Those of us involved in the eLearning world often have good reason to feel that we are sometimes marginalized. It makes little sense at one level—after all eLearning is supposed to be about finding innovative means for connecting people, isn’t it?
Well, sort of. It depends on just who you work with. For many, “belonging” is another way of saying “controlling” and this is just as true in education as it is anywhere else. For many of us, once we become part of an organization we soon find that it views us, as property; a resource to be exploited for its own ends.
Worse again, it may be the case that the organization views us as its exclusive property: we exist to serve it and it alone. “Nobody gets to talk to me without getting permission from ____ first” “No, I’m not allowed to attend the conference in ___. Only people classified as ____ or higher ever get to go. Besides, you need permission from ___ to get your trip request document signed and that’s not likely to happen.” “We have to save money and professional development is only important when we can afford it and when there’s lots of time to spare.” Sound familiar? Just a bit, maybe?
Small wonder then that over time it feels more and more like we’re all working away in not just silos—no that wouldn’t be too bad; after all you can get radio inside the walls of a silo or a prison—no, worse than that. We fell like we are surrounded by some sort of ethereal Faraday Cage; one that blocks all signals from the outside world. Alone in our little hovels and surrounded by mountains of work, far too high to climb any time in the near future, we continue to toil away as best we can, basically unsupported and effectively alone. How ironic.
Hyperbols is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it takes stretching an impression way past the point of common sense to reveal its inaccuracy. The fact is that learning professionals are no more locked in silos than are, say, hockey players. Think about it, Hockey players could easily moan, “This is so depressing! Day after day all we do is play hockey. It seems that every working minute is spent either playing a game, preparing for or travelling to the next one. It’s as if my employers think that the most important thing for me to do is to play hockey. I need to spend some extra time in expanding my horizons, thinking about the future of the whole enterprise.
We can swing from one extreme to the other but, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. Of course, like any other professional, those involved in eLearning sometimes feel a little boxed in! But is it really so bad? Perhaps it would be useful to take a more detailed look at some of the causes and possible solutions.
Let’s revisit the essential questions raised here: Why should professionals feel isolated just because their workloads and organization’s travel policies prevent them from meeting face-to-face with colleagues? Doesn’t that suggest that eLearning doesn’t work? If eLearning professionals can’t use the online tools to create a sense of community then isn’t it hypocritical to suggest that anyone else can?
Well, no, not exactly. Let’s have a look.
1. It’s hard to get past the useless “perky” crap. A lot of what passes for online professional communities of practice is, in reality, sponsored activity put off by developers and vendors, and specifically intended as part of their overall strategy for corralling clients. Online users’ conferences are particularly annoying. Led by a combination of company reps and some over-exuberant evangelical users the overall atmosphere is decidedly creepy; cult-like to those who wish to tackle real problems while keeping an open mind about the real limitations that exist for the product in question.
It’s easy to become cynical, expecting every found opportunity for growth and professional development to be, in the end, just a cleverly sales pitch. In truth, though, there are numerous online organizations and resources available for those who wish to participate and grow professionally. While I do not wish to endorse any particular group I can tell you that if you do a web search using either “associations for eLearning” or “associations for technology in education” you will find, besides the junk and ads, some truly useful hits, including the already-mentioned AECT.
2. Sometimes you need to know you’re off the record. Tackling real problems requires a high degree of frankness. The issues and constraints need to be accurately represented; not glossed over. Sometimes what needs to be said is not “nice” and people not intended to hear it—because it involves something they are emotionally attached to, even though they have no business dealing with the matter in question—may feel offended if they do. Those same people may then interfere in matters they have no business dealing with. People therefore need some assurance that what they say will not be repeated, inaccurately or out of context elsewhere. The online environment virtually guarantees the opposite.
This does not mean that it’s impossible, though. It’s just a bit harder. Overall it is probably best to remember that one should never regard any exchange as being completely off the record and, therefore, speak, and act responsibly at all times. While frankness is generally an admirable trait, so too, is sensitivity. In particular, regardless of the communications medium, if something potentially damaging needs to be said it is best to ensure that it is done in a way that ensures that the conversation is based in fact and sticks solely to the issue at hand.
3. Trust is essential and it’s hard to have it in a world ruled by anonymity. In keeping with what was just noted, an effective community of practice requires a high degree of trust and it takes a lot of time to create this. One can hardly expect the more-or-less anonymous crowd that attends online events (whether synchronously or asynchronously) to just assume that everyone else can be trusted. That would be stupid! “Don’t be foolish,” you say, “The same is true of the face-to-face environment!” No. First, with face to face you get to use all of the senses to help guide your actions whereas online it’s often limited to what you can read and perhaps hear. “But what about Videoconference?” you ask, “Haven’t you heard of it you old fogey. We’re modern. We use Skype!” Well, yes, I have; been using it—and better systems than Skype—for almost 25 years. Yes, video does bring in some of the body language. It’s certainly much better than telephone. That said, consumer-level video is still a bit sketchy since no QOS (quality of service) measures are put on the data packets. As a result, video is often of poor quality, marked by poor frame rates, jittery motion and frequently dropped/interrupted audio streams. The so-called “webcams” still leave a lot to be desired too, especially when the video needs to show more than a talking head.
Of course commercial grade videoconference is still great if you can afford it and it has to be said that things are improving lately. Microsoft’s Lync 2013, for example, is particularly nice.
Regardless of the technology, in the end, trust is something that needs to be earned and if any ongoing process demands it then all participants need to be cognizant of the fact that the allotted time may need to be revised so as to ensure that the participants have the opportunity to develop it to the required degree. While, yes, the face to face environment is such that shortcuts are often possible the fact remains that most processes are not necessarily urgent and, so rather than concentrating the exchange into a risky (as far as trust is concerned) 2 to 3 day face to face affair, one can instead spread the process over much more time, but divided into many bits sized chunks handled online, thus allowing all parties the opportunity to suitably examine each chunk on its own terms.
4. When you’re online you’re still “on the clock.” It’s virtually impossible to focus on anything other than your immediate, urgent work when you are at work! One of the issues related to being an eLearning professional is the incredible number of ways that colleagues and work in general, can still get to you. When you’re at your desk you can be emailed, IM’d in a million ways, Skyped (or any of the alternatives) and, of course, people can drop by unannounced. That’s on top of the fact that you also are in the middle of numerous self-directed workflows anyway. How can you be expected to concentrate on an online session?
OK, let’s be realistic. You can, of course, focus attention on the online session. You budget the time the same as you do with everything else that’s important. That said, as a long-time attendee of these sessions, both as presenter and recipient I can assure you, though, that the majority of the participants are only half-paying attention. They’re doing a million other things while “participating!” Online activities tend to be dealt to the bottom of the importance deck and one if left with the realization that if you instead attended short a session face to face you could leave all the distractions behind.
But wait—what about all those annoying people who bring their mobiles to face-to-face sessions? They’re not hard to spot—they are the ones who seem to spend the whole time staring down at their crotches, thinking nobody else notices that they’re out of it. In truth, they are no more engaged face to face then they would have been if the session were online.
So what can be done about this? Perhaps the best advice is to choose wisely what online events you wish to attend. Face it: if you can’t adequately focus your attention on the event then you should consider the alternatives, unless you really do have piles of time to waste. Do you really need to attend at all? Can you ask someone else to do it? Can you reschedule? If the answer to these is “no” then the course of action is quite clear.
5. What you need to work on may not be on the organization’s overt agenda. Participation in professional communities, whether virtual or face to face, is very much at your employer’s discretion. Sure, a lot of the events are held in asynchronous time and you can participate during your own time but a lot of the events are also synchronous, and held during work time. As such, you need your employer’s cooperation in order to attend, even if it’s to move your lunch hour. Getting this permission may not necessarily be all that easy, especially if the topics are not obviously in line with the overall short term plan for your organization, even if they do contribute to long term goals.
If this is the case then there are two clear alternatives. You could discuss the matter internally and explain how you feel there is an indirect benefit to be obtained from your attendance and participation. If this fails or for, for any other reason, is not a good idea then you generally have the ability of making this work something that you do in your own time, after all.
Next: There are so many things—let’s call them “considerations” for lack of a better term—that we must face, day after day. Let’s consider a few starting with exploring who’s really at the reins.