Teaching in the Facebook era

A lot has certainly changed since I became a college freshman 22 years ago, and one of the developments that has certainly changed the way students spend their time is social media. It thus makes a lot of sense to try and channel the widespread use of social media into something productive from an educational standpoint, but that is easier said than done.

There have been nice outcomes from the existence of social media and the internet in general, at least based on my personal experience with students from my University back home. Social media seems to take down whatever barriers students perceive exist between them and their instructors, and some faculty have used this to their advantage by connecting and interacting with their students on social media, setting up forums and opening themselves to questions related to coursework. Since office hours are not maximized and followed in my University at home as much as they are here, this has been a great way of providing students with timely and targeted feedback.

However, as in anything else, there is a down side to the technology, especially when the relativity of what is construed as “responsible use of technology” comes into play. For example, unlike the United States, we do not have FERPA regulations, so instructors are pretty much left to their own judgment when it comes to the privacy of students and what is appropriate for social media. Sadly, this has resulted in actions that, if done here, would have been seriously unacceptable: an instructor expressing frustration over the quality of student work by posting an actual photo of answers on a test paper on Facebook; another instructor posting the names of students who received an A in the class on Twitter, without their consent; and another who posted a photo of the class list, where student names and numbers are visible, on Instagram. While some actions come from good intentions (the colleague who posted the names of top students wanted to recognize students’ accomplishments and motivate others to aim high), faculty should carefully discern what is appropriate for public consumption, especially in the absence of regulation.

I do believe in the potential of social media as a tool in higher education (although I have to confess that I still do not have a Facebook account), but there are conversations that will need to be started, at least in my University back home, as to how this potential could be maximized in a positive way. I still do not know how to start these conversations, but maybe in two years I can figure out how…

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On access to scholarly literature for all

One of the things that pleasantly surprised me when I came to Virginia Tech (and there are many!) is access to literature. The first day that I checked out a book for the library, I did a double-take when I saw the due date; in my University back home, students – undergraduate and graduate students alike – can only borrow a book for two weeks, and renew once. So the 6-month due date came as quite a shock, although as a faculty member I actually can borrow books for the duration of a semester. But the other thing that caught me by surprise was the number of books that I could borrow; once again, I couldn’t help but compare. I was used to students being able to borrow 5 books, faculty 25; so 150 books and 3 renewals was like heaven to me!

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. When I started navigating the library databases and accessing Google Scholar using my VT ID, it was like finding the door to Narnia. I have never been able to access so much literature; our library had limited subscriptions, and I have become used to seeing that you-do-not-have-access wall between me and full journal texts of most of the interesting studies that I find when doing research. When that changed, I felt like singing the hallelujah chorus.

It is for this reason that I found the concept of Open Access interesting. When PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola talked about the segregation of some Universities in terms of access to scholarly work, her words hit home and rang true, because I lived in that situation for years. It was difficult to bridge that need to engage in research and scholarly work as part of my role as a higher education faculty, and doing that work well with limited resources – financial and access to scholarly literature alike.

To be honest, I feel like the exorbitant costs and apparent inaccessibility of published scholarly work defeats the purpose of engaging in scholarly work to begin with. I believe that research work should be shared and disseminated as widely as possible, and the prevalent structure for accessing these articles prevents that from happening. It is therefore not surprising that when we look at University rankings around the world (not that I consider these as the be all and end all of everything), the institutions that are ranked higher are those that come from countries that can afford to provide their faculty and students with access to practically all the key, high impact journals in the fields and disciplines that the members of their community work in. For as long as the current model prevails, those institution names are not going to change.

It is interesting that I had to travel halfway across the world to gain access to material that are essentially a mouse click away. I certainly look forward to the time when scholarly work is more accessible to anyone, everywhere, and I do see the impact that Open Access, given the right model, can have on accessibility and wider dissemination of research results.

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Intellectual honesty and the quest for truth

A cursory Google search for the definition of research yields several statements that describe it as a “systematic investigation” that aims to discover and interpret facts, or revise “accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts.” My own interpretation of this endeavor, based on the meanings and definitions that have been taught to me and that I have encountered, characterizes research as a quest for truth.

As such, I have come to equate the conduct of research with honesty, in the same way that statements of truth are a natural consequence of the exercise of honesty. While I do realize that nothing and no one in this world is perfect, it is still disheartening to see statistics indicating the occurrence of ethical misconduct in research, because I feel that it defeats the purpose of research and undermines the efforts of everyone engaged in this endeavor.

In going over the case summaries in the ORI website, one name in particular caught my attention, because it looked culturally familiar to me. A former professor at Wayne State University in Detroit was found to have used falsified data in preparing five publications and three grant applications for which she served as main author. Specifically, the case involved the duplication, reuse, and false re-labeling of figures, and misrepresentation of these images as the output of different experiments.

The statement on professional ethics promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and shared during last week’s class included several statements that the case I recounted above sadly violate. Three statements in particular stood out to me: 1) that the “primary responsibility” of professors is “to seek and to state the truth as they see it;” 2) that professors “accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge;” and 3) that professors “practice intellectual honesty.”

As a consequence of this misconduct, a retraction of 5 publications in 4 journals, published between 2009 and 2015, was executed. In addition, the professor submitted to a voluntary exclusion agreement that included exclusion from contracting or sub-contracting with any agency, as well as serving in any advisory capacity to the US Public Health Service, among other stipulations, for a period of three years.

I tried to search for a feature recounting the circumstances that led to this particular case, along the same lines as the article on Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who was also found to have falsified data, but I could not find any. Whatever the circumstances may have been, however, I do feel that there is no reason good enough to excuse such conduct.

One of the things that I noticed and would like to know more about, though, is the accountabilities of the co-authors. All the consequences seem to like squarely on the shoulders of the main author, which, in a way, makes sense; but what role did the co-authors play in the case? Did they also have to face consequences?

As a faculty member of a mainly teaching University, I do not have a strong connection with the need to publish, because this culture has yet to be a strong defining force in our rank and promotion structure. Because of this, I find it difficult to relate to a professional situation that will push a professor to falsify data just to be able to publish, as recounted by Dr. Stapel. All that aside, however, I believe that when it comes to intellectual honesty and the quest for truth, there is no gray area; it is our academic duty as professors, educators, and researchers to present only that which is true – no matter how difficult it may be.

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To teach

Truth be told, I stumbled into teaching accidentally; a chance meeting with one of my former professors (who was getting ready to migrate to Australia at that time) led to an opportunity to take her place. Becoming a teacher was the one path I never thought I would take – but I am thankful about the way the stars seem to have crossed at just the right time, because I am more passionate about being an educator than I was about being an engineer.

However, since all this was unplanned, and everything happened so fast (I got a call at 9 in the morning one day saying that I was going to teach an Algebra class at 1:30 in the afternoon that very same day), I never really prepared myself to become a teacher. I did not have time to reflect upon what I was going to be, about what my mission and duty was. When I first set foot in the classroom to “teach,” I had a rather limited and myopic view of what I was there for: syllabus in hand, I basically presented what was in my hand on the board and hoped for the best.

A lot has happened since that first day, and thankfully so. The very fact that I am here doing what I am doing now says a lot. But the discussion on the duties of a faculty member, and reading the chapter To Teach in Donald Kennedy’s book Academic Duty, led me to think some more about what it really takes to teach, and to become a teacher. And one of the things that struck me the most in Kennedy’s treatise is where a teacher is able to give the most impact.

Many of the research efforts that I have encountered when I started in the engineering education program focused on the things that happen inside the classroom, or in the context of completing a course and teaching a class. While this is certainly very important, and while it is quite accurate that the classroom is the gateway for interaction between teachers and students, Kennedy makes a very important point that many teachers probably realize: what is perhaps the most important role of a teacher happens outside the classroom – making a difference in students’ lives.

Kennedy shares some insights provided by work done by Prof. Alexander Astin (which can also be found in Astin’s book, What Matters Most in College, also an interesting read). According to Astin’s work, what students value and appreciate the most while pursuing their college degrees is the opportunity to engage in “meaningful contact with thoughtful elders.” Students are more likely to remember a faculty member or two who have served as their role models, as their inspiration for how they will conduct themselves as they leave the four walls of the classroom and become productive members of society. The fact that they also taught the all-important principles, concepts, and mathematical formulae is just icing on the cake.

Reflecting on my own experience and the twists and turns in my own life, I found this unique combination that I would call both duty and opportunity – to make a difference in young lives – as the very core of my existence as a teacher. From this, all else will follow – how carefully I prepare my syllabus, how much I reflect about the interaction in my class today, and how much I use that reflection to inform how I will teach tomorrow.

My most treasured memories consist of students who have left the University but still continue to correspond and interact with me. Students who now choose to share their lives, successes, and tribulations with me – even though they no longer need to. Some of them have even given me the name “Mama” as a term of endearment. They make me feel that I am very much a part of their lives, and of who they have become. That, more than anything, drives me to move forward; it is why I have chosen, and continue to go down this path that is: to teach.

With the Class of 2013, BS Electrical Engineering, Ateneo de Davao University

With the Class of 2013, BS Electrical Engineering, Ateneo de Davao University

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Higher education: more than just a phase

Matthew Rascoff and Eric Johnson’s commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education that challenges a notion that college life – or, in my book, higher education in general – is somehow bound by a beginning (that first time that we step into the hallowed halls of our chosen alma mater) and an end (moving those tassels from right to left, and receiving that coveted diploma) struck a chord in me. I saw a lot of my own college experience and the journey that I took towards becoming a teacher reflected in the points that they made in their piece. They also made me think some more about one of the things that I care about: fostering student success and improving the undergraduate experience.

I was particularly able to resonate with the following statement: “If higher education is going to thrive in the century ahead, it’s time to think of college not as a life stage or a credential, but as a lifelong community for lifelong learners.” It is, however, difficult for students not to think about college as just this phase that one has to get through if they do not associate it with positive experiences. Educators in higher educational institutions, therefore, are challenged to create environments that allow students to construct knowledge and foster positive experiences, such that students will view graduation as the beginning of a fruitful relationship that will last a lifetime – instead of a way out.

What Rascoff and Johnson said rings true – college ought to be a community of learners, where everyone learns from each other – and that community should include its alumni. The sage-on-the-stage professor that no one can challenge or talk to is an image that is no longer considered the norm. And the idea that graduation should not necessarily mean leaving this community, but rather serves as an opportunity to establish an even stronger relationship and assist in the education and formation of a new generation of students, is exciting. The initiatives of several universities along this line – Stanford University, University of North Carolina, Harvard University, and Columbia University, among others – showcase what this lifelong relationship might look like: graduates having lifetime access to course work, and being asked to share their experiences in the “real world” with today’s students.

Learning, after all, never stops. So why should getting a college degree – or even a master’s or PhD – be considered an end? Rascoff and Johnson presented a way of looking at higher education that will potentially enrich the experience of every student, not just during college, but long after the last notes of Pomp and Circumstance are played.

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On similar beginnings

One of the things that struck me and stayed with me from last class’ discussion on the overview of higher education are similarities between how higher education began in the United States and in the Philippines, specifically in terms of access to higher education. The oldest University in the Philippines is the University of Santo Tomas (UST), founded in 1611 by then Archbishop of Manila Miguel de Benavides and run by the Dominicans. For more than two hundred years since its founding, UST remained as the only University serving an archipelago of 7,107 islands, which says a lot about how limited access to higher education was at the time.

Most institutions of higher education were established by Catholic religious orders and their purpose included the propagation of the Catholic faith. As a Spanish colony, access to these institutions were usually limited to European-born or children of Spaniards who have chosen to take up residence in the Philippines, and the mestizos – children of the union of Spaniards and native Filipinos. Only a select and chosen few native Filipinos – and usually only males who belong to the rich families – are given an opportunity to attend University back then. It was interesting to see how higher education in two lands separated by the vast Pacific shared similar elitist beginnings, dominated by white males, despite the fact that Caucasians are a minority in the Philippines. And it is amazing to see how far we have come since then!

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We exist because… : Mission Statements of HE institutions

Everything exists for a reason, and in the case of institutions of higher education, this reason drives how young people are prepared to be the future leaders and prime movers in their chosen disciplines. Institutions of higher education articulate the reason for their existence through their mission statements, and for this post I chose to share mission statements from institutions in my part of the world: universities from Asia.

The first mission statement is from the Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) in Davao City, the Philippines. It is a private, Catholic, non-profit Master’s University, and offers both basic (Pre-K through High School) and higher education programs. I actually studied at the Ateneo de Davao from Kindergarten through 6th grade, earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, and eventually taught in (and continue to be part of the roster of faculty of) its School of Engineering and Architecture. Needless to say, it is a University that is very much a part of me and is close to my heart.


The Ateneo de Davao excels in the formation of leaders
for the Philippine Church and society,
especially for Mindanao. It excels further in the promotion of the faith that does justice,
in cultural sensitivity and transformation,
and in inter-religious dialogue,
particularly with the Muslim and Lumad communities of Mindanao.
It promotes communities touched and transformed by the faith,
communities of peace and human well-being,
culturally resilient yet able to adapt to the modern world.
It promotes social justice, gender equality, good governance,
the creation of wealth and its equitable distribution.
It engages vigorously in environmental protection,
the preservation of bio-diversity, and
the promotion of renewable energy.
It leads in Philippine educational reform,
especially for the peoples of Southern Philippines.

This mission statement was drafted and approved in 2011, the year our current University President, Fr. Joel E. Tabora, S.J., was installed. As a Jesuit University, the mission incorporates key elements of an Ignatian philosophy and education, and focuses on being involved in the concerns and issues of the island of Mindanao (where the University is located) and the Philippines. At first glance, the Mission statement seems a bit lengthy and wordy; it is, however, in keeping with what the institution stands for and hopes to accomplish.

The second mission statement is from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. I sought this mission statement because NTU is a highly-ranked (13th globally) research university in our region that is known for its engineering programs; as an engineering educator in the Southern Philippines, NTU is an institution that we look up to and aspire to be.

Vision and Mission

A great global university founded on science and technology,
nurturing leaders through research and a broad education in diverse disciplines.

What struck me immediately when I found NTU’s mission statement was its brevity… having gone from viewing AdDU’s mission statement, this quick three-liner was surprising. I do believe, however, that this statement reflects what NTU strives to deliver (and which, I might add, they are able to do successfully).

Both mission statements indicate a focus on science, technology, and research, and in the formation of leaders. As a religious-affiliated University, however, AdDU’s mission statement explicitly includes and articulates matters of faith and culture as well; while NTU mentions broad education, it does not go into specifics as to what this broad education encompasses.

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Psyched about PFP!

I have never really maintained a blog before, but I am truly looking forward to being able to share thoughts, experiences, and what I learn about higher education, engineering education and the professoriate. To new beginnings!

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