Wednesday, 1 July 2020

A step change in our human history - lockdown observations

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic outbreak has affected every being on this planet, that's for sure.  As a result many people were asked to work remotely, where possible, to reduce the spread of the infection.  Most of us have made a successful transition, however, many have been severely challenged by this adversity as it's new to them or their role or tasks don't translate well to remote working.

Back in March... So it begins. Working remotely at home possibly for 2-3 months. 😶  Well this has now turned into possibly 12 months+.  I'm not new to remote working, having worked flexibly in my current role, many previous ones and even been part of a virtual team.  However, I am new to officially 'working from home'.  I've not got the equipment nor the environment, but making do with what I have - my kitchen table is my desk.  It remains an uncertain and anxious time, but I feel that it will be a positive experience for us.  It might even bring back the good ol' team spirit and make us better communicators.

There's lots and in some respects probably too much advice and support out there throughout this crisis, so I won't be dispensing that.  I thought I would reflect on what I have observed and experienced in note form.  If anything, this situation is a HUGE test to see how we cope with the modern technology we have and the 'digital savviness' we might have boasted about.  This is also a time to embrace these changes and see them as lessons to learn new ways of living and working.  It's all part of being adaptable.  I'm sure this will make a nice nostalgic blog post for the future too!  I'll update this blog post as new observations are experienced throughout this period.

Skipping out lots of chaotic moments, here's some of my notable pointers on a range of topics.

Initial observations

To start it off, on 17 March 2020 I wrote and shared via Twitter and LinkedIn...




During the first two weeks I captured my experiences and thoughts:

  • Prioritised support for those working remotely, so had to decline non-strategic projects and meetings
  • Delivered back to back Microsoft (MS) Teams webinars, in which 1000+ people attended on those first 3 days
    • We had to be reactive as the call for this decision was imminent, leaving little time for preparation
    • I accepted and adapted rapidly to the circumstances, however we were in middle of home renovations and my partner Gary was out of work as he is a hairdresser.  He kept very busy though in what became decorating the entire house!
    • Some of us in the team were experiencing technical and emotional issues.  It was good to see the team was supportive and accepting of these issues
  • Recorded popular questions via MS Teams and webinars to turn into potential FAQs, share findings with relevant people/groups
  • Copied popular responses to post into future MS Teams webinars
  • Shared MS Teams learning with a colleague to confirm session flow and each other's knowledge
  • Complemented the team.  "I know it's only the second day, but I just wanted to say... Out of observation, the (imminent) planning for these webinars and the skill used and new skills learned throughout this experience is superb.  Prompt and proactive all around. 👏  Inspiring stuff."
  • Made a list of future webinar suggestions to the team, some immediate and some forward thinking, i.e. communicating and collaborating online and leading a virtual team
  • Decided next steps and offered online surgeries/drop-ins, when numbers were naturally reducing on MS Teams webinars
  • Started to develop a steadier and 'new normal' working pattern in the second/third week
  • Became a curator - collecting useful articles and resources to bring into relevant MS Teams I was supporting
    • Later became fatigued/overload in lots of helpful advice and guidance to curate and share.  I was active at the beginning then found I was less active, but knew where to find and ask for information when needed
  • Promoted and signposted to self-directed support more than before - keep building up the self-support culture from this
  • Applied mindfulness - taking in my surroundings, the peace and silence and not rushing about
    • Not same for everyone, especially if you have kids - but I and others have had more head space to do things they otherwise wouldn't have.
  • Accessing MS Teams more than email
  • Becoming better team communicators - looking back, it felt like that we took face-to-face for granted
  • Improved access and communications to stakeholders - being better able to identify them and approach them
  • Online meetings have become more popular but purposeful and productive as a result
    • Which environments achieves more productivity and meaningful collaboration?  Me personally, I am more productive working form home and have more meaningful communications
    • Found that I have more meetings no than I did in the office - which was a lot anyway
    • Can be more intense and time consuming as you can't see people ad hoc in person
    • Encourage shorter meetings where possible and back to back restricted where possible.  Possibly look at changing default settings on our meeting schedule. i.e. instead of 30 minutes or an hour, 15 minutes?  As being online does increase cognitive overload
    • Meeting free days as another option to encourage
    • Found I was able to follow my pre-meeting notes more easily as I could have these on the screen whilst seeing and hearing everyone
  • Many ask if the session is being recorded.  But in face-to-face they don't ask, but take notes.  I like to think it's because people want to learn it over and over, but I feel it's more about sharing it widely with staff that couldn't make it/be present
  • Developed an impulsive habit in attending external webinars.  It was good that many typical face-to-face events were offered online, which I took advantage of.  However, could I fully commit my attention?  No, I started doing work alongside them and also realised I was adding to the cognitive overload of digital and dealing with information.  A plus though, I was able to drop in at points I was interested in rather than being present for the whole thing.  As well as getting a recording should I want to revisit it
  • Adopt fun team building activities like quizzes through breakout rooms.  I.e. bespoke MS Teams to build up competences in using them
  • Online animated birthday cards replaced conventional ones to celebrate with department/team members
  • Face-to-face has been replaced by in-person, as you can be face-to-face with someone online
  • Safe to say that when face-to-face online you cannot feel each others energies and body language as you can in-person
  • Although at a distance I feel more connected to my team and department
  • A change I hope remains is the focus on asynchronous/distance learning & working opportunities. Introverts & extroverts have different needs & preferences in which to thrive in. Enabling us to build on our strengths, discover new/improved approaches & realise further potential.
Broader observations

  • You could say education should have been prepared for this situation for a long time coming.  However many academics/institutions have fallen short of this due not having blended learning at the heart of their approaches
  • The majority of my 10 year+ career in learning technology has been about convincing and making the transition to online and remote working.  All it took was a crisis, a global priority/urgency to make a cause for change
  • Digital/online/remote learning is no longer a bolt on or luxury, but a necessity
  • Playing devil's advocate here and this certainly does not apply to everyone...  Many educators now realise the importance of what we have been offering to help them with all along.  What's more offending, us highlighting their digital illiteracy or them demeaning our abilities in helping them?  Hopefully this situation will educate more of what we do.
  • Are there any groups of people at NTU that have been 'left out/forgotten' due to no digital skills or access?  There's been a lot of focus on those that have got online, but what about those that cannot/struggle to?
  • In general with all thing Technology Enhanced Learning, not going back to what was, it wouldn't be progressive for all involved.  We need to keep the momentum going but build on the learning and efforts during this period
  • Digital first, within appropriate reason, otherwise you compromise necessary face-to-face aspects.  Digital and online are different.  Digital can be done but not necessarily be made accessible online to be accessed at different times and locations
  • Re-emphasis on rethinking online teaching and assessment of the upcoming academic year, building on the quick wins.  Not just following the 'get it online' movement
  • Online activities and instructional videos should be created in general to support teaching and learning, so remote teaching and learning is not as traumatic in getting content online
  • Accessibility should be considered at the beginning and throughout a course, not just as an after thought in providing alternative resource type options.  However, there seems to be more technical aspects added onto the teaching role - we need to encourage teachers to work with Learning Technologists more to lighten their workloads
  • Synchronous vs asynchronous - depends on the learning outcomes and what is to be achieved.  As always it's a balance of both in the appropriate places, but asynchronous does offer more benefits to support online learning
  • Much success of digital/online learning depends the learning objectives and learning outcomes, and what available digital technologies best/appropriately serve these
  • Technological determinism as a result which can result in a influx of demands on learning technologists.  Flip side - technological paralysis, overload of digital disengages people
    • Technology determinism - how are we going to deal with those that may be going 'tech crazy' and using it everywhere and anywhere possible, without considering identified needs etc?
    • Technology paralysis - how are we going to deal with those that have become 'tech numb' due to cognitive overload with all things digital?
  • Some learning environments need to have the face-to-face dynamics for it to be successful
  • We make assumptions on running sessions and if they are needed.  Maybe we need spend more time on understanding the needs and motivations of people before we run a session - something that we do but remains a challenge and I'm sure it can be improved
  • There always needs to be a chat pane/back channel for online meetings so that people can contribute while others discuss.  In face-to-face meetings I sometimes find it hard to get my views across, but find it easier through here.  My manager and head have noticed this too, plus useful to revisit meetings if you weren't there
  • I find more quality contributions in the chat pane, enabling some reflective practice before being put on spot.  Plus introverts are more likely to respond
  • Deliberately switch off
    • As when you left the physical work environment you travel home but working from home you're in the work environment all the time.  So there is no clear line when you have 'left', unless you mentally do it well
  • Things being cancelled/removed/reduced/postponed in the veil of the pandemic
  • Like we encourage academics about deciding synchronous or asynchronous approaches.  General online meetings should be decided in a similar way as they are not always an appropriate method.  Plus, you shouldn't try to replicate a face-to-face meeting as online spaces operate differently and use more cognitive energy.  Keep online meetings short, sharp and straight to the point
  • Seeing an evolution of the chairing role in online meetings.  1) they are crucial to setting intended online behaviours.  2) I feel the chair now must take more precise notes for people to access who is not only there, but share to the right audience in an appropriate format.  Also on the flip side being mindful of cognitive overload of the numerous MS Teams/spaces and the time and energy that takes to keep up to date
  • Any conflicting posts/contributions in an online team can be easily retrieved as examples to support claims
  • Digital wellbeing - there's definitely a strong element in setting boundaries and managing your digital spaces/distractions to your needs.  As Matt Griffin put "Don't be a slave to the pings."  This is an increasing priority for our staff and students, especially academics.  To which I have started developing requirements to provide support on
  • I wrote this as part of a response to 1-minute micro online Continuing Professional Development videos being made:
    • A general criticism I have, not on the video at all, but what I said during our Colleagues Conference prep meeting.  Is that there is so much information out there for academics, it just adds to their cognitive overload.  They have access to webinars, drop-ins, central VLE learning rooms, MS Teams spaces, various websites (MS SharePoint, MyHub, Newsroom) etc.  And to me the real danger is that we're adding to it rather than condensing it down.  I totally hear what academics say when they just want to be told, there's just too much advice and support at moment.  Why are we spending lots of time reformatting what is appropriate and usable existing content?  How do they differentiate which is best option/avenue to take?
    • An additional thought - just aiming at academics in general and their seniors is not enough.  What digital capability levels are they aimed at?  What specific roles/tasks?  How do you ensure that these videos reach the right audience?   Like with eLearning, a considerable amount of time is required to understand why they would need this knowledge not just the presentation of it.  You can spend a lot of effort making 'perfect' videos in a good playlist, but some may find it quicker to internet search it and find other useful videos - if it gives people wat they need, then aesthetics are secondary.  That said, the videos provide a good starting point for people and would be better contextualized to the organisation and situations.
  • In a 'new ways of working' strategic plan update (March 2021).  A line was shared around using our space(s) and that facilitates our digital capability - I said; an operative word is "space" - what is meant by this space, in-person/online/offline? understanding this can drive the majority of needs/requirements.

Closing points

  • Brought a step change in our human history.  It's unlocked varied levels of creativity and innovation on different scales, some things otherwise uncomprehending
  • Paused our chaotic lives and brought us back to an equilibrium.  'Recalibrated' and allowed us to focus on things that really matter
  • Keep thinking of positives and mindfulness techniques.  Don't be drawn into downward spiral of negative news and people's comments.  Your inner circle is most important
  • Enabled us to reconnect with ourselves, loved ones, people of the past/present and nature
  • Helped us change our long embedded habits, I.e. unnecessary use of our cars
  • Before the situation, we might have liked to think we have had a good work life balance but not fully subscribed to it
    • We have had more control over compartmentalising our workloads, a bit of learning, work, relaxation, exercise.  But modern workplaces tend to be stuck in an old industrial style, resulting lack of attendance to training etc.  So the flexibility will be lost if we return to as we did
  • Realising that digital can be too much and reinforces the value and need for human face-to-face contact and interaction
  • Gary giving me helpful and constructive advice while he's seen me work.  I.e. the language I use and how I position myself.  He's seen it from the outside and encouraging me to improve aspects
  • I feel that those who are isolating alone have found it tougher.  Especially if they find being alone with themselves a strange concept.  It's allowed us to listen inward and reflect, a  practice that many find uncomfortable.  I was fortunate to get my first house on my own, and lived and managed my own home alone for 6 years.  I have always been comfortable in my own space and company, but during that time with no family home distractions, I was able to learn more about myself and be at harmony with who I am.  I hope many took this opportunity to do something similar.  And become more at peace with themselves and their lives
  • As Gary went back to work (he's a hairdresser) I had to get used to him not being around and the quietness.  I had a couple of lonely feeling days but I know I'll get used to it

On 2 June 2020, I shared the support our team offered and my reflections around the above at the 'New Normal’ Online Gathering, ALT West Midlands webinar.

EDIT: this was recognised, edited and featured in the #JoyFE Lockdown Edition.  Published 20 November 2020.

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A bit of feedback on this blog post:

Julie Beaumont - "What a fab read and so very true from my experiences too.  I have been teaching and upskilling a team and resonate with a lot of those points and observations."