Instructional Designers on Campuses

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The following is a Letter to the Editor I wrote to Inside Higher Ed a few months ago that never got published.  Given it's about the transition back to the office for higher education, especially instructional designers, I thought I would share it here since it was never published but I think is stillan important contribution to the conversation.  And since I'm talking about work culture, if you're not reading Anne Helen Peterson's Culture Study newsletter, you really should be.

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Here is what I wrote:

Joshua Kim's thoughts about keeping campus online learning teams permanently remote are important to consider as indeed, many institutions have missed opportunities for amazing talent and a more diverse staff while offering possibilities to create more pathways for inclusion.  Those are valuable elements to such a team.  Yet, I can't help thinking that those would not be the actual reasons an institution would go fully permanent online, and in general, I'm leery of encouraging the change because it will weaken employment and community.  

Prior to the pandemic, most higher education institutions grounded hesitancy in remote work as a financial one:  they feared lost productivity (wasted time and money), with sometimes a veneer of equity (since not all positions on campus can be remote, none can). Right now, institutions know that’s a dead argument--people are as productive (if not more, given the work that has been done this past year despite a pandemic that has disrupted so many people's lives) as institutions demand them to be.  

Post-pandemic, institutions will be (are always?) in extreme-cost-saving mode and one method is to push all folks to remote working in order to free up space--either to terminate rental agreements, use newly-freed space for revenue, or sell space. None of which will be used to be reinvested in the workforce who now have no physical presence on campus.  Thus, the goal of remote won’t be for the positive and empowering reasons that Kim points out nor will it be part of a process of improving the lives of faculty and staff but driven solely by saving money.  This will likely do more harm and limit the impact of the online learning teams who will feel more like external consults or outsiders who are not part of a physically-based institution.  Events on campus and other social gatherings are part of what community is--and the alienation to feel “welcomed” at such events when the campus won’t even give you a desk, seem impossible.  Additionally, entire remote work will also contribute to siloing and results in more administrative power and less sense of community and power among staff and faculty.  

The convenience factor can mislead us (just as it does with learning) because while staff may want the increased flexibility of working from home--just like students claim for online courses--both practices result in less investment by the institution in the remote staff (and students, ultimately).  Institutions can then pay less because “working from home” is now a benefit.  Meanwhile, new obstacles and costs are placed on the staff member.  They now have to pay for increased utilities, office supplies (who wants to go through the belabored process of filing forms for every pen and pad of paper they purchase?) and likely not to enjoy other benefits of the physical workplace (occasional lunches, communally shared office supplies, printing, and copying access).  

Maintaining a meaningful presence on a physical campus by the online learning team should not be overlooked either. Many teams have spent years in what can be described as advocacy work or a form of evangelism in reaching out and building relationships with faculty. At department meetings, communal gatherings, or pick-up conversations in offices and dining halls, this is ongoing work and one that is needed continually as the community of faculty continues to change. Many of these chance encounters result in rich relationships for future conversations and projects where the online learning team member has already built a working foundation for meaningful work. The chance for this outreach work is significantly diminished when one’s only opportunity into the campus and its community is through a two-dimensional Zoom window, while everyone else exists on a three-dimensional campus. 

Simply put: reducing the online learning team to remote only puts them in a similar situation to adjunct faculty; their work is wanted as cheaply as possible to the point that no space (i.e. home) can be found for them on the campus. As we have seen with adjunct faculty, this increases alienation and reduces the quality of the institution.  Not because the online learning team (or adjunct faculty) are lesser but because the institution does meaningfully or equitably include them in the institution.  Kim, himself, and others in Inside Higher Ed have made various arguments about the centrality of the work of online learning teams and the ways they should be seen as similar to faculty with academic freedom, professional development support, and equality valued; but if a campus will not even dedicate space and encourage them to be part of the physical campus with everyone else, it is hard to see any equitable relationship existing or the quality of work improving.

And that’s not to say there should be no remote work but a hybrid model makes a more useful approach that allows for some flexibility without diminishing the work. A de facto banishment of essential teaching and learning staff just does not seem like it would benefit meaningful teaching and learning at an institution and be mostly positioned as a means of saving money at the cost of weakening the educational experience.

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