The idea for this article came from doing a whole lot of nothing. I was running laps on social media like a hamster in a wheel and finding the usual culprits of self-promotion, ironic protests, and celebrity-adjacent minions with enough self-conceit to brand themselves as public figures. I was mining through a lot of nothing. My hamster high landed on an image of a young woman seated next to a table of papers meticulously fanned out. The message was clear: look at me, look at my many accomplishments.
This was hardly new. The internet is an excellent stage for our bravura performance. I went for a closer look. The curated display was of certificates from online courses and webinars she had attended during quarantine.
I have since felt exceedingly conscious of these things — or more accurately, that I have not attended any. In the last 100 days, I have indulged in a handful as a resource speaker but have not myself been a participant. I can claim no online certificate. I have accumulated zero.
And I am beginning to wonder, should I be optimizing?
Between March and May of this year, Coursera, one of the pioneers of massive open online courses (MOOCs), saw a seven-fold jump in its class rosters. Udacity, edX, and Khan Academy are also seeing big jolts to their enrollment. UP Open University is offering free bridging courses. De La Salle University is bringing its showmanship game and proving to be the model for local online courses. The democratization of learning — social inequity and class differentiation included — is the rare good news for our times.
I want to be clear that I am not dismissing online learning and credentialing platforms. Downplaying the inevitable is futile. Digital services are the future, and the future is here. Almost every aspect of the classroom is being reconsidered. The workplace desk is now also the place for the flag ceremony, break room, department meeting, and team-building. (READ: [OPINION] Futures on the line: Why learning through screens won’t work in the PH)
Whether that future is bright is less certain. An uncritical tolerance and acceptance of digital services are equally harmful. We could take a pause and reflect on why we glorify what, in the CliffsNotes version, boils down to the monetization of our waking hours.
I see the virtual colonization of productivity and efficiency. The pursuit of growth is not through a deep self-examination as human beings but through a shallow economic venture as market assets. Online courses, webinars, and certificates are the non-rivalrous goods that keep on giving.
The webinar is eroticized by so-called experts as a necessary and legitimate qualification. The certificate becomes the cult-favorite signal of self-improvement. In this economic downturn with job insecurity, these credentials are the competitive edge that necessitate winners and losers in the capitalistic marketplace.
No one can force you to participate in these things. We have the freedom to get the certificate and the freedom not to. But this pronouncement is not rooted in reality. We are not immune to the built-in performance and reward mechanisms of the internet. Our digital connectivity is highly and aggressively sensitive to likes, hearts, and retweets. And the pandemic has only accelerated this. The online reward system will soon overtake the offline one.
We also situate doing nothing within the pathology of doing something. Self-care, for instance, is no longer about deepening our connections to ourselves and to those who matter to us. It is no longer about reengaging with playfulness or silence. Self-care is now: what do I need to do so I can be more energized, more motivated, and more productive when I go back to school, work, or other responsibilities? Self-care is enshrined as an instrument of productivity.
And so, it is hard to believe that the viral accumulation of online courses and webinars is entirely, or even mostly, about wanting to “learn and grow”. For me, they are instead the digitization of rote learning, technical education, and career-specific skills. If our motive is profit and economic success, we would do well with these narrow tools. If our motive is nation-building, democracy, and empathy, then we need a recalibration of what it means to be capable citizens and how digital services can play a supporting role.
My concern is that the future is here. We are not so much adapting to the change as we are merely transferring the status quo to a different place. We are, as usual, optimizing our material value as assets of capitalism and patriarchy.
This is not the new normal. It is the old normal, in virtual space. – Rappler.com
Dr Ronald Del Castillo is a consultant on social and behavior change communication. He was professor of psychology, public health, and social policy at the University of the Philippines. The views here are his own.