Online Education and the War Against Remote Work

Distance learning and the new anti-telecommuting policies for federal workers.

January 23, 2020

"About a quarter of workers at U.S. companies now dial into meetings, consult with clients and do a multitude of other tasks from their laptops at home, as employers seek to cut real estate costs and keep their staffs content in a red-hot job market.

The federal government, though, is calling its employees back to the office.

After a big push toward telework in the Obama administration, President Trump’s government is scaling it back at multiple agencies on the theory that a fanny in the seat prevents the kind of slacking off that can happen when no one’s watching."

As Remote Work Rises At U.S. Companies, Trump Is Calling Federal Employees Back To The Office (Washington Post 1/12/20)

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that adopting anti-remote work policies for federal government employees should be judged low on the list of sub-optimal actions by the Trump administration. The pernicious effects of this employee policy decision, however, may reverberate long after The Donald has decamped to Mar-A-Logo.

Workplace practices, and the beliefs that underlie them, can be difficult to change once implemented.  Open floor plan offices are still being built in the name of collaboration, despite the overwhelming evidence that open offices reduce productivity and inhibit communication. 

While the research on remote work clearly points to increases in productivity, the narrative that telecommuting will lead to lower levels of team creativity (or outright shirking) refuses to die.

The debate around remote work seems to be one area that higher ed leaders are particularly well-positioned to contribute.

For the past two decades or so, most of us in higher ed have been experimenting with remote learning.

We have discovered that learning is less about propinquity and more about design.

Online education and remote work are different from each other, but also connected. The practices that work well in online courses - such as a focus on presence and a commitment to timely and energetic feedback - also translate into the world of remote work.

In higher education, we have seen that for some types of students (particularly adult working professionals), low-residency and online learning is preferred. (And indeed, often the only possible method to complete or continue an education).

For some populations, such as recent high-school graduates, a bundled learning/living campus experience may be preferred - even if financially out-of-reach for many.

Just as with education, remote work may not be the best solution for every job. It depends on what the work is, and who is doing it.

For jobs that are mostly information and communication-centric, the sort of work I assume that is done by most federal government employees, remote work can be highly efficient and productive.

Higher ed leaders often seem reluctant to contribute to civic or political conversations and debates outside of issues related to higher ed. 

This reticence to wade into national arguments is particularly worrisome when the discussions touch on things that higher ed people know best.

We have years of experience in optimizing distance education. We know it works. We know how to do it.

Shouldn’t that experience of managing the challenges of distance give us some insight into the potential of remote work?

As we push more and more into low-residency and online education, are we doing enough to make our campuses remote work-friendly?

Are we actively researching the connections between learning design for online education and job design for remote work?

Will we look back on this time and regret that we did not do more to stand up to the war against remote work?

Are you a higher ed person that works remotely?

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Joshua Kim

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