Life in an online university #5: Sympathy and empathy (Part 2)

I was one of them.

Not that I thought it was a smooth ride overall, but I think things started out nicely. Within a few years, I had built enough confidence to start teaching with a bit more authority. But the change in dynamics was significant as I moved from handling graduate to undergraduate students. This is something that may be worth talking about in greater depth later on, but to put it succinctly, undergraduates have noticeably different motivations for being in UPOU. And as the proportion of younger students got bigger, prevailing mentalities also changed.

My desire to learn and get better at my craft was at the level of a graduate student's – something only a relatively small contingent of the undergraduates would likely share. Of course, being gung ho, I paid little mind at first. So, in time, it got frustrating whenever I felt my classes didn’t share my enthusiasm (which was almost always the case!). It got disappointing when, as opposed to graduate students being more conscious of what they’re learning, the bulk of my communication with undergraduates were about grades and deadlines. I felt that was mentally debilitating. In hindsight, it should not have surprised me. It's not like it was dramatically different back in my day. If I could go back, I'd have been more accepting of it and not have pushed so hard to force students to keep up with me. But to endure this from the other side was heart-breaking.

To this day, some of my former students are likely still intimidated by me. I think that’s strange. I admit to pushing students to be at their best, but I’m nothing like the legit terrors, a few of whom I survived in UPLB which nobody in UPOU is like. It's not my style to personally attack or belittle anybody in the forums. I just shoot straight. If students take that as hostility, then I worry for their future. In any case, the bottom-line had become evident to me. During my early years, I could totally relate to my students. Most of them were my age, or maybe even older, already employed and supporting their own families. Along with their life status, their motivations were similar to mine. So it was no surprise that these were students whom I’d have no problem relating to and having a beer with at the end of a face to face session.

While I did look forward to the change in student demographics, with the BAMS programme studentship becoming predominantly younger and less experienced, I also felt sad about it. And I suppose this was the start of my struggle to connect. For the most part, later on, I could no longer relate to the students as much as I did before. As my grasp continued to weaken, I started to wonder… was the ability to connect with students even important for me to be able to do my job? So what, if I see posts of students clamoring for free tuition fees, representation and whatnot? So what, if some students face difficulties outside the online classroom? Such things didn’t concern me or my ability to teach. On the other hand, what does detaching leave me with? Without the prospect of actively learning from my own classes, how else would I be able to put up with the repetition required in teaching?

I remember reading student evaluation comments about me and my classes. Unlike other UP campuses, we don’t get a lot of them, so those that we do get tend to stick in our memories a bit longer. There was one comment from one of my last classes before going on hiatus, which probably reflected my detachment. The student felt that I was left bitter after a bad experience from a previous class and I was taking it out on his/her class. It’s a rather dramatic way of putting it, but not completely false. I was neither bitter nor was I lashing out. I simply stopped caring too much of what my students thought, let alone learned. And it was fortunate that I was on my way to the sidelines for an extended period. I needed a break.

To be continued...


MMS 199: our new course where students show us what they got

The most recent revision of UPOU's Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies programme was the product of the efforts of all the faculty at the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies. The junior faculty, in particular, brought about the most meaningful changes and additions. One of my ideas was the the addition of MMS 199 (Undergraduate Seminar on Multimedia Studies), a single unit course, into the curriculum as a core major course. I remember the 199 and 299 courses I took in the past. I took them for granted at the time. But in hindsight, I believe that those little courses were quite helpful in starting me out in this long learning process of doing research. I learned a lot from studying other peoples' work.

Going on study leave meant that I probably wouldn't be able to have any significant involvement in the development of the course. Fortunately, I was offered the chance to help out when it was deployed for the first time recently -- an offer I happily accepted. The approach to teaching the course had to veer a little from how 199 courses are traditionally taught in other campuses (or at least how they were taught back in my day), though. Instead of getting everyone pick a third party research paper to talk about, students were given the choice of presenting their own special project proposals or manuscripts, which could be helpful to them. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, students did not get any feedback prior to the posting their presentations. That is why you are going to notice that many of the presentations below are still a bit rough in terms of the quality of production and content.

Generally speaking, these students still have some ways to go. I had found that they will need continued guidance in order to conduct multimedia research more effectively. I wonder how much of this weakness is inherent to the students and how much of it is because of the programme itself. Perhaps this is something UPOU must continue to investigate.

Just as importantly, as I have told them, what was groundbreaking in multimedia 10 years ago is child's play today. If any of us intend to remain as marketable multimedia practitioners, we need to keep up with the times. We are expected to do better than the average Tiktok or Instagram user. If we want to compete, creating content and its continued improvement, regardless of context, has to be second nature for us. It's something I constantly struggle with, myself.

With all that said, I am happy with the class outcomes. I've even learned a thing or two from the class. I'm proud of the students who recorded the video presentations below. Most of them were taken out of their comfort zones for this. I've also asked them to keep these videos up. These are things they can come back to, and possibly re-use at some point in the future. It is also my hope that these videos serve as reference points for succeeding classes as they try to do the same for themselves. I have a good feeling about this new course. Even if it's just one unit, I think it can be the thing that fills the gaps left by other major courses in the BAMS programme.

Neo-Marketing: The impact of multimedia marketing elements in increasing sales for small-scale resume writing business
by Noli Porcincula
Customers Satisfaction in Online Retailing
by Alexis Aisa Castro
How co-learning spaces/virtual classroom impacts students productivity
by Carm Lichelle Santos
Prototyping an Interactive Learning Module Using the DepEd Self-Learning Module
by Ana Marie Alferez
by Lucky Angelo Vengua
Coding Identities
by Al Christian Agngarayngay
Anonymity and Toxicity in Video Games
by Erik Noel Fruto
Maria Orosa: A game-based biography
by Paulyn Louise San Pedro
Enhancing the user experience in an art gallery exhibition with QR code
by Camille Encarnacion
Multimedia and the Environment
by Marion Dave Manio
Documentation of COVID-19 pandemic impacts on people diagnosed with mental illness: development of an interactive magazine
by Luis Manuel Torrejon
Leveraging omni-channel experience in promoting computer science and educational robotics
by Rosendy Duque
Filipino minors in social media: the trials and tribulations of the pursuit for relevance
by Mercedes Olavides


Life in an online university #4: Sympathy and Empathy (Part 1)

I am one of them.

I remember this being my mindset going into UP Open University. With the way the University of the Philippines is structured, there is a separation of faculty from the rest of the staff and the students. I tried to reject that separation early on. I did not want to be called sir or prof and my skin crawled whenever somebody did. At times, I wonder if it was imposter’s syndrome. But it doesn’t seem like it. I’ve always known who and what I was. I knew I could do the job. Maybe it was because of my father. After all, I came aboard just after the end of his second and last term as UPOU’s chancellor. Some of the staff, I've known since high school and even way earlier. Every single person working in the university knew my last name and everything attached to it. I wanted to distance myself from that baggage. Being known as the brat who got in just because he was the boss’s kid was far from desirable.

I entered UPOU as part of the Faculty of Information and Communication Studies in late 2007.

I was facing a little roadblock, though. In a previous blog post, I mentioned that I realized that Computer Science was not really my calling after all. In fact, I had just earned my Master’s degree in Environmental Science from UP Los Baños when I applied for a faculty position at UPOU. The hope was to be involved in their programmes in Environment and Natural Resources Management and R&D Management. I had hoped to stay away from their Computer Science and Information Systems programmes, but those were exactly where I was going to end up starting with, anyway. I was not fully aware of what happened, and I won’t lie. It was disappointing. But I needed the job. I also did not want to seem ungrateful for the opportunity. I had heard that there were people who really went out of their way to get me in. That was the first time I really felt wanted in a professional capacity by any company. Part of me wanted to prove to them that I was worth their effort. So, I dealt with my disappointment and took the job anyway. Besides, given some time, maybe I’d have the chance to work with other fields. And if it it didn’t work out, at least I’d have earned some experience to be more attractive to other employers. However, at that moment, I had a less than ideal reality that needed facing.

On the bright side, at some point, it occurred to me that my predicament could actually work in my favor. Rather than try to hide my shortcomings in Computer Science and risk suffering from Impostor’s Syndrome, or worse, get exposed by my students, I decided to be more upfront. First thing I did was embrace the facilitator vs teacher dichotomy, where UPOU faculty would rather choose to be the former. I was by no means an expert in the field, but I could help ensure that students will be able to learn what they needed to learn to make it through my courses. And by admitting it was likely that I was learning things the same time they were, I felt I was truly one of them. I just happened to be the guy writing numbers on the grade sheets. It wasn’t a perfect run by any stretch of the imagination. But I did well enough. I think I also had a generally good relationship with my students back then. I still keep in touch with a few of them in Facebook to this day. But most importantly, the experience would also shape how I approached online learning from that point on.

I still found myself in a similar predicament in my move to the Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies programme, not being formally trained to handle any of the courses in it's curriculum. Unlike with Computer Science, I had little to no relevant formal education to lean on. But the thing is, nobody was. Not really. Multimedia Studies was the first of its kind in the University of the Philippines system, and perhaps the entire country. Many of us had expertise in related fields, but all of us needed to frame our knowledge in the context of what BAMS is supposed to be about. But what I lacked in education, I made up for with enthusiasm and passion. I was a computer hardware enthusiast. I’ve been an avid gamer since I was a little kid back in the 1980s. I was also eager to improve my multimedia production skills.

Just now, I was going through old files, and I found the attachments I included when I applied in UPOU. Some of them were articles I wrote during my years with PinoyPC, an old community website for Filipino computer hardware enthusiasts. It would seem that I was already immersed in and writing about multimedia long before I started teaching. This may have meant that I had started saying my long goodbye to the field of environmental science. But at the same time, I felt that I had found my niche at UPOU which I could stay and thrive in for the rest of my career. I felt that most BAMS students back then were of the same standing, if not superior. Most of them were people looking into taking their careers to different directions. But there were also those already carrying tons of relevant experience, dwarfing my own, but have not put in the necessary time under the rigors of the academe I was the faculty in charge, but I was truly going to learn right alongside my own students. It was an exciting time.

To be continued...


Life in an online university #3: My main problem as an online student

I was going over discussion forums in the recent courses I had handled. They are typically sparse at UPOU. And what posts there are usually feels stiff. What I mean by that is posts almost always seem forced. It’s rare for them to be written in a conversational manner. It is as if, students’ frame of mind when posting is that it’s a written assignment or exam rather than them trying to talk to a classmate or a teacher. Anticipating a response to their post is more likely to be a cause for anxiety and dread rather than excitement. Sometimes I wonder why I bother. And yet, as if I was contradicting myself, I feel disappointment when I see colleagues do away with discussion forums in their own courses.

My last forums were particularly puzzling. Following some basic guidelines, students took turn posting video presentations and reviewing their peers’ presentations. I was hoping for a lively exchange of comments, and ideas amongst themselves. While there were good moments and diligently written posts, it was a generally formal and even cold affair. I get it to a certain extent. My guidelines pretty much made things seem like it should be treated as a written assignment, despite my efforts to encourage students not to treat it as such. What got to me was the impersonality of it all. Even the pleasantries felt canned. Sometimes, they don’t even address peers by name. I’m not necessarily faulting the students for this, but I do find it strange. Even in other social media platforms, warm and lively interactions do not happen often. I am in Facebook groups and Messenger chat groups populated by Gen-Xers and Boomers that see more activity in a single day than the UPOU-related groups that I am able to observe experience in weeks. It makes me believe that when compared to the other campuses of the University of the Philippines, for all information and communication technologies it wields, UPOU is a laggard when it comes to fostering strong and long-lasting bonds in its supposed community. And that is something I have dedicated much of my teaching career in addressing (something I am bound to write about at greater length in the future).

Lately, though, I had been looking more inward. I am actually only one of a good number of UPOU faculty who went on leave in recent years to earn their doctorate degrees. A bunch of them were privileged enough to do so abroad. Not that they did not face any difficulties, but with few to no exceptions, they had, or are still having the time of their lives. Circumstances did not allow me to enjoy the same privilege. I got pretty close, but none of my prospects panned out. However, an opportunity arose that would let me study in a British university, albeit in distance mode. With no other visible option and me not getting any younger, I took it with no hesitation. I almost didn’t get admitted either, mind you. But that was thankfully resolved and here I am right now at home, but a PhD student in Lancaster University. Now, why am I not having the time of my life?

I remember when I set foot in Lancaster University for the first time. I get that it was a Sunday afternoon and most of the students were on break, but boy did it look depressing. I was quite relieved and happy that things quickly turned around the following day. By the time I left, I finally felt like a real student.

My most fulfilling period as a PhD student so far was during my cohort’s residential. It’s a week-long period where we actually find ourselves in the physical campus in Lancaster. I’m not saying I was at my peak performance as a student during that time. But that was the time when I could really convince myself that I was a real graduate student, in the constant presence of peers and mentors. And I actually had fun. This residential comes along at least twice for a student. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic took away that second time. The university attempted to re-create that vibe online for us, down to the scheduling of activities. But I don’t think it worked that well. Being the person physically farthest from the campus, the time difference alone put me off. I couldn’t keep up in real-time. The sessions were recorded, thankfully. But watching recordings defeats the purpose of trying to recreate a residential schedule. I felt so detached from everyone else. And I wondered if there were others in my cohort who felt the same. Even among colleagues, it gets difficult. Being on study leave means being purposefully taken out of work-related matters. It was a huge relief especially at the beginning. However, when the bulk of my direct interpersonal interactions happen in the workplace, I can't help but feel left out and rendered irrelevant. I was practically begging to get back to work just a few months ago. Unfortunately, I am contractually bound from doing so, even if it was integral to my PhD studies. That got me frustrated and angry. It's strange relating those feelings now, academically stranded as I write these blogs instead of working on my PhD study proposal...

I know a little bit about feeling isolated. I've dealt with it most of my life.

So, it occurred to me. My biggest problem as an online student is the isolation – being halfway across the world from everyone else. I've talked about this before. The feeling of isolation is nothing new to me. But this feels particularly bad, made even worse by the pandemic. I don’t care that there’s Zoom, WhatsApp and whatnot. It’s not the same. I don’t know how much my superiors and colleagues understand that. Those fortunate enough to be in other physical campuses as students for any appreciable amount of time have the advantage of deeper immersion. They are able to expand their own personal, professional and academic networks and are more constantly able to nurture them. At best, that is awfully difficult to achieve online, at least for me. At worst, it’s impossible, at least without monumental effort and whatever that right virtual environment would be for us. Maybe I do have a small mind as some memes would tell me, but small talk is important to me as I can't solely focus on work or study for any extended period of time. But such things hardly prosper in online chats and groups predicated by academic and professional purposes. It might even be frowned upon in some. And all the while, I’m trying to downplay how other aspects of my life diverts my attention and energy that I need to work through the difficulties.

While a bit of solitude can be good for our sanity, too much of it messes with you head. Even the most introverted people need to step back into the crowd once in a while.

My personal issues as a student are things which I have to deal with on my own, for the most part. But what about my other side? This leads me back to the cold class and the others like it which I've handled over the years which I was talking about earlier. It makes me wonder just how do the my students regard their peers in an online classroom? Do they fully appreciate them as human beings they could interact with anytime, maybe even rely on in times of need? Or are they little more than names who matter little to them as they go about their own business trying to earn their degree. From our end, are we at UPOU truly capable of fostering connectedness that will not just counteract feelings of isolation, but also build a vibrant community for both learning and camaraderie? Should we as a space for learning sacrifice the chance for a more democratic environment where students can feel comfortable enough to freely speak their minds for the teacher in front of them and the classmates beside them and be themselves for the sake of order and hierarchy, or perhaps even convenience?

Then again, I still have to wonder as well. Does this actually matter to UPOU? Or do we have way too many other things to worry about? I honestly don't know. And not knowing is frustrating.


Life in an online university #2: the changing virtual landscape

It's tricky for me to compare my time in the Diploma in Computer Science to that of the Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Studies programme. The student demographic was different. I was also different. Also, while the curriculum and scheduling of DCS was already established, BAMS was still in a state of flux. What did remain constant was how I wanted to approach online teaching and learning. I wanted students to make the most of the time they had in class. I wanted them to be more participatory, rather than passively go through the contents of my courses. I wanted to see the makings of a real online community. It would be glorious…

Of course, things didn’t exactly go according to plan, but that is another story. But it was, again, a learning experience for me. It was a mix of mistakes of varying degrees, as well as successes, some of which were quite significant. But one thing I did my best to keep constant was my finger on the pulse of the growing student population in the BAMS program, and for that matter, the community at large. That by itself was not straightforward, either.

When I started out, half of the students in my classes were either of my age or older than me. I really enjoyed this period. As they got rarer, I enjoyed holding face to face sessions, as I truly learned from students (especially the older and more experienced ones) as much as they did from me. There would even be a few of them who I felt were more knowledgeable than I was with the topics in class, whom I made sure to refer or defer to. And at the end of the day, I had no issue going out and having a drink with them. I saw them as peers rather than students, after all. I know nobody can escape aging. But it wasn’t just about me getting older each year. Students in BAMS also seemed to get younger for each passing batch. True enough, by now, majority of undergraduate students in UPOU came straight from high school. It still shocks me whenever I recall seeing 15 and 16 year old kids in my class. We weren’t really meant to cater to such students at the beginning. Furthermore, UPOU somehow thought it was a good idea for its undergraduate programmes to shift from 16-week semestral to 12-week trimestral schedules. This change was huge (and something I will inevitably unload on at some point here). And throughout that time, emerging issues started engulfing the university. Mental health suddenly became important, and we were ill-equipped to deal with it. New rules were also being imposed. Measures such as anti-plagiarism and ethics, are necessary, but has required significant adjustments from everyone involved. I’m not even going to touch the myriad of technical issues that we had to face and solve (but I will later on). Looking back, it’s hard not to regard the whole thing as anything less than an upheaval. Finding a way to adapt was not optional at that point. And we're still at it.

On top of everything else, COVID-19 also brought tension to the UPOU community, especially during the early stages of the pandemic.

As if those were not enough, we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, bringing about what is perhaps the greatest global disruption of our lifetime. The Philippines has been subjected to harsh measures by a government that seems slow to learn and adapt from early mistakes and miscalculations. I was already on leave by the time COVID-19 hit. But I still get news from work and how my colleagues are doing. Also, to a fair extent, I remain in contact with some of our students and alumni, keeping my hand on their pulse, so to speak. And just as importantly, while I had (and still have) time off from teaching, I still found myself significantly affected by the pandemic as an online student in another university. At this point I wasn’t just trying to read from my students anymore. I was experiencing things first-hand right along with them.

With COVID-19 casting its dark shadow over us, it’s hard for me to predict what changes will come next. Will physical campuses revert to how they operated pre-2020? Or is what a government official called flexible learning now part of our education system permanently? I also wonder what additional burdens UPOU, being part of a state university, will be expected to carry as we move forward. Such questions loom over my reality as a denizen of the online classroom. And it is from this perspective that I write this blog in which I would be honored to have your company.


Life in an online university #1: Foreword

I just realized something. I rarely write about my experiences in an online university in detail, at least not outside the context of research or course content. So, I figured that this was as good a time as any to start.

My first foray into distance learning happened around 2000. I was a graduate student who had overestimated my aptitude and found myself struggling in the Diploma in Computer Science program at University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). Throughout my time as a student across three degree programs (and a fourth that’s currently on-going), I received a failing mark three times. And two of them happened in the same term in this Computer Science program. It was a sobering realization that perhaps computer programming and software development was not my path after all, but that is another story. Failing two courses in a tightly scheduled programme meant I had to somehow catch up. One of the things I needed to do was to cross-register to the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU), which was pretty new at the time. I enrolled in Computer Science G  - Management Information Systems (which is now CMSC 209). But again, this was back in 2000-2001. We registered over the counter. There was no online learning management system. We rarely used email. I don't even clearly recall if I already had a mobile phone at the time. What we had were our printed course packs and scheduled monthly face to face sessions for lectures and submitting requirements. Normally, there would hardly be any communication among teachers and peers in between sessions. This was how UPOU students typically did its business back in the day.

The venerable UPOU printed course modules. These were practically bibles for students even from other universities back in the day.

While relatively short, this experience with distance learning as a student had a significant impact over my mindset towards distance learning in the coming years. It gave me some confidence as I joined UPOU as a faculty member seven years later. Not only did I remain unfazed despite the fact that my entry coincided with the university’s complete shift to full online learning. I was looking forward to it. I felt I had the tech savvy. And just as importantly, I knew how it is to be a distance learner. Therefore, I strongly believed that I would have a better read of my class than those who have only taught, or as we would prefer to call it, facilitated a class in distance mode. It was an interesting ride, to say the least. Now, looking back at 12 years of teaching online, I do think I had some success with being more in-tune with the pulse of my classes. After all, I was one of them. But it wasn’t until I signed up in an online PhD programme that I became more aware of my weaknesses. And it is this current journey I am taking which is making me realize how much room I still have for improvement both as a student and as a teacher in an online environment.

Teacher at UP Open University/Student at Lancaster University.

My career at UPOU is far from over. If anything, the circumstance of my studying right now assures that (I won’t be able to leave even if I wanted to -- like I do half the time). But I feel that even at this stage, I have a lot of thoughts that I want to put into words. Yes, I have written research papers, but I am referring to the less empirical side of this thing called online learning. I would like to veer away from research and theory, spend less time trying to edit and vet myself. Seriously, I am tired of trying to incorporate research into everything I do at work. Instead, I would like to share anecdotes and opinions which, in their own way, might still provide some insight for those who are somewhat interested in it, but do not know enough to decide whether or not to commit yet. Or perhaps there are those who are already into it but are still a bit confused with how to go about their business, to whom I would like to assure that they are not alone. I already have three or so entries to this blog series in mind. I will likely go beyond that. How far, I don’t know yet. WE'll see. This is going to be an uneven series, as I will be writing off the cuff most of the time and will not likely put in too much effort editing. It will certainly be a fun and light departure from the rigors of academic writing. I can't promise to be fully coherent at all times, but I do hope you can join me in this little journey. Maybe you could also let me know what you think. It would also be great if I could learn from you as well.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


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.


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.




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.


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



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.



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?



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!

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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