The shape of things to come

By Clement C. Camposano, PhD

(The author currently serves as the 11th Chancellor of University of the Philippines (UP) Visayas. This was first published in the June-July 2021 issue of The ASEAN magazine)

Much has been made of the “educational promises of the digital” (Schulte, 2019), the discourse obviously driven by the pervasive rise of the internet and the technologies that have developed around it. Others, however, have called for caution, taking a more critical stance towards “[a] dominant orthodoxy within the education community that Internet connectivity is somehow leading to new and improved forms of education” (Selwyn, 2010). The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly undermined the point of this debate. The internet and digital media have become indispensable for ensuring the continuity of teaching and learning, even as the massive shift to online classes has also forced schools to deal with the unintended consequences of technology use.

Digital Technologies and Platforms are More than Communication Tools

The lesson of the past year is clear. Social media platforms, learning management systems, and synchronous communication technologies should not be viewed as mere tools for delivering predetermined content. A lot of attention must be paid to the kind of challenges these technologies present to users given the “new sets of communicative contexts and relationships” they help create, according to Mills and Morton (2013). Those who have studied the cultural consequences of the internet and its associated technologies have, for some time now, warned against reducing these “to some kind of communicative instrumentalism or indeed to any other kind of instrumentalism” (Miller, 2010; see also Farnham and Churchill, 2011; Boyd, 2014; Kozinets, 2015; and Caliandro, 2017).

Others like Selwyn (2010) have warned about “the exclusionary potentials of networked learning” and its tendency to perpetuate and amplify existing social inequalities. Miller (2010a) has pointed to the multifaceted nature of Facebook. Simply put, it is not one kind of technology for engaging others in a particular way as “people seem to do all sorts of things with it.” A widely referenced study on networked teens also described how social networking site fields could be unexpectedly repurposed, and “[that] the context of a particular site is not determined by the technical features of that site but, rather, by the interplay between [users] and the site” (Boyd, 2014).


Mutual Shaping of Technologies and Users

The mutual shaping of technology and user has been asserted by Kozinets (2015) who argued that, “[with] our ideas and actions, we choose technologies, we adapt them, and we shape them, just as technologies alter our practices, behaviours, lifestyles and ways of being.” This coheres with the broad insight of Miller (2010b) that the things we make— obviously, that includes technology— do also make us.

Educational institutions need to understand that they cannot have full control of the technologies that will be used, nor of the consequences of such use (Kozinets, 2015). Indeed, it is true that while we use technology, we are, in an important sense, also being used by technology and what is emerging from this dialectic we are only beginning to understand and may not be able to fully anticipate. Nonetheless, while we are without quick and easy answers, certain guideposts can be discerned that will help institutions navigate the way forward.


Opportunities and Challenges of Online Learning

The mandated shift to online classes has accelerated the deployment of digital technologies, presenting schools with a range of opportunities to transform the way they operate.

Technology-driven dreams of online, flexible, or blended programs transcending the physical space of campuses will be matched by more determined push towards quality assurance to make programs and services comparable across jurisdictions. Universities, banking on digital connectivity, will likely focus on broader education markets with an eye towards internationalisation.

The challenges are certainly complex. As digital technologies restructure communication by privileging certain features of human interaction and obscuring others (Markham, 2005), we can expect significant resistance to online classes. The reliance on visual cues and immediate feedback in traditional classrooms will have to be unlearned, particularly as online classes feature asynchronous settings. Teachers (and students) deeply invested in notions of teaching (and learning) defined by face-to-face engagement will not be inclined to support the redesign of courses and programs around mediated interaction.

For schools, investments in accessible technology should be complemented by programs aimed at systematically shifting the way teachers think about teaching. Teachers need to have greater faith in their students, that the latter are not mere lumps of potential awaiting teachers’ directive intervention but can assume greater responsibility for their learning. Students, for their part, need to become independent learners—indeed, lifelong, adaptable learners able to thrive in an information-rich, uncertain future.

The notion of teaching as a directive process serves as a rigid frame keeping teachers from reimagining teaching despite the possibilities highlighted by the shift to online classes. Here, the question is not how they might learn to teach differently with the available technology, but how they might carry on teaching the way they have always taught without face-to-face engagement. Teaching needs to be reimagined as a process where teachers are no longer purveyors of wisdom but facilitators of learning (see Biesta, 2015).

The following reflection (translated from Filipino), posted by a Manila-based high school teacher on his Facebook page, illustrates how pedagogical challenges are being framed by some teachers in the transition to online classes:

“How do we teach literature in the time of the pandemic? There will be no dialogue. But according to Stephen Bonnycastle, dialogue is important in the exploration of literature. Students are made to speak, and each idea is questioned and questions from everyone are answered. Aside from this, how can literature be taught that does not drive students to extreme boredom? If the teacher introduces literary terms to students and merely feeds them the ‘correct’ reading of a work, how can literature be kept alive? How do we convey the flavour of words, of doubts, and of opinions? How can children be encouraged to read? There are many questions. Nothing is certain.”

To address these concerns, it is important for educational institutions to go beyond the “’new managerial’ concerns of efficiency, modernization and rationalization” (Selwyn, 2010) in their deployment of digital technologies in order to focus on the dynamics of technology use. This will allow institutions to be attentive to, and perhaps explore the possibilities of, “the surplus communicative economy” of digital technology observed by Miller (2010a), as well as the different ways this technology is forcibly reshaping human interaction within educative processes.


Inequality and Exclusion

As educational institutions look to avail of the current and future potentials of internet based education, there is an urgent need to (re)introduce issues of inequality and exclusion into the conversation. After all, education, even in the West, has not been the great equalizer, according to Reay (2004), and the increasing reliance on digital technology will most likely deepen the problem of inequality. It is one thing to think of change in an abstract way and quite another to be caught up in it and grapple with its unintended consequences.

How to make digitally mediated or internet based education less unequal should be part of the strategic direction for both schools and governments. Even where connectivity is assured by good infrastructure, we should not ignore “the exclusionary potentials of networked learning,” according to Selwyn (2010). Inequalities will remain and these can range “from basic abilities to self-include oneself into networks, to subsequent abilities to benefit from these connections once they are established.”

A recent World Economic Forum survey (2020) found strong evidence of “accelerated and permanent digital transformation” among the youth across ASEAN, with some 64 per cent of full-time students surveyed reporting more active use of online education tools. Moreover, 70 per cent of these full-time students believe that their increased use of online education will last beyond the pandemic—in stark contrast to the findings of a 2019 survey where 52 per cent of youth respondents never used online education.

The same 2020 survey, however, found that 69 per cent of respondents experienced difficulty in working or studying remotely, with seven per cent finding it impossible to do either. Of these respondents, Filipino (78 per cent) and Thai (76 per cent) students reported experiencing the most difficulty. According to the survey, the results suggest that “those with below college education and those living outside capital cities, were far more likely to face difficulties…” As might be expected, aside from lack of digital skills, other constraints include poor internet quality, high internet costs, household distractions, and lack of motivation.


Importance of Local Context

The promise of online learning should not also obscure the importance of “local” contexts in the framing of learning processes and practices. Early assumptions about a “separated out ‘virtual domain’” have proved untenable (Miller, 2013; see also Boyd, 2014). It is erroneous to see technology-based education as context free, abstracted from “local contexts such as the school, university, home and/or workplace and, it follows, the social interests, relationships and restrictions that are associated with them” (Selwyn, 2010).

Now is the time to understand the complexities and complications of internet based education as entire educational systems are forced to navigate the transition to online classes. Aside from gaps in digital skills and digital infrastructure, and how these articulate with enduring structural inequalities in particular social contexts, educational and political leaders in the region are well advised to pay attention to complex pedagogical issues brought about by technology use.

Investments in technology, connectivity, and curriculum redesign are crucial. But just as hardware needs appropriate software to actually work, well-funded programmes that help teachers and students reimagine teaching and learning are also necessary.



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