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  • Online Uni Life #12: Looks different, but feels the same (Part 1)

Online Uni Life #12: Looks different, but feels the same (Part 1)

My hiatus from teaching coincided with the influx of a new generation of undergraduate students at UPOU. They were among the first products of the Philippines’s recently established K-12 program. Many of them were also those who passed the University of the Philippines College Admission Test (UPCAT) who specifically chose to study online under UPOU’s BAMS programme. It also finally became definitive that, at least in the case of our undergraduate programmes, adult working students were no longer the typical UPOU student. This is a turning point which is likely going to be permanent. I handled one class of these freshmen and then went on study leave. And while I only caught a glimpse of this shift in the student population, the changes brought about by this shift were apparent.

I’m still not finished with my PhD (a sore issue), but I have gradually re-immersed myself into the fray, teaching at a limited capacity, preparing for my eventual return to full active service. By now, another shift had taken place. The COVID-19 pandemic had brought about major disruptions, whose effects I think will continue to be felt in the foreseeable future.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with this academic year’s freshmen. I thought this was great timing, as my formal return will coincide with having generally the same set of students in the courses I normally handle in the BAMS programme. The familiarity I gain now will definitely make things a little easier for me when I deal with them again later. Get my eventual culture shock over with now. And yes, there was a bit of shock. But processing the experience has been more complex than I anticipated.

These students — mostly teenagers — aren’t the kind that I was used to. And it doesn’t help that I am now dealing with the widest age gap I’ve ever experienced in a UPOU classroom where I’m the old one. For the first time in my teaching career, it doesn’t feel like I’m the most tech-literate person in the (online) room anymore. They had to teach me how to work with Discord. They talk about games I don’t play and apps I’ve never heard of. When I share a game I play, I’d be lucky to see two people acknowledge that they knew what I was talking about.

The thing that impresses me though is the manner of which many of these students present themselves. I’ll try to explain. Most people born in the 21st century never really knew a world without social media. Unlike us Gen-X’ers, the older millenials, and of course, the baby boomers, social media quickly became an integral part of the lives of Gen-Z’ers. Us older people saw it as little more than a plaything first and then grew into it.. And I think this is the root of the differences I noticed. For these kids, entering that world was a matter of necessity from the start.

My students from, say, 5-10 years ago, while already immersed in social media platforms, were generally there as consumers of content. Working students had fairly conventional jobs. Very few took independent content creation seriously. Hell, I didn’t take it too seriously either. By the time I went on hiatus, I had long since amassed enough gear and skills to start a career as a content creator. But I still didn’t take it seriously enough to believe that it’s something worthwhile enough to do on top of my day job, let alone to be a new career. I didn’t have the necessary level of commitment for the grind needed to hone this craft and build a following.

Our college students today are a different breed. Maybe those two years of senior high school contributed to that. But I think it’s for the most part because of the physical and virtual environments they grew up in, which allowed for, if not outright influenced their current aspirations. These kids kept showing me digital artwork they did either in school or just for fun. Some of them earn money off their work already. Same thing when it came to photography. Even in instances where I see a student still have a long way to go in order to be really good, they take the digital world and the field of content creation seriously. And there is an air of either confidence or a matter-of-fact mentality over some of them. Even the few older students I had were a little intimidated. And that’s something I respect, and to some extent even am envious of.

With all of the above said, I find it interesting to see that a lot of things remain the same.

Years of physical isolation and being more dependent on online technology for communication has wreaked havoc with our psyche. And yet, while many have definitely welcomed the prospect of a higher level of interactivity with and accessibility to a teacher which they will not likely experience again with someone other than me (seriously, I outdid myself this time and doubt I can do it again), I still see the same symptoms that plagued students in the past — difficulties following the flow of the course, regardless of the format, constantly missing important messages and instructions, hesitation towards communicating with me, leading to misunderstandings and unnecessary struggles on their part. From the outside looking in, I had presumed that I will have significantly less difficulty having meaningful interactions with these new students. Based on what I have experienced so far, it would seem like I was wrong.

Discord. My students’ weapon of choice. But not all of them, as I would realize. I myself have mixed feelings over it.

These new technologies and platforms help, but only to a certain extent. They can empower users. But they can’t be expected to actually build that empowerment, at least not more so than anything I’ve tried in the past. Passiveness and disengagement are still big issues and technological advancement doesn’t seem to do as much as we would want in solving them. Ultimately, it still comes down to the human factor. It doesn’t matter how advanced or sophisticated a setup is if people won’t use it.

So, should the focus be on the people — the students and the teachers and how they should go about the business of learning? I really wish I could just say yes without reservation.

[To be continued]

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