In conversations with colleagues across higher ed who are leading campus online learning teams, I commonly hear about the following challenges:
- Post-COVID, online learning is snowballing — and we need to build up our internal institutional capacities if we are going to meet this demand.
- Building a deep enough bench on the campus online learning team is challenging, as there is lots of competition for learning design and project management talent.
The mismatch between the demand for institutional online learning capacity (high) and the supply of campus people who can do this work (low) has pushed many schools to sign agreements with online program management companies. OPMs may involve high revenue shares and long-term contracts. Still, they address scarcities in start-up capital and campus people resources and allow schools to move quickly in developing and launching online programs.
I don’t have all that many answers to the challenges of start-up money for new online programs, besides pointing out that OPM capital is very expensive.
What I can offer are some thoughts — or one big thought — of how schools might address the challenge of building internal online capacity.
The answer: make campus online learning teams permanently remote.
Here are nine reasons why.
No. 1: Remote Work Mirrors Online Teaching and Learning
The first and best reason why campus online learning teams should be remote has everything to do with the nature of the work — online learning and remote work pair beautifully. The same philosophy that drives high-quality online courses — presence and careful design — are equally applicable to remote work. Remote teams need to grapple with issues of community, collaboration, motivation and productivity. These are the same challenges faced in online courses and programs. The same tools and platforms that we use for online teaching are also used for remote work. By working in the way that students learn and professors teach, remote online learning teams are forced to continuously improve their practices.
No. 2: Talent Acquisition
Recruiting a team of talented, experienced and trained learning professionals is both difficult and time-consuming. Imagine for a minute that your talent pool of nonfaculty educators for your online learning team is not limited to those professionals able to move to where your campus is located. No more need to worry about trailing partners, taking kids out of school or moving away from an aging parent. Wouldn’t that increase your supply of talented applicants? Why limit the positions to an online learning team to only people who can relocate themselves and their family within commuting distance of your university?
No. 3: Talent Retention
Universities tend to spend lots of effort on recruitment and very little energy on retention. Why is this? Isn’t it better and cheaper to keep the great people you already have, rather than finding new great people? I’m not convinced that everyone who is excellent at their job would also choose to live where the school is located. People have all sorts of location preferences. Partners also move jobs, and that change often forces the best people to leave as well. By disconnecting the job from the place, colleges and universities might find that turnover also decreases. Want to keep your best people? Let them live wherever they want.
No. 4: Team Diversity
The best teams are diverse teams. In distance education, our online learning teams should ideally look like our online learning students. Diverse teams can help avoid blind spots that can degrade the quality of learning for many students. Many schools struggle, however, to build diverse online learning teams. (A situation not limited to the world of online learning.) A remote-first policy for online learning teams will encourage a greater diversity of applicants.
No. 5: Remote as a Strategy for Faculty Development
Teaching online is hard. Like most things, practice helps. Working with a distributed team to develop an online course can provide opportunities for practice. Learning designers can model a range of online best practices. Effective synchronous learning techniques mirror good practices for online meetings. The collaborative tools used for course development can translate into collaborative tools for student group projects. Communication can be moved out of email and into the platforms that are also leveraged for teaching and learning.
No. 6: Leading the Evolution of Campus Workplace Cultural Norms
This piece is an argument for online learning units to be designed as remote teams. Is the campus online learning team the only unit that would benefit from working remotely? Doubtful. Many roles in higher ed can be performed without coming to campus every day. Forward-looking academic leaders will think about online activities as levers for institutional cultural change. Online learning teams may be less beholden than other campus units to the traditional way of getting things done. Online learning teams need to move quickly and are almost always working with a scarcity of resources. If permanent remote work can be demonstrated to function for online learning teams, perhaps other campus units will follow behind.
No. 7: An Office Space Money Saver
The worst workplace trend to hit higher ed — and maybe every other industry — over the past 20 years has been the shift from private to open offices. Despite the rhetoric around “collaboration,” the real reason that schools moved to open offices is money. You can cram lots more people into an open office. Space is expensive and scarce. Open offices are a solution. A remote work setup eliminates the need for private offices and makes open offices make sense. Members of a remote learning team will still sometimes come to campus. When on campus, the last thing a mostly remote employee wants to do is sit in a private office. They want to interact, not engage in heads-down concentrated work. The less expensive campus open office plan works well for a mostly remote online learning team.
No. 8: Time Shifting for Student and Instructor Support
While it is true that most online students live relatively close to the school they attend, not all do. Start an online program and you will have students from all over. Moreover, your online students are likely to engage in their coursework at night and on weekends. These times are precisely the time when a traditional campus-based online staff is not around. Remote teams find it easier to time shift. First, you are likely to get more time zone coverage. More importantly, remote teams tend to time shift their days and weeks. It is easier to work at night or on the weekend if you are not trying to be in the office (on campus) from 8 to 5. Having the online learning team more available to students and instructors is a good result.
No. 9: The Option for OPM Avoidance
For the record, I have nothing against OPMs. I work with OPMs. I like the people at OPMs. In some cases, I think it makes perfect sense for a school to work with an OPM. As long as the school goes into the relationship understanding that accountability and leadership can’t be outsourced and that the OPM relationship builds rather than degrades internal core teaching and learning capacities, I’m good with OPMs. But no school should feel forced to work with an OPM. It should be an informed choice — an option, not a requirement. The best way to preserve that choice may be to build an internal online learning remote team. If you work with an OPM, those OPM folks who work on your professors’ courses will almost certainly be remote. An OPM relationship is, almost by definition, taking on a remote working environment. Why not build that remote team yourself? Remote teams can be built quickly, managed effectively and work productively.
Above are nine reasons to design your campus online learning unit as a remote team. There are other reasons to do this and many reasons not to do this. Face-to-face teams have tons of advantages. There is great excitement and energy having everyone under the same roof.
Post-COVID, however, the world will change. Higher education will change. The way we thought about how higher ed work gets done also must change.
Structuring the campus online learning team around a permanent remote footing might be an excellent place to start.