Opening UP for the University of the Future: A Student’s Perspective

by Wilzen Bermoy

Nobody knows precisely what the future lies for any academic institution around the world. One can only infer based on past and present pieces of information. Much like in 1967, nobody knew that what was once a school-on-the-air program or Paaralang Panghimpapawid, would one day become the fons et origo of the nation’s pioneer, the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU).

In his book Dark Academia: How Universities Die, Peter Fleming contemplates that “it’s tempting to think that only today does the modern university face a true crisis, particularly with the full ramifications of the 2020 pandemic now beginning to dawn.” Presently, it is an understatement to say that the UPOU is at the forefront of this so-called emergency education. In fact, at the start of the pandemic, members of the UPOU faculty have been the resource persons for various webinars on distance education and online teaching and learning, such as the UPOU PLDT Infoteach Outreach Program and the UPOU-DICT Enabling Teachers on Remote Teaching and Learning in the Time of Pandemic, which even received a global recognition. Despite the prevalent connectivity issues and unavailability of devices, the majority of universities and educational institutions have abruptly transitioned to remote learning, which is a modality that has remained unpopular to many. This move reinforces how adaptive and agile online/distance learning is. In the words of UP President Danilo Concepcion, “Distance learning is the future of education.”

Since the pandemic is far from over, it is crucial, albeit inevitable, to reflect on the qualities that make UPOU the University of the Future (UoF) so that other institutions of higher learning can follow suit. After all, former UPOU Chancellor and Professor Emeritus Grace Alfonso once said that the culture of sharing would be a “way of life.” Open and distance e-learning (ODeL) is now gradually becoming that way of life, not only for those at UPOU but also for those who had to continue learning in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in right now.

As one of its continuing students, I looked back to UPOU’s history in order for me to better understand how this UoF navigates the murky present in the hopes of a better future for Philippine education.

Future-Proof Education System

The economic disruptors that emerged due to the rapid development of the world’s information and communication technologies pose a great challenge for any educational institution. How could educators of today teach their students for problems that have yet to be solved? Such question made me rewatch and listen to what the leaders of UPOU had to say about the University and its role in shaping the future of learning for every Filipino. 

Indeed, now is the time of Education 5.0, described by former Chancellor Alfonso as the fifth generation of the education system where “technology-mediated and technology-enhanced lifelong learning” will be the mainstream. Thus, the first of the three important concepts that a university of the future pushes for is future-proof degree programs. To achieve this, the whole educational system has to undergo future-proofing as well. Incumbent UPOU Chancellor Melinda dela Peña Bandalaria asserted that the hallmark of the university of the future is a future-proof education system. 

Just like on 23 February 1995, the UP Board of Regents was convinced that the future of UP education is open and distance e-learning and approved the resolution establishing UPOU as an autonomous, fifth constituent member of the UP System. According to UP President Concepcion, his predecessor, President Aldredo Pascual, said years ago that “creating UPOU was one of the best decisions the Board of Regents has ever made in the last decades.”

Like any drastic institutional changes, not everyone in our society would welcome this ODeL paradigm shift with arms wide open. Yet, undeniably, the delivery of UPOU courses had felt the least forms of disruption brought by the coronavirus pandemic compared with their residential counterparts. No wonder UPOU is acknowledged as the Cybercampus of the UP System.

By definition, future-proof degrees are meant to facilitate career shifts. During this pandemic, many learners were displaced. One way to address this, UPOU has continuously offered online learning opportunities via its Massive Open and Distance eLearning (MODeL) platform. If indeed 10 or 25 years from now most of UP General Education (GE) courses will be delivered via UPOU’s system, the late former Chancellor and Professor Emeritus Felix Librero, envisioned that “what will be left in these specialized departments will be research and laboratories because everything that we can offer through online means we will.”

Future-Ready Leaders for the Philippines

The second important concept related to the university of the future is future-ready leadership. UPOU has instilled leadership qualities to its students knowing fully well that leaders are not born, but made. As Chancellor Bandalaria noted, the leaders of tomorrow would spring from the future-proof education who would then shape the industries by maximizing the benefits of open science-based knowledge creation and generation function.

Internally, UPOU in itself has undergone reorganization, not just once but twice. The first reorganization proposal was approved on 18 December 1998, while the second proposal was approved on 25 September 2003. Both moments of reorganization highlight the commitment of the University to lead by example, considering the expansion of its academic and administrative functions.

To date, UPOU has achieved its goal of becoming the Center of Excellence in open learning and distance education, including eLearning. More importantly, this time of pandemic has shown how UPOU faculty, students, and alumni willingly and untiringly share their know-how in distance education to various institutions all in the name of service, as in the programs of the Ugnayan ng Pahinungód. Student leaders are active in as much as the faculty members are in the areas of research and community extension.

Education with a Conscience

I believe we all need to consider what Professor Emeritus Alfonso noted that the university of the future must be people-oriented and open. Similarly, the first Chancellor of UPOU , Dr. Ma. Cristina D. Padolina, remarked that with the power of technology at present, “we should be able to develop programs that would serve the learners” as we work “with universities all over the world” in order to enrich UPOU as a whole.

The learners that UPOU is serving are those that are capable of using technology in the learning process. Still, there exists the so-called digital divide, which is a social problem that has been more visible this pandemic. Programs like the UPOU Kaagapay+ aim to help students who need support, including but not limited to receiving desktop computers or laptops and Internet connectivity and psychosocial services. These students are those who are experiencing depression and anxiety, not to mention the burden of negative stress due to problems brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Open UP next?

Former UP President and National Scientist Dr. Emil Q. Javier noted that it is incumbent that [the University of the Future] must continuously keep abreast of the new developments in science and technology in order to know which ones to “apply to our own circumstances.” What I got from Dr. Javier’s statement is that the university of the future should be on a par with global standards while it proactively nurtures its homegrown scholars and practitioners in order to produce knowledge and technologies that solve local problems and sustain people’s needs.

In an educational landscape where rankings are ubiquitous, if not sought after, Adam R. Nelson asks: “Do they reveal anything essential about the core mission, or values, of the university, or do they merely construct, then reify, a marketable category: The Global University?” It is consoling to say that aside from honor and excellence, the UPOU has also embraced values such as equity, openness and sharing, flexibility, agility, and sustainability. In other words, what is world ranking without sensibility to local happenings? This pandemic has tested UPOU’s ability to be flexible and agile as it opens its doors to more learners and shares its resources with other higher education institutions (HEIs). 

It is worth noting that, so far, UPOU has remained as true to its core values as it is to its mandate. Its Cyber Isko and Iska, myself included, are all looking forward and opening up for whatever learning opportunities to come our way. 

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