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WFH and Remote Learning: Paradigm Busters or Pandemic Reveal?

Since the COVID-19 outbreak and the rapid pivot required in both these arenas to more virtual ways of working and learning, we've seen the inevitable paradigm alerts raised. Along with the anticipated calls for concern or of despair, there have also been some surprising "Eureka's." Yes, people can work and learn from home! While the responses are not entirely unexpected, the truth is these paradigms have been shifting for quite some time now.

Working from home: A paradigm already in transition

The recent news from CEO Jack Dorsey that Twitter will allow its employees to work from home "forever" caused quite a stir. With more than 5,000 employees around the globe, Twitter, as have other tech and knowledge-related industries, has been transitioning to a more remote workforce over time. Perhaps it was the magnanimity of the announcement that created such excitement. The same trend, working from home, either full-time, or flex-time, is represented by an increase of 173% of people working from home over the past decade, according to the Global Workplace Analytics analysis. Such a thing was in the works, and to many of those already working in a remote environment, Dorsey's announcement suggests a surfacing of the inevitable.

I'm one of those 24% who represent those who work remotely at least once a month and are more likely to be happy and productive. My own work-from-home journey began in the early aughts, and I've never looked back.

In the early days, we depended mainly on phone, or WebEx and dial-in, and PowerPoint for the majority of our online communications. Oh, yes, and Skype. We formed close bonds over the work we did, during the course of problem solving, and unless you were client facing, may never meet colleagues in person until an annual company gathering.

The toolset expanded and the model evolved; working from home became increasingly efficient. Companies can look at reducing overhead and their carbon footprint. They can see increased productivity.

Today companies are making the shift out of necessity, and more people are putting thought into means of addressing team building, at-home distractions, and work-life balance in this reconfigured lifestyle. Whether it's Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts, or any other chat or meeting tool, remote workers have options to maintain both intense focus on the tasks at hand and to reach out to co-workers for support.

Again, for certain industries, this was the direction in which we were headed prior to the pandemic. The crisis has moved many companies to a place further along the timeline than they expected to be at this point in time, whether it's moving beyond flex-time or extending the stay-at-home option beyond COVID.

CNBC recently interviewed Morgan Stanley's Chief U.S. Economist Ellen Zentner, noting that the current layoffs are "affecting industries that should be adaptable to work-from-home arrangements." Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 56% of the workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work. Her best estimate is that "25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021."

Working-from-home is a pandemic reveal, not a paradigm buster.

Remote learning: The revolution has begun, and it's not meant to be televised

Like the workplace, campuses had no choice but to close their doors. Once they had done so, instructors, many of who had previously not been engaged in online learning quickly did what they could to finish the spring 2020 semester, to varying results.

And despite John Kransinki's best efforts to put a positive spin on all things post-COVID, there's been a great deal of negative press on the efforts of teachers in all of K-16 to implement remote learning on the spot. And that's an unfortunate outcome. For the sake of scope, let's stick with higher ed for this discussion.

On April 24, history professor Jonathan Zimmerman published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Video Kills the Teaching Star," in which he bemoans the loss of charisma when transitioning to a virtual format, comparing the current state of virtual, or remote, learning to the televised distance learning courses of the 1960's.

Herein lies the rub. Because of the speed of response required, many classes may indeed have felt like a poorly televised version of an instructor's face-to-face session. But this is both a misrepresentation of online learning and an insult to the efforts of the instructors making an effort to fill a gap brought on by a pandemic in many instances without an infrastructure in place for doing so.

Schools are going to need to decide whether they will return to entirely virtual formats in the fall, attempting to replicate whatever the classroom experience was, or really leverage the online medium for the pedagogical benefits it was meant to provide. Will they flip the classroom, or will they flip students out further with more talking heads?

Assign the talking heads for homework. But "chunk them up" into smaller pieces because they are probably too long. Then assign a challenging task based on that lecture or a reading. Use the instructor's time to field questions and unravel the challenge.

Online teaching requires skillful preparation and familiarity with the available toolset. In the best case scenario, quality online courses are developed by instructional designers, graphic designers, and software developers working in partnership with university instructors who serve as subject matter experts for the content on which the course is based. This team creates a learning experience that ensures complete student engagement through a variety of learning activities and modalities. This instructor may or may not be the same person to deliver the course if there is a synchronous component associated with it.

There are schools devoted entirely to online learning (SNHU, Penn State World Campus, Arizona State University,Western Governor's University); there are those who have created entire degree programs that are delivered online (Georgia Tech, University of Florida, UMass Lowell). But, of course, they were not created overnight as the result of a pandemic. They were created over time in response to other crises, such as affordable access to quality education by broader audiences.

So, the question isn't really whether online learning works or not, or whether online learning is a reasonable alternative to brick and mortar; it's how can we best leverage online learning as part of a larger solution to start classes back up in the fall? How can we leverage the lessons learned by the best-in-class programs that are already in place to implement engaging, student-centric programs? How can we prepare for another wave? How about collaborating?

The real lesson learned here is that online learning should be a part of the solution for all universities moving forward. Not only is it good pedagogy, despite the poor ratings the emergency implementation might have us believe. It's going to be a part of a safety plan moving forward.

Had more of the infrastructure for that been in place, the transition this spring may have been less painful.

This is the pandemic reveal: As is the case with WFH, this is not exactly a paradigm shift as much as a wake-up call. The pandemic has taught us that as a system we are behind the learning curve, and we will be working over the summer to catch up.

Both the widespread and longer lasting implementation of working-from-home and a more integrated and blended approach to online learning in higher ed are opportunities the pandemic has revealed for us to move forward in these trying times. Although the changes are significant for some organizations and expectations will be adjusted for many students, there are precedents and very solid foundations on which to create a revised vision of what working and learning look like from the inside out.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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