Next year marks the start of our new midwifery program that is to be delivered in a blended mode. We will have several face-to-face 'intensive' sessions during the year with students, but the rest of the material will be delivered online.
Implications for work
This will mean that we, as lecturers, will have the ability to be more flexible about when and where we 'work'. With the cost of petrol and maintaining a car, as well as the increasing difficulties of finding a parking space, I suspect we'll find it very attractive to spend more time working at home.
Losing spontaneous and serendipitous communication
But there are concerns about how that will affect the way we work and interact. In particular, there are concerns about the loss of elements of face-to-face communication that we take so much for granted - those spontaneous and serendipitous moments that happen as we pass a colleague's desk, meet in the tea room, or a bump into a student in the toilet. For example, the other day I was concerned that I was losing control of an online discussion with students - it was heading in a direction that I didn't want it to go. This was at the back of my mind when I was talking to a colleague about a presentation she was giving at an upcoming midwifery conference. And it dawned on me that I could take the approach with my students to re-focus their thinking that she was taking with her presentation. But would that have happened if we were at separate locations, working in an online environment?
Different way of being?
I would say that we have to re-think the way we are and the way we 'work'. This will include re-thinking the way we communicate online and the tools we use. It will mean that we have to move from asynchronous communication with email and discussions boards to synchronous communication using tools such as Twitter, Gmail, MSN, and Skype. And that means keeping those communication tools open all the time we are 'working' - keeping the web cam attached to the computer and headphones alongside us.
Talking to nurses in the USA
A wonderful example of this spontaneous, online 'way of being' happened the other day. I was sitting at home, still in my pajamas mucking around on the computer and I was called by Bill Perry on Skype. One of Bill's roles is to teach health informatics to student nurses at the Wright State University College of Nursing and Health, Dayton, Ohio. He wanted to illustrate how Skype worked to his students and asked me if I could spare five minutes to talk to them with web cam about how I envisioned Skype working in my midwifery context. So that's what I did. I had fun because we ended up talking about midwifery in New Zealand, and Bill appreciated the help with giving a context to Skype which I am sure was interesting for the students. It was a spur of the moment, spontaneous event that would not have happened if I hadn't had Skype open.
I acknowledge that there has to be some boundaries around this 'availability'. When I am working in the office, there will be times when I make it quite clear I do not want to talk to anyone, colleagues or students, because I am concentrating on a particular task. And the same will apply to working online.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that it is possible for computer-mediated communication to be as engaging as face-to-face communication, but it doesn't just happen by itself. We have to change our attitudes about how we use our computers to communicate; become familiar with the tools that support synchronous communication, and get out there and network with people who it is worth being spontaneous with.
What tools for synchronous communication do you like to use? What's your favorite online spontaneous /serendipitous moment that you can recall? If you are a person who does a lot of online teaching, what tips would you give me as I move from face-to-face classrooms to an online environment, especially around maintaining relationships with colleagues and students, and getting the most out of synchronous communication?