Monday, June 28, 2021

Whose normal do we go back to?

Photo by Smartworks Coworking on Unsplash

In comparisons between online and in-person communication we tend to assume that the in-person meeting is always best and that the online version is a limited substitute. After a year and a half of restrictions and lockdowns there is an understandable desire to get back to normal again and as a result that notion of normal gets idealised. Classroom interaction and in-person meetings are presented in glowing terms whilst online versions are often questioned. However, if you look back honestly you remember how so many in-person meetings and classes were extremely uninspiring and ineffective.

Online and in-person meetings provide different frameworks and affordances, but the success of these meetings is dependent on the planning and communication skills of the teachers/managers and participants. Being there in person is no guarantee of good communication. This is the gist of an excellent article by Elizabeth Stokoe and colleagues, Is communicating in person the “gold standard”? You’re asking the wrong question.  

Communicating in person can also be highly unsatisfactory. We have all been in a terrible meeting, poor medical consultation, or a dire first date. Numerous books, articles and courses are dedicated to how to chair, participate in, and lead, an effective in-person meeting. Why? A meeting can ‘stink’ not because technology makes it hard for us to communicate, but because people are not trained in how to lead or participate in one — or are just poor communicators. Being co-present does not equate to or guarantee quality, inclusion, equality, satisfaction, productivity, interaction, engagement, or connection.

One of the most common complaints about online meetings is that we cannot see each other's body language but the article questions whether this is such a crucial factor. The body language argument has become a communication myth that has spread over the years thanks to misinterpretation and wishful thinking. Body language is a factor but not as major as we assume. In most physical meetings we all sit behind desks and can only see each other from the waist up, very similar to the view we get in online meetings. Of course we can make eye contact with each other in a way that is almost impossible in online meetings, but on the other hand online meetings compensate by using chat messages, emojis etc. Hybrid meetings are especially problematic since we are mixing the two modes and the risk of missing essential communication is high. There are differences between the modes but we are very resourceful in making the most of what is available. We have been using voice communication and radio for over a century and still do, despite the complete lack of body language.

It's not about the mode of communication but the skills of those using it. The key takeaway is this:

Good communication depends not on the modality or technology but on the communication skills of the people using it. We noted earlier that being in person is no guarantee of a high-quality interaction. Communication succeeds when everyone knows why they are talking and where there is parity of opportunity to participate.
Another issue is the language used to describe in-person meetings and work. An article by Joshua Kim in Inside Higher EdStop Using the Language of “Normal” for Face-to-Face Academic Work, questions the use of the word normal. What we consider normal work or education does not suit everyone and never has. Many people accepted it because there was no choice, but now that we have seen that many tasks can be performed as well if not better online then there are strong arguments against forcing a return to the office or campus. The rituals of office life need to be questioned and a more flexible approach is needed. Less commuting benefits the environment and the opportunity for more home working can increase productivity and efficiency. Physical presence does not always guarantee focused activity. Normality is in the eye of the beholder.
What needs to change is the language around work.

Let us all try to remember that what feels “normal” to many (especially many leaders) is particularly challenging for some.

Let us not devalue the lived experience of our colleagues who are more productive and happier when working from home.

And in recognition that “normal” means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us about where and how they wish to work.

Instead of going back to normal we need to move forward to something different. The climate, environment and society depends on it.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Webinar recordings - what's missing?

Photo by Samantha Borges on Unsplash
The past couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of webinars aimed at educators. Many of these are recorded and many recordings get many more views than the original live session. However, watching a recording is a very different experience to participating live. Live webinars feature interactive elements like chat, polls and external tools and those are generally missing from the recordings. What's left is the content minus a lot of the discussion. Here are a few thoughts on what's missing and suggestions on how to make recordings more valuable.

In many webinars the chat contains valuable comments, links and information that offer added value. It's a space to share ideas and experience and sometimes the chat is more interesting than the speaker. I used to use Adobe Connect and there the chat is included in the recording, raising the value considerably, often including lots of valuable links to related articles and projects. Some people focused on the chat during the live session and watched the recording to hear what the speakers said. However in Zoom the chat is not included in the recording and as a result an important element of the webinar communication is lost. I can understand that including the chat in the recording requires the approval of all participants and that this was not fully respected before. You can, of course, download a text file of the chat but that needs to be edited and converted so that the links become active and unnecessary comments removed. I would like to see the return of the chat window in the recording, maybe with the option to anonymise the names of those commenting.

Participants' anonymity in recordings is important but it can backfire. In Zoom recordings the names of those who appear are hidden and so it's not always clear who is speaking. You see the face and hear the voice but who is it? Another issue is that the speakers refer to comments in the chat that viewers of the recording cannot see or the results of a poll that are invisible in the recording. That's why it's important to read out the comment first before answering it. It's very frustrating to hear comments like "Thanks for that insightful comment Anna" and not tell us what the comment was. Many presenters are unaware that the results of a poll are not shown in the recording so please avoid saying, "as you can see from the poll results ..." Awareness of what is recorded and what it will look like is essential.

It's important to be aware of what is being recorded. Whoever initiates the recording must make sure that they stay in speaker view so that the speaker is in focus. It's easy to forget this and by accident you show the full gallery of participants in the recording with the risk that one of them does something distracting, forgetting that they are in full view. At the same time it can also be effective to switch briefly to gallery view at some point to show viewers of the recording that there were many people present in the session. That requires the consent of the participants of course but it gives a sense of community to the recording, that you are part of an event. Otherwise the recording can be focused on one face for lengthy periods and there is no sense that anyone else was present.

Many of us tend to just upload an unedited recording and share the link. Watching a recording means that you often have to press the forward wind button to skip the small talk and transitions. An edited version of maybe 25 minutes with the key points would be the best option and get more attention than a long and 60 minutes, warts and all. Watch a recording and you'll be surprised how much time is spent on pleasantries, introductions and transitions. Important for the flow of the live event but irrelevant in the recording. An edited version should also include captioning. All that takes time of course, something that most teachers lack, but the value of the recording is increased significantly.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Digital resilience - navigating a myriad of tools and platforms

Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash
Digital resilience for me is the ability to adapt in a digital world: being able to use a variety of devices, tools and platforms and being able to carry out standard checks and routines when something doesn't work as expected. Vendors always claim their products to be intuitive and user-friendly but that only applies when you've learned how to use them. That resilience has been tested to the limit during the pandemic as we all work from home and are completely dependent on all our digital devices, tools and spaces.

Most organisations offer staff a limited but structured range of digital tools and platforms for everyday use. Those are maintained, regularly tested and updated and there is support, backup and security for all. Even within the organisation the range can be wide enough to cause confusion, but as soon as you start working with external partners the complexities increase. Most days I move relatively nimbly between the university's platforms to all sorts of external ones. Meetings are mostly in Zoom but also in Teams or Google Meet or even Skype. I have contacts spread over e-mail, Zoom chat, Whatsapp, Messenger, Twitter, Facebook groups, Slack as well as various discussion forums. I share documents in Microsoft 365, Box and Google Drive. The list goes on. Navigating all these takes time and energy and maybe our overflowing toolboxes are an energy drain rather than an advantage. 

The more tools we use the more inefficient we get and this is the gist of an article in TechRepublic, Remote working technology is creating a productivity nightmare. It describes results from a survey produced by Cornell University and QatalogWorkgeist Report ‘21, that investigated over 1,000 employees' attitudes to the plethora of digital tools used during the home working period of the last year. The price of this digital diversity has been high with 43% of those surveyed saying that they spend too much time switching between tools and using up to an hour every day checking for and answering messages on different platforms.

As a result, employees are wasting up to five hours every week switching between different digital tools, cycling through tabs and digging through messaging channels. It's also fuelling workplace slip-ups, with 48% of respondents admitting to making mistakes as a result of being unable to keep track of what's going on across different channels.

The report claims that productivity tools are killing productivity with information and communication distributed over a growing number of platforms, tools and apps. Information often gets lost in e-mail conversations or in Slack groups that are simply invisible to everyone else. Restricted communication is of course essential but these spaces can sometimes hide important enclosed documents that are not stored anywhere else.

People are losing time scouring messaging channels, navigating project management boards, and digging through cloud storage systems. They spend about of their typical workday doing this; it’s time that could be better spent doing focussed work like designing a new product or getting user feedback.

Some people take a dislike to their organisation's recommended tool and decide to use an alternative. This tool may well suit their purpose but using it means that the information shared there is invisible to the rest of the organisation. Important information risks being stored in silos that only a few people know about. According to Tariq Rauf, CEO and founder of Qatalog, in the TechRepublic article:
There's been an explosion in the number of apps we rely on to do our jobs, but the result isn't greater productivity – it's total chaos. ... No matter their individual merits, each tool is adding to a noisy digital environment that is, quite literally, driving workers to distraction. The more time that we waste on this mess, the less we have for deep thought and meaningful engagement with our colleagues.
The report offers recommendations to organisations on how to streamline their use of digital tools and find smarter solutions that facilitate transparency and ease of use. However, the problem for many of us remain - no matter how well-planned your internal communication channels are, whenever you step outside and work with external partners your collection of tools starts growing again. While we wait for the ultimate solution (Godot 2.0?) we will need to become even more resilient.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Busyness and the quest for approval

Is the cult of busyness in danger of dying out at last in the wake of the pandemic? Being extremely busy has been a status symbol for many years and social media have been full of busy people proudly telling everyone else how busy they are. It's a lifestyle that is reflected and spurred by popular culture presenting role models who effortlessly combine extremely demanding careers with family, ambitious building and renovation projects, vibrant social life, hobbies and work for charity. Holidays are as filled with activity as working days and just hanging around doing nothing special is not an option. This stress is not always due to pressure from employers, much of it is self-imposed in an attempt to prove your worth and gain approval. Social media have flourished as a channel for this.

The potential demise of this frenzied lifestyle is discussed in an article by Shayla Love in Vice magazineThe cult of busyness. Busyness is full of paradoxes.Those who are most proud of their busyness are those who could easily afford to take it easy but seek status by being constantly booked up and stressed. Those who are poorer don't see their lack of time as a status symbol - for them it's the only way to make ends meet in a gig economy where one job is never enough.

Busyness is a powerful social signal, though a somewhat counterintuitive one. At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that the ultimate symbol of wealth and success would be leisure—showing others that you were so successful that you could abstain from work. Instead, the opposite occurred. It’s not free time, but busyness, that gestures to a person’s relevance.

The education sector is particularly afflicted with busyness. In higher education the pressure to design and run courses as well as conducting research, writing articles and applying for funding means that many are putting in far more working hours than they will ever be paid for. Sadly many posts in social media glorify this kind of lifestyle and create a culture of guilt among those who can't match the extreme productivity of those who post that over the weekend they have graded so many exam papers, applied for research funding, written a new book chapter and had a fun day out with the family. Stress creates stress and becomes a hamster wheel that we can't escape from.

The past year has forced many to reconsider their busyness. When you work from home and there are no events or meetings to rush to there is suddenly more time available. You realise how much of your working days were spent in transit to meetings or classes. The article describes the process of deceleration where the number of busy activities is drastically reduced and there is more time to focus on what's left. Many people realise that they don't want to go back to commuting to the office, drinking coffee on the go or eating lunch in front of a screen. 

I can't see us completely abandoning busyness, but a slower lifestyle has at least gained approval and there are more status updates in social media showing more relaxing activities like walks in the country, gardening or other hobbies. Even when we return to our offices I suspect there will be new routines and many of us will not want to go there every day. Pressures will remain but if we can at least think twice before we post updates boasting of how many tasks we have completed today that will be an improvement. Think what effect your update will have on others and tag down a bit. Share your good moments but not your stress.

Will these changes stick? Or will we go right back to worshipping busyness at the cost of everything else? Bellezza isn’t as optimistic about deceleration replacing busyness as the leading social status signal, but she acknowledged that when she started studying busyness, there wasn’t any discussion about deceleration at all. She’s glad it’s entered the conversation, and tries to practice deceleration in her own life.

A final thought. This phenomenon is of course available to people in well-paid stable jobs that allow the freedom to choose how they work. Most people don't have the option. We need to remember that before we generalise about the future of work. But that's another topic.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

MOOCs in study circles for teacher professional development

A return to an old theme this week of how we can use MOOCs to complement on-site training. Even if many MOOCs offer opportunities for forum discussions, many people would benefit from face-to-face discussions around the course material, especially in their own language. There are many examples around the world where groups of people decide to form a support community to help each other through a MOOC (MOOC meet-ups, learning hubs etc). This community can meet weekly either online or better still face-to-face. The community offers a safe space for asking question and discussing course topics and can be the difference between completing the course and dropping out in confusion.

The idea of self-organising study groups is firmly anchored in the Nordic tradition of study circles developed in the 19th century by pioneers like the Danish pastor N. F. S. Grundtvig. The principle here is also collaborative learning, a kind of community of interest. None of the group is necessarily an expert or teacher so the group decides together how to structure the course and one course can inspire a new one. Generally one of the circle acts as a facilitator but the study form is collaborative investigation and discussion. This form of study has spread internationally and can today be applied to studying a MOOC. The general principles and generic examples of the MOOC can be adapted by the study circle to local and specific cases thereby adding relevance and practical application.

One area where MOOCs can make an impact is in professional development. There are, for example, plenty of courses aimed at teachers and the study circle approach can work very well. To encourage this the European Commission’s Teacher Academy initiative on the School Education Gateway has published  a guide entitled Using Massive Open Online Courses in Schools. How to set up school-based learning communities to improve teacher learning on MOOCs. This is a step-by-step guide to organising a study group at a school or college to study a MOOC as professional development. Studying individually is challenging for many: finding time and maintaining motivation as well as the challenges of adapting to the course technology and learning in a foreign language. The moral support of colleagues adds a dimension that is not available in many MOOCs and the group can discuss how to apply the lessons learned in their own practice.

The study groups therefore offered a framework to support colleagues with low levels of digital and self-regulated learning competence to help them benefit from a MOOC, while at the same time contextualising and localising what was learned on the MOOC and facilitating a transfer to practice. Feedback from study group participants and the eight pilot teachers suggests that the study groups successfully addressed all of these areas. 
Here's a short film that gives a clear overview of the project and its outcomes.