From a Distance

Professional Learning in a Post-COVID Remote World

When I first entered the professional world—longer ago than I care to admit—training meant one thing: a group of people in a room for hours at a stretch, a lecturer, perhaps some visual aids (and PowerPoint if you were really snazzy), tepid coffee, and—perhaps worst of all—a badly-acted video.

It’s an old-school memory of an old-school approach. What’s interesting about it is for how long old-school maintained a firm foothold in the business world. As communication and connectivity continued to streamline, we would expect businesses to embrace this. As telecommuters again and again reported increased productivity over their in-office counterparts, we would expect a sharp trend in this direction.

This is not what we saw. Many jobs that, with the advent of smartphones and a national blanket of high-speed internet, could easily have been performed anywhere were still tethered to an in-office location. From personal experience, this was especially true about training; many bosses would allow their employees to telecommute—but once training time came around, they still had to come in for the lecture and bad coffee.

It seems bias was at work, an image in the collective American mind of an employee in a bathrobe screwing around, playing video games, and gazing at their navels when there was work to be done. (I can understand this; I myself am ambivalent about the blessings of our connectivity. When I was a teacher, when it came to new technology, the students knew me as an old grump whose primary experiences with TikTok, “Insta,” and other such foolery were Ludditistic screeds of trash-talking against their use and misuse.) No matter the bounding pace of the advancement of communications, there were some things that professional America just did not want to surrender.

Enter the early months of 2020. The band-aid of in-house employment was torn off in a sudden blast of virulent air.

We don’t need to explore the upheaval; we all have stories, and they all overlap in theme. Of course, one of the most immediate and striking social shifts was the transition of telecommuting from luxury to necessity.

I see the evolution of Zoom as allegorical of this transition. I had used Zoom in the past for some tutoring sessions, a few meetings—tangential professional activities like that. It had always struck me as an unintuitive piece of software, clunky and buggy at the best of times. Still a teacher at the time, now conducting online classes, I saw it evolve into a staple of modern communication; in the first few months of lockdown, I saw the rapid-fire evolution of its use, its interfaces, its security protocols.

(As an aside, I remember watching The Jetsons as a child. My dad just happened to be in the room when, in the show, Jane needed to put on her makeup in order to take a phone call, which of course was done via what we now call a video chat. Dad pointed out that one day, we would have that technology ourselves and its attendant requirements of presentability. It seemed far-fetched to a young boy in the 80s.)

This has since become a mainstream professional tool. From something poorly understood by the mainstream and imperfect in its usage, it exploded into something without which many businesses could not operate.

So it has been with telecommuting in a more general sense. For many companies in many industries, this has fast become the norm. Its methods and use have been refined in much the same way its software has. Although, true, more people have ended up wearing pajamas in the middle of the day, working from home has increasingly become the norm, and all signs point to the continuation of this trend.

As with any major social change, there are benefits and drawbacks to this phenomenon. For good or ill, staying at home to do work has become an expectation. From my observation, one of the primary shifts in the professional consciousness has been a redefining of what it means to be part of a group. In years past, most professional “groups” were tangible, concrete; you were there, at the workplace, with your colleagues, teammates, friends, an occasional enemy if office politics went that way. Even when activities were individual—such as I experienced in my youth during a distracted year when I worked in a call center—the group-ness of it was palpable.

Now the group has become, for many of us, a more abstract idea. I sit now in my living room, computer in my lap, feet on the ottoman, Mozart soft in the background, and a steady encroachment of the never-ending tsunami of baby toys making its way toward the couch. And yes, I am wearing pajamas. I am, most decidedly, alone.

However, I am not solitary. This is all to a purpose. I am not working next to or in front of anyone, but I am working with people to a common goal. The group is now a mental construct that I share with other people spread throughout the country. Alone, yes, but with a sense of solidarity that I hold in my mind.

To me, the upshot of this is that I am, in a way, more personally involved in my work than I might otherwise be. Since group is a more internal process, I am more at the heart of my sense of belonging; it depends on me more than it does on the reinforcement of others.

I could easily wax poetic on this subject, but I am now at the point: This shift is most evident in the phenomenon of eLearning. Let’s go back to the image we started with, of a training room filled with people and one person standing in front at a lectern or other such theatrical prop. This image is slowly fading into obsolescence. It won’t be much longer before it strikes us as antiquated as Don Draper’s office.

As professional training makes its inexorable evolution into the electronic, it also shifts into the personal. We can all intuit in a second the difference between sitting in an audience and being spoken to directly. The difference between learning in a classroom and self-teaching in a home office is just as sharp. For an individual learner taking him or herself through a module, there is a much larger degree of psychological independence. The responses to the material are individual; the person is left alone to process the information in the ways that he or she best sees fit without any tangible pressures from any surrounding people.

In this way, the connection to the material is a more personal experience. In the same way that I link my personal experience on my couch with my own concept of the group to which I belong, a person going through an individual training does so with an individualized idea of the meaning of it.

The effect on instructional design is profound. When I first started taking contracts with Magic ten years ago, I imagined my modules being delivered by a training professional to a room full of (hopefully) eager trainees. Now, I design for single trainees to teach themselves.

The first effect this has is on pacing.

From my experience as a classroom teacher, I have an instinctive understanding of how to slow things down to make sure the material is sticking. In group learning, you’ve always got stragglers—people who haven’t picked up on what you’ve said, either because their attention is wandering or because they haven’t understood something. Although you don’t want your lessons to lag, you also don’t want to rush.

But more basically, people process information differently when they’re doing it for themselves. Classroom presentations are inherently slower. The details need to be explained and reinforced more exhaustively and from a more basic standpoint because the information is coming from a source separated from your own mind.

In individualized eLearning modules, the pacing can be quickened. The learner absorbs the information more efficiently when it’s one’s own mind at work. With the intellectual freedom brought by this kind of learning, with the mental control over one’s own instruction, new information becomes that much more easily learned.

Second, I find myself with greater flexibility to focus on what is actually done within whatever process is being taught; there is less need to describe why such a thing is done in such a way. Because the connection to the material is more self-created in individualized learning, there is not such urgency to create a personal investment in the material; it’s already there.

Thus, training curricula designed for individual eLearning can be more process-oriented. This, to my mind, is all to the good. Ultimately, that’s the point of these lessons: learning how to do what you need to know how to do. For a process to be learned, the instruction needs to discuss how that process fits into a larger whole, but compared to my earlier modules from years past, that larger whole is more secondary to the instruction in how I design my current lessons. Again, for the individual learner, once something is stated, it’s part of the experience.

Overall, like with telecommuting, the benefit of individual eLearning is one of efficiency. We are social creatures, needing to be part of a group, but the ability to separate one’s mental processes from the pressures of being part of something can make for sharper trainees and more exhaustive training.

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