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?
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...
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.
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.