How a Team of Remote Natives Is Changing Campus Connection
This article is written from the point of view of two individuals who experienced the switch to remote education during COVID-19 from both a university and technology perspective—and a solution that supports campus culture.
Remote Learning Transition
Kyle: At Outer Labs where I work as a product strategy advisor, physical space has always been a key resource in our business model — our products connect people, spaces, and things IRL. And that’s how we began 2020, working with public universities across the country to activate their campuses with digital services. But, early in March everything changed as the novel coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States, and connecting in physical spaces became dangerous. College campuses were one of the first American institutions to transition to remote operations in the interest of slowing the spread of the virus.
The first transition to remote learning, or online classrooms, in the U.S. happened on March 9 at the University of Washington in Seattle. Which, in addition to my role as an advisor to Outer Labs, is where I teach architecture and design. My department announced their approach during an emergency in-person meeting. The irony of meeting in person to discuss how to temper the dangers of meeting in person was not lost on the faculty. We were asked to suspend on-campus operations indefinitely, starting that day. In spite of the robust telepresence kit developed and even deployed by the school for a week during a 2019 snowstorm, we knew we’d be navigating uncharted waters.
Major concerns emerged in this meeting, chief among them the provision of equitable assessments for students when we couldn’t provide them access to an equitable learning environment. It became clear that the campus, and more importantly its culture, was under threat. My colleagues and I heavily lean on campus culture to help our students grow both academically and socially. Without it, American universities are missing one of their key differentiators and value propositions. We weren’t sure whether we could do college remotely. Even Bill Gates acknowledges that face-to-face school, “the social activity — making friends, hanging out — that you get by being there physically, that’s totally irreplaceable.” As an increasingly tenuous incumbent in the higher education market space, we worried that quarantine practices could prove college permanently obsolete. This was not a fun meeting.
Undoubtedly this was typical of meetings happening across the university, and across the nation at many more universities. Fun or not, we embarked, quickly followed by primary and secondary schools, and most of America’s workforce. Even though it was in the country’s best interest, the abrupt cultural turn provoked a universal sense of loss. At best, we lost the ability to eat at a restaurant, at worst, we lost the ability to be with a dying relative. In the higher education community, we lost a lot of control. We had taken for granted the technology of shared physical space to provide an incredibly natural and seamless teaching and learning experience. It became immediately clear that while the university had provided many platforms for virtual classrooms, scheduling time with students was left to clunky spreadsheets, and there were no provisions for maintaining student-to-student connections.
While the academic world was so focused on the pains of loss, the team at Outer Labs found these pains familiar — they were problems we’d been trying to solve IRL — and we realized it wouldn’t take much for our AEC-directed tools to solve these scheduling and connection problems as well.
Missed Connections and Remote Learning
Heidi: On March 11, I prepared to onboard a test group of engineering faculty and students to a new digital tool designed to improve on-campus engagement. It was the middle of spring break for the University of Rhode Island, and I was approaching them as the senior product strategy manager at Outer Labs. Minutes before our scheduled meeting their university president sent out an urgent email — face-to-face activities had been suspended and academic departments were switching to remote learning via online classrooms in 12 days.
Last fall this same institution opened a new state-of-the-art engineering research facility where I observed spaces and equipment underutilized by its occupants. Our Product Strategy team believed these symptoms were wide-spread in academic buildings and set out to validate the high-priority activities faculty and students were struggling to perform on their campuses, outside of classroom instruction. 77% of students we surveyed across 15 institutions had foregone using on-campus assets crucial to their studies because they were too difficult to find and reserve. We identified this condition as “missed connections” and began to quickly prototype and test integrated digital services to make IRL connections inside buildings easier — and faster.
We hypothesized that physical space utilization was at the center of the higher education battle to remain relevant in a changing market. Enrollment at campus schools has been declining since 2012, and operational budgets flatlined for the past decade. Facilities managers were becoming concierges because students and faculty couldn’t serve themselves. We believed soft solutions were ideal investments for learning institutions trying to survive.
Our preliminary self-serve, mobile-first solution was ready for pilot testing at URI the day the university president cancelled on-campus gatherings. We knew it was time to pivot when access to a key resource in our business model was put on hold for the foreseeable future. In an instant, increasing IRL interactions and space utilization rates were no longer a priority for our target customer.
As other academic communities followed suit in shutting down their campus operations, our team mobilized to understand the new challenges emerging from remote learning and online classroom action plans. We observed administrators weighing the security risks of digital communication tools and faculty discovering the logistical challenges of scheduling numerous virtual meetings for instruction. Faculty also expressed anxiety about losing the important connections they’d built with their students. In this moment we believed there was an opportunity to provide quick relief by leveraging the insights we’d gained from months of testing the needs and pain points of campus learning communities. And who better to design a remote workflow than a technology company that has been 100% remote since day one?
We hypothesized a new high-priority job for our target customer — delivering quality educational experiences digitally, and an emotional need for end users — feeling secure in a learning community from anywhere. We believed our mobile services could be adapted from streamlining reservations for meeting rooms and lab equipment to keeping academic staff, faculty, and students in sync. Within five days we launched our re-worked prototype to our original test group of engineering faculty and students. A month later, we have over 100 users at five higher education institutions relying on our digital tool for their weekly online learning activities.
Patch: A Remote Learning Solution
Heidi: Before the coronavirus outbreak, Outer Labs offered Patch as white-label digital services to connect people, spaces, and things IRL. Now we’re mobilizing to offer it virtually. Our first priority is to help learning communities stay in touch by streamlining class and office hours scheduling. Seamless integrations are critical for faculty sharing their availability and allowing students to reserve time with them, especially now that students have dispersed from campuses and returned back home. Classes that once assembled at the same time every week on-campus have an added challenge of navigating time zones. In response, we’re improving on the calendaring tools that were already in use, and we’re reducing the number of clicks and emails required to attend a video conference on time. Soon online classes will be as easy as IRL.
Our second priority is to nurture the often unplanned interactions faculty and students enjoy between rigidly scheduled class times. Patch digital services allow students to reserve a last minute study room on-campus, or faculty members to broadcast ad hoc availability to their class list in real time. Under these lockdown conditions, we’re testing new solutions to facilitate casual exchanges and the rapid formation of colleague and classmate groups. Our value proposition is evolving from a nimble scheduling tool to a learning community support system; regardless of whether you’re on or off campus. Soon remote spontaneity will be as easy as IRL.
Innovations in Productivity
Heidi and Kyle: The sense of loss and failure that dominated those first few weeks of remote learning has given way to an environment of experimentation and possibility. The age-old barriers to remote workplaces have all but disappeared. But we’ve gone far beyond innovations in productivity. New forms of interaction are emerging: we attend remote happy hours, game nights, and Passover seders. We have “Zoom Rooms,” to return some of that accountability a shared office space can provide. We attend incredibly intimate remote concerts, and we make remote exquisite corpse drawings.
Many enjoy exercising some control over their remote environments, at least more than they can over their real lives. I myself have been seeing friends locally and globally even more than I had before quarantine. For some, this full itinerary has improved self-worth.
Amidst this experimentation it’s become clear the world is changing — fast. So fast, that Matthew Continetti, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, warns in his article, Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently, that those familiar “with a specific model of change, operating within the existing parameters of our liberal democratic institutions” will be “forced to revise our very conception of change,” as the world leaves old norms behind.
In other words, the genie is out of the lamp, and refuses to be confined a second time. Generation Z and Millennials will lead the human race to a new paradigm, one where people will need to be bi-lingual in telepresence and presence to remain competitive and socially nourished. The cost of distance has been eliminated, leaving us with a new agent of being: The Remote Native.
Training New Remote Natives
Heidi and Kyle: Supporting remote natives is both a challenge and opportunity for problem-solvers in tech. Even though many of us have been doing business-as-usual in a remote capacity for years, our tools have a long way to go before telepresence feels as seamless as real presence. There are massive infrastructural problems to solve: problems of equitability, access, and policy. There are also problems of design. AR and VR platforms have long been a sandbox for innovation, but they’ve failed to render virtual environments as well as — or better than — IRL. And as we’ve learned, existing telepresence tools completely overlooked crucial elements of student and faculty user journeys. But these are small problems compared to the social hurdle to remote nativity, a problem that social distancing has handily solved for us in just over a month.
We’re preparing for the years ahead by recalibrating weekly. Each day of shelter-in-place, we’re training a new generation of remote natives. Our Patch pilot users are now 744 hours in. For our Product Strategy team at Outer Labs: “It remains Day 1.”
The Future of Education
Read more in part two of this series, The Hybrid Campus and the Future of Education.
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