Everyone in our small world of postsecondary online learning knows Julie Uranis. As the senior vice president of online and strategic initiatives at UPCEA, Julie sits at the nexus of most higher ed conversations about distance education, nondegree credentials and the work-and-learn ecosystem.
What follows below is Julie’s response to my post “3 Things I’m Getting Wrong in My Online Learning Job.” If you would like to follow in Julie’s footsteps and share your career blind spots (or respond to mine), please get in touch.
I just read your “3 Things I’m Getting Wrong in My Online Learning Job” blog post and would like to offer up some thoughts. Fundamentally, I agree, you are getting these things wrong, and as a fellow Gen Xer, I’ve had similar struggles. As a friend and colleague, I hope you’ll take that sentence in the spirit in which it was intended, with great admiration and a bit of snark.
1. Wanting More On-Campus (or In-Person) Collaboration
I think moving from an institution to a nonprofit that slowly evolved into a virtual working environment made me question the value of in-person experiences. Being 100 percent virtual forces me to be more intentional with meetings. When I see folks in person, at events, it’s to gather and engage in community building, brainstorming, and having conversations that are organic and iterative. I also appreciate virtual meetings focused on complex issues and discussions. We’re accessing documents together, we’re in an environment where we are comfortable (or have coping techniques) that address our social and physical needs, etc. My desire for in-person still exists, but I have very different goals and expectations for those experiences.
Now in a shameless plug, know that my role at UPCEA includes building the program for the Summit for Online Leadership and Administration + Roundtable (SOLA+R) that is co-located with the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference in Madison, Wis., July 25-27 (more info here). The same intentionality I mentioned earlier is what you can expect at #DTLSOLAR23. I am excited to engage with peers at the event, learn some new things, and possibly visit the Mustard Museum recommended by Rovy Branon during our advisory calls.
2. Expecting Night and Weekend Communication
Yes, in my early days in online learning, I was reachable all the time. Many of us, mostly alt-acs, joke that there is no “academic emergency,” and once, in saying that to a faculty member, I received the response, “But it’s your life’s work, and your reputation is on the line.” True as that may be, that’s relevant for the content of the message, not when you send that message. I have nearly stopped all work activity on the weekends. During the early days of the pandemic, it was incredible. I was available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days and at off hours when insomnia and worry had me in their clutches. Now, I realize that I don’t need to be the first to respond, nor do I need to do it on a timeline other than my own. Sometimes I do send along a quick response of, “Thanks, I need to think on this a bit, and I will get back to you early next week” for those that haven’t yet negotiated their own boundaries with night and weekend communications. Like so many others I was in the process of burning out and taking back my weekends has made me more productive during the week. I procrastinate less because I can no longer push work projects onto my weekend.
3. Thinking Colleagues Should Do Things How I Think They Should Be Done
I have to say I’ve never been in this camp. I have recognized that I am not the most linear thinker, so I approach things differently and assume I’m the outlier, not anyone else. With that, I sometimes say, “I think I would approach this in this way …” and share that with others, only to learn an entirely new approach. When I led an online enterprise at a four-year institution, I would ask my team members, “Tell me how I should think about this issue,” meaning, what are the salient points and what pathways forward do we have? That both values another point of view and gives team members input on the decisions and processes necessary to resolve an issue. I can tell you that if you take this approach you will scare your team until they understand that you are valuing their expertise and opinion and helping them develop professionally. In my experience this has led to good outcomes. Often, team members would share something, sometimes a throwaway comment, that, once examined, was a critical piece of information that needed to be considered and would have otherwise been unknown or gone unnoticed by me.
As a fellow Gen Xer, we’re in an interesting position. I have had a home computer since the early ’80s (my dad was a high school computer teacher, and he loved the Radio Shack Tandy line of computers). Our generation was indoctrinated in a world of work forged by baby boomers that had a much different viewpoint of work, office space and communications. Our generation has to reconcile how we learned to work with the challenges of today. It’s not necessarily pitting the views of our generation against those of our younger colleagues but maybe deciding that our world of work is influenced by past generations, and it’s now in our hands to curate new working experiences that are sensitive to the needs of others. Creating environments more inclusive and intentional, wherever they may be.
I’ve shared with folks before that when you think about institutions, space has meaning. Many of us alt-acs began our careers in open offices with partition walls. We then moved to a shared office, then a single-person interior office (a renovated closet, really). Then we moved on to a single-person office with a window, and then it was a single-person office with a view. Space conveyed status. In this new world, space does not have the same meaning or any meaning at all. So those early generations that believed in the hierarchy of titles and space, they cannot dream of a world where remote work is rewarding because your reward, to them, was a better work environment on campus. We have to break away from those ideas. That simply isn’t the way of the world today. It’s our generation that needs to take what we’ve inherited and make it relevant for today. This isn’t a good-versus-bad discussion as much as we are the caretakers of this portion of an evolution, and questioning our own perspectives and learning from others is necessary.