Tips for remote working and learning

This spring, more and more people find themselves learning and working remotely—in many cases for the first time. As students and employees look for ways to carry on their work from home, publications featuring best practices and tips for success tend to focus on ways to simulate the workplace or classroom from home: get dressed, keep a schedule, optimize your working environment, etc. At Penn LPS Online, our best practices for online learning emphasize preparedness and engagement: read the syllabus, plan ahead, and participate in class activities online. While these tips for success can help those new to remote work orient themselves in an unfamiliar virtual environment, others see these days of remote working and learning as an opportunity to rethink what effective working and learning look like.

“Not everything will directly translate from the physical space to the online space,” says Clayton Colmon, Associate Director of Instructional Design for the Penn Arts and Sciences Online Learning team. Colmon and his colleagues collaborate with Penn instructors to design and deliver Penn LPS Online courses, and recently began offering workshops and consultation sessions to assist on-campus instructors' transition to remote learning for the remainder of the spring term. “Usually we have about four to six months to work with faculty and to help them rethink teaching and communication for the online space,” Colmon explains. “But this is a lot more immediate, right? The timeframe is crunched, and it can make people feel anxious and frustrated with the differences they experience between online and physical communication.”

Some of this frustration can be avoided, Colmon suggests, by being open to ways of connecting, learning, and working that don’t replicate the interactions we’re accustomed to. “There are not many expectations that necessarily have to be carried over from the physical space,” he says. “In that openness, there is a sort of freedom to understand work differently, and to circumvent some of our preconceived notions about learning, participation, and presence,” says Colmon.

In many ways, he adds, it’s an opportunity to accept and adjust to some of the ways that technology has already changed the 21st-century classroom and workplace: “Particularly in the world we see now, where the ideas of space and time and identity and presence have been shifting and changing so much, I think it’s incumbent upon us all to take note and adapt.”

1. Focus on what’s important

Any new remote workspace, from the boardroom to the classroom, can benefit from getting back to the basics that drive the work—what services, missions, or goals must come first. “It seems elementary, but by asking questions and thinking really clearly and explicitly about your expectations as you grapple with the differences presented by the online space, you can get most of the way there,” Colmon observes. “Particularly when you become an expert in your field and you’ve been connected to the complexities of that field for so long, it can sometimes be difficult to translate why the field is important and what brought you to it in the first place.”

The first step of translating an on-campus course into an online course is to determine the driving questions or concepts of the course, explains Colmon. “We have these types of conversations with math instructors, with English instructors, with art instructors, all different fields across the arts and sciences,” he says. “There are some basic principles of connecting with presenting and sharing information and knowledge, both in the physical and digital space.” To help instructors determine how to apply instructional design best practices to their specific online courses, Colmon and his colleagues guide instructors through a series of questions. For example, what are the most important concepts to learn and questions to answer by the end of a course? How should students demonstrate what they have learned? What assignments would benefit students working collaboratively versus working independently, and—for any of the above—why?

2. Embrace the unique opportunities offered by online communication

There are many digital tools designed to facilitate productive connections among large and small groups, and the online learning team is constantly testing and incorporating new services and applications to make the Penn LPS Online learning experience immersive and effective. Some tools do present an interface that replicates parts of the classroom environment. For example, the video platform Panopto allows instructors to record video lectures using slideshows similar to the ones they likely use in their classrooms, while professors who favor discussion-based classes may be relieved to know that their Zoom videoconferencing tool includes virtual breakout rooms to facilitate small group conversations.  

But replicating the in-person meeting environment is only a fraction of what digital tools can offer, and not what they do best. “We’ve been talking with instructors about ways that technology mediates the communal experience, and how it may in some ways allow for different forms or more diverse forms of participation,” says Colmon. One of his favorite examples from a Certificate in Creative Writing course used VoiceThread, a collaborative platform that allows users to create and comment on audio, video, visual, and text media; the assignment invited students to record themselves reading a literary text, and then comment on another student’s reading. “While they were not in the same physical space, students could experience different interpretations of the lines of a poem, and hear different textures in people’s voices and the way they approach the narrative,” says Colmon.

Digital tools often encourage a more democratic and inclusive approach to interaction, says Colmon, particularly for students who are introverted or uncomfortable speaking up in a large group dynamic, or students with specific learning and communication needs that aren’t met in on-site meetings. “People are different, and connect to individual or group experiences in different ways,” says Colmon. To promote accessibility for their diverse needs, “we encourage students and faculty members to present information in multiple ways, in the form of visual representation or auditory representation,” he says.

3. Be clear and concise in communication

In a virtual environment, explains Colmon, “we can’t necessarily assume the types of nonverbal cues we would get in an in-person interaction, that we might not even know we’re presenting to the world to help people process what we say or show.” That makes it particularly important to be clear and explicit when communicating instructions and vital information—a standard which is also considered best practice for accessible learning and communication. “In the online space, we recommend ways to organize content that put the important information where it can be easily seen and heard,” he adds.

4. Enjoy the new dimensions of space and time

One of the key benefits of online learning, says Colmon, is that when you give students the opportunity to manage when and how they engage in learning, you also give them space to learn more deeply and comprehensively. “Online learning allows students the time to formulate ideas, to respond to complex problems, and connect to concepts in a way that they might not have had the opportunity to do in a more fast-paced on-campus classroom environment,” he says.

Having the flexibility to manage your time is also critical for online students who may not have reliable access to broadband internet connection. In the online classroom, that might mean supplementing or replacing some synchronous, live meetings in Zoom with asynchronous interfaces such as discussion boards and prerecorded lectures. “Students can then come back to the lectures at their own pace if they are in a space that doesn’t have broadband and need to get to a place that does,” says Colmon. As those of us working remotely find that our internet connections are becoming overtaxed and unreliable at certain times of day, one can see how the ability to log on at your own pace can be conducive to productivity.

Flexibility can also encourage spontaneous and productive interactions, according to Colmon’s experience. He cites a recent course in the Certificate in Organizational Anthropology where students were invited to reflect and discuss their ideal team culture. “It turned out that the students were so interested in building that team culture that they wanted to build a rubric of success,” recalls Colmon. “So they set up their own Zoom meetings outside of the scheduled course meetings, and created a collaborative document and class presentation.” Purely out of their own inspiration and motivation, the class collaborated to create a useful tool that filled a specific need.

5. Make your presence known

“One challenge in online learning is in projecting a sense of presence,” says Colmon. “There is a certain level of transparency that can get lost in the virtual space.” In Penn LPS Online courses, where students log in from all over the country and may not ever meet in person, most courses offer a getting-to-know-you discussion board where students can introduce themselves. The online learning team encourages instructors to personalize these with prompts intended to encourage students to share a sense of their personalities, such as their favorite scent or a meaningful memory, and to model participation by responding to student posts. “Students bring in all aspects of the experiences they’ve had, and instructors are so happy when that happens,” reflects Colmon. “It gives them a sense of the types of communication and the types of presence that are possible online.”

In his own role as an instructor of record, Colmon incorporates icebreakers and informal conversation throughout the term. “I give them the opportunity to do weekly check-ins in smaller groups as well as the large class group, and getting-to-know-you activities like Fun Find Friday paced throughout the semester,” he explains. Particularly in courses that focus on digital literacy and communication, even these lighthearted conversations are part of the coursework: “Personality-based activities help students understand how they are showing up in the world, and allows them to develop a critical awareness about their unique perspectives and how they connect or disconnect in certain spaces,” explains Colmon. But even if this kind of analysis isn’t an essential part of your remote working or learning responsibilities, projecting a sense of your presence into the digital space can help peers and colleagues connect and communicate with you, he adds.

“And at some point, you should be having fun,” Colmon laughs. “You should take the opportunity to play. Having these challenges can also be rewarding.”

For insight from Penn LPS Online students on their strategies for learning online, visit the feature “Penn LPS Online students on how to balance school, work, and family.”

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