It’s always about the biscuits
I was in a meeting the other day where we were considering some of the difficulties of recruiting student representatives to numerous panels. Someone commented that the shift online had removed one key element of appeal, which was a regular visit to the Milton Keynes campus. For students who aren’t inside the institution this provided more informal interactions with staff members, who they may have previously only come across in course materials. This kind of standing around the tea tray moment (I’m not calling it water cooler) perhaps then facilitated interaction in the more formal meetings that followed, which can otherwise seem quite intimidating. No matter how encouraging or welcoming the meeting is, it takes quite a lot for a student to speak up and perhaps contradict one of the people who have written a course they love, for instance.
This is one example of how in higher ed while we are grappling with the issues of creating effective online learning communities for students, we are not really applying the same effort or ingenuity to online working within an institution. As with the lecture, the response often seems to be ‘let’s go back to face to face, I liked that’. But we also know that many people prefer online meetings (and a counterpoint to the above example, some students who couldn’t come to Milton Keynes regularly, are now able to participate as representatives), and it better suits the demands of their lifestyle.
But we still largely have administrative structures that view the face to face campus meeting as the norm, even at the OU. As I’ve argued with the equivalent in teaching, the architecture does a lot of the organisation and labour for us – we interact around the room, we go to the cafe to socialise, we allow time inbetween meetings to walk across campus, we meet up for social activities, etc. Firstly we need to identify what the impacts of these kinds of interactions are on our working life, these might include factors such as greater social cohesion, increased sense of belonging, creation of informal networks, etc. Then we need to find online equivalents of realising these, and create administrative structures that facilitate this.
Let me explain through the medium of biscuits. Strangely, biscuits turn out to be a good way to monitor various aspects of an institution’s performance. For example, when we were going through the OU crisis, the ability to order biscuits for an internal meeting was cut (it had to be for large meetings only and they had to be over a certain time). At the same time, millions were being spent on consultants who knew very little about distance education. This revealed the trust and value placed in internal staff and knowledge – we’re cutting a small thing that matters to you, but spending excessively on people who aren’t you was the message I took from it as I munched sourly on my cookie.
That attitude may be in the past now, but for our new concern biscuits also offer an insight. I started with the example of informal interaction around the tea tray. This will (hopefully!) contain biscuits. If the constraints mentioned above are satisfied, then it is fairly easy to order biscuits to a meeting room. There is a process for this. Now, try ordering treats to be sent to everyone’s house for an informal morning chat. You might be able to do it with a special budget or a magic credit card, but the process is not as straightforward, and neither is the practice. But that informal chat with the biscuits as social object may have significant work related benefits (and just, you know, be nice).
Finding equivalents (without necessarily recreating the exact online version) of the types of interaction mentioned above and creating processes and structures that encourage them. Hobnob anyone?