COVID-19 as Boost to Telework, Distance Learning

by James A. Bacon

The COVID-19 virus may change our lives in ways we can only begin to imagine. Believe it or not, some of them might even be positive. Consider the impact of today’s stories upon Virginia’s higher-ed and transportation systems.

A  boost to distance learning. The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and James Madison University may follow the lead of Harvard and other Ivy League institutions in moving classes online.

Virginia Tech sent a letter to faculty members Monday urging them to prepare options for delivering coursework outside the classroom, reports Virginia Business. “We must accelerate planning necessary to sustain our academic mission, including the use of online platforms to deliver instruction,” said Provost Cyril Clark. “Please use this spring break when most classes are not in session to become familiar with strategies to continue teaching through disruptions and to plan for the possibility that students and faculty may not be able to meet for course sessions in person.”

“We are looking at how do we move our courses online,” said JMU spokeperson Caitlyn Read. “Our libraries and our online learning centers have ratcheted up support services for faculty who are looking … to get classes online.

Update: UVa has made the decision to move all classes online. So has Virginia Tech.

Schools out for summer. Schools out forever! OK, that quote from rocker Alice Cooper might be a slight exaggeration. But Fairfax County Public Schools, which serves 188,000 students, will close all of its nearly 200 schools for “staff development day/student holiday” next Monday, the Washington Post reports. The purpose: “to provide an opportunity for staff to prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure.”

Teachers will still be required to come to work, where they will undergo training on how to conduct classes online.

Working remotely. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is developing contingency plans that would allow hundreds of thousands of federal employees to work remotely full time, reports the Washington Post. Agency heads are reviewing their telework policies, issuing laptops, and granting access to computer networks. The Securities and Exchange Commission became the first federal agency Monday to clear 2,400 employees from its headquarters. Also, according to the WaPo, the State Department has told its staff to set up emergency teleconference drills.

Both telework and distance learning are old ideas. They’ve been around so long, they seem almost musty. But large organizations such as universities, governments, and large corporations have been slow to utilize them. Why? The supporting technology and access to broadband have gotten better with each passing year. The problem is that large organizations have entrenched managerial cultures that are slow to change. People are rooted to established ways of doing things.

But the panic and desperation induced by the coronavirus is forcing these big institutions to think and act differently.

Several years ago, the University of Virginia endured a power struggle precipitated by online earning when Rector Helen Dragas and allies on the Board of Trustees secured the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. Sullivan won that battle, and the shift to distance learning, urged by Dragas, was put on the back burner. While the university continued to experiment timidly, the forces of conservativism and reaction won the day, and the university’s business model never changed.

Likewise, the federal government has been experimenting with telework for a couple of decades, going so far as to set up remote, community-based satellite offices. The goal was to take commuters off the Washington area’s overloaded roads. For the most part, however, the lumbering federal behemoth kept lumbering unaffected.

Now comes COVID-19. Everyone is in a blind panic. The concern may be overwrought, whipped up by the media. Or maybe things could get worse than anyone could imagine. Nobody knows. Uncertainty reigns.

The hysteria serves one useful purpose: It is compelling large, change-resistant institutions to take actions they would not otherwise. The end result could be tremendous gains in acceptance of distance learning and telework. The adoption of distance learning by Virginia’s most prestigious universities could have a tremendous impact on the access and affordability of higher education.  The adoption of telework by employers could ease transportation congestion across Virginia’s major metros.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we one day looked back upon the COVID-19 virus as the catalyst for positive institutional change?

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12 responses to “COVID-19 as Boost to Telework, Distance Learning

  1. I think you might be on to something… not only education, and work, but remote medicine, and the further realization of the need to wire rural.

    and yep…. we’re back to blaming the media and promulgating conspiracy theories.. that’s still with us also.

  2. It will be interesting to see if Covid-19 provides the impetus for major institutions – Corporate and Educational, to move more in the direction of working remotely and distance learning.

    As you point out, these are not new ideas or new technology. Companies like my former one, IBM, have been both promoters, consultants, and implementers of these ideas and practices, making and saving money in the process, then have reversed field recently with the advent of the “Design Thinking” craze that asserts co-location of people working side-by-side better facilitates creativity, innovation and productivity.

    As someone who both worked remotely, starting in 1994, and sold the benefits of telework (IBM saved several hundred million dollars in reduced real estate footprint and reduced employee travel expenses, along with claimed carbon footprint benefits) and distance learning (IBM education and Global Business Services offered HR/Educational strategies for “blended learning” from Brick & Mortar, to distance + Bricks, full distance, + off-line content such as CDs/canned courses) to federal agencies, as well as being a regular user of MOOCs (Massively Open On-line Courses that are both free-fee from universities around the world on platforms such as Coursera), I am a promoter of the benefits of these strategies and solutions.

    Not being involved with this today, other than as a consumer of distance learning, I am not up to speed on the current thinking, other than the trend for Design Thinking driving the opposite in corporate behavior.

    It seems to me that it should not be an either/or. It could and should be a both/and approach. However, the big, big, challenge for Universities are their current business models and revenue streams. While many of them put their toes into the waters of MOOCs, in anticipation of a move in this direction, they recognized that a full-on move in this direction would have a direct impact on the tuition fees they could charge, would affect the “college experience”, and would threaten the increased sizes of their administrative staffs and their growing faculties – many mostly engaged in research and looking for the research grant dollars.

    I know one thing, the companies that are engaged in these solutions today should seize this opportunity to help both corporate and educational institutions move in this direction. It could and should be coupled with a national broadband strategy that will bring high-speed internet to the masses – that will lead to fostering innovation and learning wherever Americans (or other paying users around the world) live and work. New strategies for blending in-person and distance learning and working will need to be developed. People will need to be educated on the changes that these approaches require in their practices – personal and business.

    Here’s hoping Covid-19 does provide such an impetus to re-look at this technology, infrastructure, training and approach to work and learning.

  3. I forgot to add another huge cohort – K-12.

    There are obvious big issues with any distance learning implementation strategies for this cohort. Kids can not just be left at home while their parents are working or doing other things.

    Presumably, Fairfax and other school localities are only looking at this as temporary, and it will definitely be interesting to see what they produce with 1 day of training for teachers (I have a 16 year old nephew in FFX County HS, who I tutor twice weekly).

    From a cost standpoint, the schools could not afford to pay for a temporary solution that is robust, only for use for 3 months, then discarded. There is going to be huge disruption to families as they attempt to roll this out.

    But… again, an opportunity for new thinking. It is much easier for businesses and higher education to implement this – adults can be better managed ( in theory) with having the responsibility to “do the work” while alone.

    Kids – nope. I am guessing, and its just a guess, that uncles and grand-parents may be called upon to be “remote school” options as part of strategies that families will be scrambling to come up with.

  4. I agree with Jim’s assessment and suggest that this virus will likely change our world in many other ways. And that, once we get over the short term impacts of this virus, these changes will be, more likely than not, highly positive. I suggest this on the principle that major wake up calls are most always quite positive, and indeed are necessary for better futures.

    • “I agree with Jim’s assessment and suggest that this virus will likely change our world in many other ways.”

      Here is one example: UVA’s ever expanding focus on its version of the world’s problems outside of educating its students, all done at the expense of students’ education, including UVA’s ever declining attention to classroom teaching, for decades now the lowest status jobs on the Grounds, while at same time students’ tuition and costs continue their chronic rise, piling up ever more debt on students, parents, and taxpayer’s shoulders.

      Thus, we get this announcement, atonement for President Ryan’s $10 Million Dollar+++ home remodeling job at public expense:

      “University of Virginia President Jim Ryan announced today that UVA has established a goal to support the development of 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in Charlottesville and Albemarle County over the next decade on land owned by the University and the UVA Foundation.

      “As an anchor institution, we feel a responsibility to be a good neighbor. One of the most pressing needs in our region is affordable housing, and we are looking forward to doing our part to help increase the supply,” said Ryan.

      In order to keep housing costs down, the University will allow use of UVA or UVA Foundation-owned land for the development of affordable housing as part of a multi-phased approach over the next decade. The University will ultimately select housing development partners through a competitive process.

      “The University has a substantial impact on the economy and vitality of this region,” UVA Rector James B. Murray Jr. said. “As a local resident, I am particularly excited about UVA’s role in tackling tough issues that affect local citizens, with a shortage of affordable housing being among the most pressing.”

      To address affordable housing needs and other areas of focus for the community, Ryan and the President’s Council on UVA-Community Partnerships have announced the formation of four working groups focused on affordable housing, the local economy, early childhood education and the employment pipeline…”

      For more see:
      https://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-announces-affordable-housing-goal

  5. yes. For all the talk about charter schools, home schooling, neighborhood schools and high percentages of free and reduced…etc…etc…

    The technology for online K-12 is light years ahead of where it was a few years back.

    Any child with a good internet connection can not only “learn”, they can learn as much as they can or want – including the advanced placement content – no matter if they live in a low income neighborhood with a bad local school or out in the rural boondocks where only basic K-12 is available.

    This has the potential to change the game with regard to school “equity”, discipline, AND potentially costs… (hope springs eternal!)

  6. I don’t have robust enough internet service available at home to do this at home. I’m hoping VT will allow me to come to my office on campus – even if nowhere else – to do this. My GB’s are limited, I run out every month (on “unlimited” service) and that’s without doing online teaching. I paid an extra $90 for doing grading on-line in December, cutting my available GB’s for the month to zero with half a month to go.

    Teachers may not have strong broadband, do students? What happens for a student counting on the library or some other on-campus resource for internet access?

    I’ll also raise the issue of whether online is the best way to teach all students and all topics. I’m amazed that VT offers catering online. It seems people need a lab and opportunities to deal with the things that “happen” to really be prepared. Switching to all online mid-semester with little warning means lots of classes are not going to be properly planned for online due to time constraints. Something may happen, but it won’t be the quality we need.

  7. Yeah, Citrix (which makes software critical for remote operations) was at $108 last Thursday and is trading at $115 right now. At least over the short term the market sees strength in remote operations. Unsurprisingly, Teledoc was up over the same period but is down (for some reason) today. Teledoc is a remote medicine company.

    I have my doubts about the long term value of remote work – especially in areas where creativity is important. I ran a software development company which was almost totally distributed (it was that way when I took over) and it was very hard to keep people on the same page. When I’d go to meet with other start-ups I noticed that most (but not all) were consolidated “at the office” operations. Finally, I was an executive at IBM when the “back to the office” policies were implemented. It wasn’t that hard to understand why IBM did what it did although the program was pretty wrenching.

    And remember, if there’s a job that can be done remotely – where you don’t have to come into the office – it won’t be long before your employer starts to wonder why that job has to be done in the United States at all. 9 to 5 in Virginia is 3pm to 11pm in Ukraine. Trust me – there’s a smart Ukrainian with excellent English skills who is willing to work that job on offset hours for about 1/2 to 1/3 what you’re being paid.

  8. re: ” I’ll also raise the issue of whether online is the best way to teach all students and all topics. I’m amazed that VT offers catering online. It seems people need a lab and opportunities to deal with the things that “happen” to really be prepared. Switching to all online mid-semester with little warning means lots of classes are not going to be properly planned for online due to time constraints. Something may happen, but it won’t be the quality we need.”

    Yep. There are some courses and there are some students that ALL online may not be the best. Blended online is also an option.

    Labs are a different story – no question.

    but that leaves a LOT of potentially fertile ground to plow for a LOT of kids who could greatly benefit even from some or part of it.

    I have asked before and do again. What is the specific benefit of an “in person” teacher and be careful on the answer if the answer is interactivity and “attaboy” type stuff.

    What are the things an “in person” teacher can do that online cannot and may never be able to ?

    DJ’s response tickles me because here we are talking about how we can perhaps do better on education of USA kids and those Ukrainian kids have overcome much bigger obstacles to then be able to out-compete our kids on jobs!

    • Ukraine is a poor country. As of April, 2018 the average income in Ukraine was $301 USD per month. However, under Soviet rule, Ukraine was an industrial powerhouse. Buses were made in Lviv, rockets were made in Dniepro. Obviously, the educational system produced enough engineers, managers and technicians to make those industries run. Then the Soviet Union went away. After a period of severe dislocation Ukraine redirected their educational system to capabilities demanded by the open global market. Computer science was on top of the list. Well educated Ukrainians started to do rather well. However, the average salary is still $301 per month so … the education system certainly didn’t raise all boats.

  9. FYI:
    ” Plot
    Returning from a business trip in Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff has a layover in Chicago to have sex with a former lover. Two days later, in her family home in suburban Minneapolis, she collapses with seizures. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, rushes her to the hospital, but she dies of an unknown cause. Mitch returns home and finds that his stepson Clark has died from a similar disease. Mitch is put in isolation but is found to be immune; he is released and returns home to his teenage daughter Jory.

    In Atlanta, representatives of the DHS meet with Dr. Ellis Cheever of the CDC and express fears that the disease is a bioweapon intended to cause terror over the Thanksgiving weekend. Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears, an EIS officer, to Minneapolis to investigate. Mears traces the outbreak back to Beth. She negotiates with local bureaucrats, who are reluctant to commit resources for a public health response. Mears becomes infected and dies. As the virus spreads, Chicago is placed into quarantine and looting and violence breaks out.

    At the CDC, Dr. Ally Hextall determines the virus is a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses. Work on a cure stalls because scientists cannot discover a cell culture within which to grow the newly identified MEV-1. UCSF professor Dr. Ian Sussman violates orders from Cheever to destroy his samples, and identifies a usable MEV-1 cell culture using bat cells.”

    Contagion (2011 film)

  10. We do not know yet what Fairfax Schools have in mind, but suffice it to say the national feeling is actions sooner than later is the trend to nip this thing in the bud, given it is too late to nip the DC Cherry Blossoms in the bud. Looks like Cherry Blossoms early this year, talking next week. The mild winter has given early cherry bloom, but also plenty of unused snow days for the schools to take.

    But we have a family Florida trip I suspect might be off, we already got money for my elderly mother’s plane ticket. Our community non-profit activities, that we are involved in, are starting to consider what might happen and impact.

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