. The numbers indicate her making the cut to be magna cum laude. But even that does not provide the complete picture of the type of student Ms. Magpusao is as far as I have seen. The BAMS program is not easy to complete because it demands that students be competent in three fronts: academic aptitude, technical skills and artistic creativity. It is extremely rare for me to see a student excel in all three aspects. In my opinion as program chair for the last three years and faculty for eight years for the BAMS program, there has been hardly anyone who deserve recognition as much as Ms. Magpusao. Few people exemplify excellence in BAMS the way she has. With all that I have pointed out, I wholeheartedly support the bestowment of Latin honors to Maria Gabriella Magpusao. Thank you very much.

Needless to say, they accepted the letter with all thumbs up. It’s not bullshit. I meant every word of it. You are an inspiration to everyone here, including me.

Toni Cimacio, to me, you are the personification of drive and diligence.

I don’t agree with how you went about a few things during your time in BAMS. And I still don’t know what on earth happened in MMS 198 which almost cost you the chance to graduate with honors. But what I will always respect is how you always brought your game in the face of challenges thrown your way, whether it was me, or any other teacher. Whenever I saw your name on something, I always expected it to be good. And you kept on delivering. If only all the BAMS students had at least half of your willingness to persevere…

You came in with a goal and you owned it with authority. Few things are sweeter than that.

And to the rest of the graduates… it really was a great day. I looked at all of you and I see people whom I grew up and started to grow old with in UPOU. Ginny was in the first BAMS class I ever facilitated back in 2010. I’ve known Ann just as long, even when she was an AA student. And of course, my advisees, Ed and Ruby, who I had to guide through their particularly difficult process of passing MMS 200. Many of you, I consider more as friends rather than students. 

All of you went through me multiple times in my different courses. Some may have even taken the same course more than once. And those courses, as well as my teaching methods, continue to evolve and hopefully improve because of you. It’s likely that a few of you still harbor some negativity towards me. But I’d like to believe that it’s all good with most of you. And do believe that everything I have done was in your best interest as part of the UPOU Community.

I’m soaking this in more than I typically would because this might be it for me, as well. I might not be the one who’s around for next year’s batch. I’m happy because if that turns out to be true, then I go out on a high note and I did so with you.

It doesn’t end here. You will always be part of this community of learners. And you may find yourself willingly involving yourselves with our work sooner than you think. Until then, I wish all of you the best of luck and I hope to see you again soon.

 

Al Francis D. Librero
Assistant Professor and BAMS Program Chair
Faculty of Information and Communication Studies
University of the Philippines Open University

 

yennefer

MMS 173 Virtual Photography Activity: The Witcher 3

This is probably the first time I actually participated in this activity. I got a new video card a few months ago and wanted to see how far I could go with the settings of The Witcher 3 with it. I was so happy with the results I decided to post them here.

Instead of relying on game mods and regular screenshot function, I made use of Nvidia Ansel. You need an Nvdia-based card with it, and it won’t work with all games. But it does for this one, and I took full advantage. I was tempted to capture cutscenes, but that would be sort of cheating. So everything was shot in-game.

 

Kaer Mohren Sunset

The shot obviously follows the rule of thirds, with the castle as the main subject. But it also shows a lot of rhythmic elements thanks to the mist covered trees, clouds and the mountain range. The depth of the landscape also provided a lot of overlapping elements.

Natural lighting also had to be deliberate, the position of the sun depended on the time of day, as in real life. Late afternoon provided the quality and direction of light I needed for this screenshot.

 

Shrine at Skellige

The branch and stern of a longship falls within the golden spiral. They, in turn, create a frame within a frame for the altar and background landscape. The stern and altar themselves, if you choose for them to be the subject, follow the rule of thirds.

This is another afternoon shot with the camera shooting against the light. I managed to frame this in such a way that the lens flares were prevented. But you do see a dirty lens effect, which I find a little annoying (luckily, I found a way to turn it off for the succeeding shots). I find this more interesting, with lighting from behind the subject, rather than up front.

 

Silver For Monsters

Nvidia Ansel also allowed me to pause midway through Geralt’s attacks and let the camera go up close. The level of detail is amazing. Again, rule of thirds prevail here. Yet, it is the sword, with its rhythmic elements up front which is given emphasis. I wish depth of field was shallower here, but it is noticeable enough, to bring about many overlapping parts — the silver sword, Geralt, his sheathed steel sword and the background lansdcape. Unity is strong in this one (if you can forgive that tip of an enemy’s weapon that got awkwardly included in the frame, covering one of Geralt’s hands.

 

 

Igni

This one’s a little morbid, but has a LOT to offer design-wise. Again, rule of thirds is followed by Geralt (more specifically his spell casting hand) and his opponent. The enemy’s body also creates a frame within a frame for Geralt. The fire bursting out of Geralt’s hand in all directions relative to the frame creates a radial composition, but it is clear that it also has a strong directional force moving towards and even through the enemy as he is engulfed in them. The shooting flames also accentuate the overlapping layers found in the frame.

 

Yennefer in Toussaint

This is probably the one I spent the most amount of time with. I realized that with Nvidia Ansel, it becomes possible to do a portrait shoot like never before, it least for this game. I took so many shots but eventually settled with this one, because this is where I managed to move the camera finely enough to make it look like she’s looking at the camera. In-game her eyes follow Geralt, so I had to carefully place Geralt so that Yennefer faces opposite an acceptable background, which the immediate area does not provide much of, sadly. Not very intuitive, I know, but it works.

So… rule of thirds with lots of overlapping layers in the background, of course. With her seemingly looking at the camera, I could give emphasis to those violet eyes. In the end I figured those eyes were more important than that leather and lace outfit of hers (yes, I just fanboyed over one of the most beautiful women in video games). Again, I made use of the afternoon sun, for the added warmth of colors.

 

The world of The Witcher is now my favorite virtual world for this activity. This has been so much more fun than Second Life.

Sharing of Experiences: The Role as System Administrator

It’s a little strange for me to be talking about me experiences as a system administrator. I am known to indulge in a little bit of complaining here and there, but never really seriously. Or perhaps my colleagues don’t take it seriously. I suppose it doesn’t matter. However, actually sitting down and discussing how I do my job and talk about the lessons I’ve learned… I’ve never really done that. Recently, I was asked to do just that for training specialists working across the archipelago whose new task was to learn how to operate learning management systems and disseminate what they’ve learned. Amusingly enough, what ensued was a bit of a demotivational presentation. Well… ok, I am exaggerating. But the audience did fully realize that the work of an IT administrator in UP, or perhaps the government in general, is more difficult than it looks.

 

As of this writing, I am on the final month of my ninth year as an employee of the UP Open University. Back in October 2007, I was barely a month into my job as a junior faculty and was looking forward to being just that in my foreseeable future. Little did I know that the direction of my career had practically been planned for me, the moment I was accepted in the fold.

I was quickly assigned into what was then the Management Information Systems Office of the university. It sounds rather heavy, but it was actually a room with two people who were little more than kids at the time. I wasn’t that much older than them and I had less relevant professional experience. Yet, I was expected to lead them and make sense of what, to the untrained eye, looked like a convoluted pile of hardware and software they called their network infrastructure. My job was to help effect a major transition in the university of which I had been ignorant of. I was expected to have a hand in some of the biggest decisions that needed to be made on behalf of a university which I quickly realized I knew so much less about than I initially thought. And what made matters worse for me was that nothing I had done prior to that time would have helped me prepare for that challenge. I was never given time to adjust and familiarize myself with my new environment without the risk of committing mistakes that can have campus-wide ramifications. I didn’t think it was fair. It was stressful. It was frightening. All I wanted was a relatively quiet job as an online teacher. And now, this…

One of the biggest moves UPOU made at the time I came in was the migration of all courses under all degree programs, and eventually all non-formal courses, to an online learning management system. Face to face sessions were being phased out.

UPOU had already chosen to adopt MOODLE by the time I took over the MIS Office. Everyone was calling it our learning management system. But the reality of the matter was that, with respect to how we were using it, MOODLE was our course management system. I suppose the difference is subtle enough for me to not mind and leave uncorrected. But it was significant enough for me to warrant addressing, albeit in a discreet fashion.

To me, it was clear that MOODLE cannot solve everything for us. And it did not help that its early versions were, shall we say, rough around the edges. The code was buggy and inefficient. For a relatively small number of users, it required a huge amount of server power and Internet bandwidth, both of which we were in extremely short supply of.

Over the course of several years, I was mindful of three things:

  1. Finding ways to improve how MOODLE itself run.
  2. Filling the gaps unaddressed by MOODLE as the university’s needs change and grow.
  3. Being aware if and when something better than MOODLE comes along.

 

Running MOODLE

UPOU started with running MOODLE with an in-house server. However, bandwidth limitations forced us to have our server co-located off-site. While this made hardware maintenance inconvenient, at least it partially solved daily accessibility issues for users. But it didn’t take long for the university to outgrow that setup.

Playing catchup with our needs proved difficult, as doing so required constant maintenance, upgrade and replacement of our own servers. The logical next step for us was to find a way to bypass the need for it altogether.

By 2008, we eventually negotiated a hosting contract with what is referred to as a MOODLE partner. It was one of several companies across the world that is certified by MOODLE HQ and its community to administer systems for organizations of all sizes. This solves our dilemma regarding hardware. And with a datacenter outside the Philippines, better access was all but assured. Lastly, as part of the MOODLE partner’s service, day-to-day administration of the system itself were taken off our hands to further lighten my office’s workload.

It was a comfortable arrangement that lasted for a number of years. We would have kept it to this day, had the service remained consistently good. Unfortunately, for some reason that remains unclear to me, the partner’s quality of service declined to a point when we were already within our rights to declare a breach of contract. That did not happen, but it did herald yet another shift for the university.

It was around 2011 when we ended our working relationship with the MOODLE partner. This was also the time when another team took over administration duties, at least for UPOU’s MOODLE system. But from what I have pieced together, hosting changed hands twice. Administrative responsibilities were relegated back to me in 2013, when the MIS Office was re-tooled as the ICT Development Office. Even though I had been doing the job since 2007, it was only six years after, when I was formally designated as a director in UPOU. By this time a local company was under the outgoing MOODLE hosting contract. It proved capable of performing the duties of a MOODLE partner. But the more interesting aspect of this arrangement was that this was UPOU’s early foray into employing a Cloud-based system. I had recommended exploring it a few years earlier, but perhaps up until that point, Cloud hosting was not particularly feasible. And while actual hosting management still changed hands one more time in these last three years, we have essentially maintained the same setup to this day.

Augmenting MOODLE

MOODLE is commonly referred to as a learning management system. But the reality is that it is rarely fully utilized as such. UPOU certainly is no exception. We do not need all its features. While at the same time, we had several needs which MOODLE cannot provide. In order to address this issue, we had to augment MOODLE with other applications.

Perhaps the most important addition to the UPOU Learning Management System was Google Apps, which we implemented in 2008. The availability of the whole suite of Google’s online applications solve a number of issues, such as official email, Cloud storage and collaboration tools. UPOU had also developed its own academic information management system that handles student admission, records and registration. Unfortunately, circumstances leave us hesitant to implement full integration of these systems to finally implement single sign on, which has been requested for years now.

The exploration and testing of new systems that can possibly complement MOODLE’s feature set is an on-going endeavor at UPOU. My colleagues conduct work of this nature on a regular basis. I am currently studying the use of an ePortfolio system and its full integration with MOODLE. The technical aspect is not difficult to figure out, as both systems have been designed to seamlessly integrate with one another. But it does have administrative and budget implications, which I hope to address in the near future.

Options Aside from MOODLE

Whether it is on behalf of the ICT Development Office or the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies, we are constantly keeping ourselves apprised of the development of learning management systems aside from MOODLE. We are currently active in testing Canvas and are in constant contact with their representatives to assess the prospect of employing the platform. Both parties understand that even if it were to end up being the case, it would still be several years away. However, this is notable in the sense that this has been the farthest the university has come to consider giving up MOODLE.

Lessons Learned

While it is presumptive, even arrogant, to declare UPOU as the foremost user of MOODLE in the country, I can safely say that we have never done better with MOODLE than we have right now. We also accumulated a considerable amount of experience over the past 10 or so years. There were also a lot of mistakes made and lessons learned which I’ll try to highlight the most important here.

  • A system administrator does not need to be the most skilled technocrat in the team. His or her role is, on one hand, to be able to articulate what the team is doing to the rest of the organization. On the other hand, the administrator has to make sure his or her team has the breathing room to work at its best.
  • It is a given that technical staff in UP or the government in general are underpaid, especially with respect to their counterparts in the private sector. That is why you need to find ways to keep your people from leaving.
  • Technology advances quickly. But that doesn’t mean new tech is always readily available to you.
  • Government procurement rules cannot keep up with new technology, services and platforms. Therefore, it is always a good idea to consult with your Legal Office before proposing to adopt anything new.
  • Many people have trouble distinguishing between needs and wants when it comes to ICT. It is your job to help them do so, while at the same time not making them feel like you are imposing how you think they should do their
  • Always have contingencies. Don’t EVER allow yourself to be backed into a corner where you don’t have at least a few possible solutions for every issue thrown your way. When faced with a crisis, few things will infuriate the rest of your organization than telling them there’s nothing you can do about it.

Yes, working as a system administrator in an organization like UP is not easy by any means. You will feel underpaid and underappreciated. Managing UPOU’s learning management system for nearly a decade has been an arduous task, that is for sure. But I have learned a LOT from my experiences and that has helped me adapt. I can’t say I’m a happy employee, but through these basic pointers, I can live with the burden. And if you are reading this, maybe you can take these few pointers, as well.


Copyright 2018 Al Francis D. Librero © All Rights Reserved.

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