Monday, May 19, 2008

eLearning and Telecommuting

Last Friday my staff and I drove up to Chicago to do a presentation for the Accountancy Department’s Masters in Tax program – a one-year Friday-Saturday program for professionals in the field. We were introducing them to Adobe Connect, in this case to be used for the group work the students do outside of their face-to-face sessions at the Illini Center. The presentation went reasonably well and I expect to see good uptake of Connect by this cohort of students.

Coincidentally, the day before the trip I had glanced through this piece on Learning Studios where there are tables and chairs arranged in pods, instead of the usual semi-circular rows that one sees in many Business School classrooms. The Masters in Tax program has something similar. Each team sat at it’s own pod. But unlike in the Educause piece, the seating was like a horeshoe, with one end of the table open, the end that faces the front of the room where the projection screens were. This arrangement makes sense to me and I was impressed by the set up. On occasion the students work ensemble with the instructor, in which case eyes face front and the seating enables that. But there is also a lot of group work and then the students face each other and converse among themselves without having to readjust their seating.

I will be curious to learn how effective the group work via Adobe Connect is. As was made clear to me during a lunch conversation before our presentation, the students in this program are extremely busy people. Apart from the instruction itself, the weekend program creates a benefit for the students in forcing them to commit that time to their learning. Something done online during the week has to compete with the other demands placed on these people. When we compare face-to-face with online, it ‘s not just the experience itself but also this time allocation effect that must be considered. But, of course, there is an argument that cuts the other way. Some of the students in the program are coming from as far away as Peoria, about a two hour drive one way when there isn’t much traffic. Meeting online is so much more convenient in light of such a commute.

With this experience fresh in mind I started to scratch my head after reading Paul Krugman’s latest, which argues that in Europe where they have smaller cars and drive less than in the U.S., they may have a better solution in place for the new world we live in, where gasoline prices are likely to continue to go higher and where for environmental rather than economy reasons it would be good to lower our reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, on the Frye Leadership Institute Alumni listserv there was an interesting discussion last week about reducing the carbon footprint attributable to IT activities on campus. There were a lot of interesting and clever ideas mentioned, such as Climate Savers Computing and the Virtual Computing Lab. But nobody talked about IT as a possible carbon saver via telecommuting. This thought didn’t occur to me till I had read the Krugman piece.

The way commuting works, those costs are typically incurred by the employee rather than the employer, especially in the absence of a COLA. Likewise, on the issue of carbon footprint, the employer typically doesn’t get credit if, for example, the employee drives a more fuel efficient vehicle. But in what I write in the rest of the post, I’m going to assume the savings can be internalized and that we’re interested in producing them, as long as they are real and not some fiction, so I won’t concern myself with how such an internalization would manifest.

Let me proceed by considering Blended Learning in the classroom and promoting a partial telecommuting approach in the workplace. In so doing I’d like to make several points:

1. There is much similarity between the two and we should go out of our way to emphasize that. Thus learning technologists who’ve got some experience in support of Blended Learning should be enlisted to help those on Campus who in the work context want to entertain a telecommuting approach.

2. Universities should take a leadership role in promoting telecommuting. It is something that we in Higher Ed can export to the society at large if we learn how to do it well. The green argument for telecommuting has been made elsewhere, but the uptake has not been great to date except in certain niche areas. There is a need to demonstrate it works more broadly.

3. In towns like Champaign, housing tends to more expensive in town, so many staff making more modest salaries live in the surrounding communities. The recent increases in energy costs hit these staff disproportionately. In a time where budgets are tight, telecommuting is a way to reward such staff where it counts – in the pocketbook.

4. There is learning that needs to happen both for the staff themselves and their supervisors as to whether telecommuting can be efficacious and what practices and technologies might make it more effective. This might be as simple as asking if, for example, there are several co-workers telecommuting in part with some days at the office and other days at home, whether it matters how much they overlap in the office and if one should strive to have them all there at some times or if the goal should be to keep the number at the office as uniform as possible.

5. Because of the previous point there likely should be a phased in approach to telecommuting with some pilots that are carefully evaluated. In other words, start with one day per week at home for a few employees. Work up to more days per week and more employees. Do the pilot with employees who are already doing some work from home, perhaps in the evenings.

6. Where there have been face to face programs for commuting students that have moved to a Blended learning or Fully Online approach, there likely is some relevant experience that would apply for telecommuting (and vice versa). Of particular interest is finding the right mix between synchronous and asynchronous communication, with the former likely better for keeping people on task and committed to the work (as with the Masters in Tax students) and the latter better for flexibility and archiving the work. Also of much interest is how much work should be done ensemble with all staff aware of what is going on versus having very small groups or individual efforts. Here there is a different trade off – making all aware of the activity versus coordinating when the work is being done.

7. There are also questions about the importance of certain technologies and matching them to the participants. For example, Adobe Connect allows users to have talking head video interaction via Webcams. Does the Webcam promote the work, or is an audio presence sufficient? One might be able to get much of the desired functionality with a combination of applications, for example Skye and Google Docs. Does a a single application matter or not?

8. There is a need to allow experiments of this sort enough time so participants can move down the learning curve, but also a need to recognize when “it’s not working” and allow them to call it quits when they’ve reached that point.

9. And it may be that some employees are ripe for this and others not. But I think mostly the question is whether the employees have already “bonded” and have a good working relationship with one another. I believe we know from experiences with eLearning that face to face is very helpful for making such bonds, but it may be less necessary to keep up the same frequency of face to face once the bonds have formed.

I’d like to think there’d be learning the other way too – from telecommuting to eLearning. At present those on Campus who are deeply knowledgeable about eLearning constitute a tiny fraction of the populace. And if the way one learns about eLearning is to have a program or set of programs that are Blended or fully online, then it is likely for the vast majority to persist in their ignorance because because a high threshold must be crossed to justify developing such a program. But telecommuting could become broadly popular – the energy cost and green issues are likely to be with us for quite some time. So it should be possible for the institution to become aware of what eLearning is about through that channel. We can’t get there, however, unless we try it.

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