The Office of Digital Learning has gone remote. For good. And we are hiring. A lot.

I’ve been eagerly waiting to write this post for quite some time now. On October 1, our department was approved to move the majority of our employees to a flexible and/or remote work schedule. Even more exciting, we have five open positions. We have one listing posted for a course developer and four (!) spots for instructional designers. If you have been searching for a flexible work schedule in online learning, instructional design, or course development, I’d love to chat.

In late Spring 2020 it was announced that starting August 1, OU would return to normal campus operations for the Fall 2020 semester. In June we started to gradually make our way back on campus with the intention of being fully back on 8/1. I think I can speak on behalf of the team in saying that while we experienced many several positive outcomes of coming back on campus, we had also experienced a fundamental shift in our work in the last 18 months that required us to assess if  “normal campus operations” still required the “campus” part 40 hours a week.

A little bit of background on how we got here. In 2015, ODL starting providing design support for two online masters programs that lived on the OU Janux learning platform. This was a leap for us as we had only worked with single courses prior. Later, in conjunction with the campus wide Canvas adoption in Fall 2017, we began to assist more departments with online graduate programs and scaled accordingly to provide, in addition to design, development support.

But over the past two years, the nature of our work has changed. Guided by the Lead On, University strategic plan, adopted in late July of 2020, OU has accelerated the growth of online programs. To give you a sense of the new pace of life, between 2015 and 2019, we assisted in the launch of eight programs. Since 2020, the Office of Digital Learning facilitated the design and development of eleven online programs.

Year Program
2015 (2) Data Science and Analytics, Global Affairs
2017 (1) Accounting
2018 (3) Civil Engineering, Hydrology and Water Security, Natural Gas and Engineering Management
2019 (2) Finance, Social Work
2020 (4) Educational Administration and Curriculum Supervision, Executive MBA in Aerospace and Defense, Geospatial Technology, Human Relations
2021 (7) MBA, Computer Science, Strategic Communication, Construction Management, Art and Technology, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Clinical Mental Health and Counseling

The new larger scope, coupled with a distributed team in 2020-21, required us to rethink many of our strategies for design and development.

We did some big things. For instance, we wrote an entire operations manual in order to better define roles within the organization. We’ve adopted a more robust project management tool to help us better document and management projects.

We all made some small tweaks. We restructured our communication tools. Prior to going to remote work, we used Slack more as a back channel for private communications. We opened up more project specific public channels in order to facilitate more department wide communications (the kind of conversations that you used to just jump in because you overheard somebody discussing it across the room).

Perhaps the biggest shift: prior to the pandemic we held the majority of our faculty consultations and trainings on campus simply because this is where our instructors were and where they were most comfortable. The added volume of work, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, requires us to begin to regularly work entirely virtually with online instructors who often reside in various cities across the globe. The new reality means several Instructors and Professors of Practice hired for programs that have launched since 2020 are not located in Norman, so instructional designers and technologists now spend all their meetings on Zoom doing instructional consultations. As my great colleague Keegan Long-Wheeler says, at this point it would be inequitable to hold trainings on campus.

We are also starting to come up against space need. The majority of the team currently resides in one, open office style room. There are no private offices and only a single conference room, which makes the new normal–holding concurrent virtual meetings–challenging to say the least. The new remote and flexible work environment provides employees more efficient and private spaces to conduct meetings. In addition, we have practically ran out of desks for future staff members. We are anticipating that our team will continue to grow with new programs and remote work will also us to grow accordingly without the need or complexities of new and/or additional physical space.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, this change allows us to hire from a broader and more diverse pool of candidates. As anyone in this field knows, these are difficult positions to fill. Inside Higher Ed has literally called them the hottest jobs in higher ed as remote teaching and learning increased the need for instructional designers in both higher education and corporations.

It’s difficult to attract and retain talent only from the local area. Personally, I’ve never been one to think a degree in instructional design or learning technologies is a must to be successful in our field, but it can certainly be a helpful feeder if they do exist. While many universities have graduate programs that serves as a “feeder” for interns for their digital learning teams, OU’s College of Education does not exactly have an equivalent program. We are always very happy with the interns we get from the CoED and only wish there were more of them.

Often we find ourselves often either a.) reskilling talent who come from an adjacent field or b.) competing for talent outside of the metro area who would require a relocation. This is not terrible as I believe I believe it takes a real special skillset–not just a piece of paper–to be successful in online design and development. Candidates who excel are often highly educated/skilled and the duties requires both soft and hard, technical skills. They often understand the nuances of higher education. More often than not they have relevant teaching experience. They often prioritize the love of learning over the love of tools (my team knows all too well that I often introduce us as “the Office of Digital Learning with the emphasis on “learning”). But none of these skills require you to be on a physical campus full time.

This doesn’t mean we are fully detaching from campus. We run a small media department that offers academic media services that we’ll continue to maintain, and I’m going to maintain more of an on campus presence given my teaching and administrative duties that lend themselves to more on ground activities.

If you can’t tell, I’m extremely excited for the new phase of the office. I love, love the team we have right now. I have also never felt more passionate about the work that we are doing or the field itself. If you are interested in joining the team, let’s talk. If you are in a similar position where the “new normal” has given you the opportunity to reconsider how you do you work, I’d love to hear some of the changes your team has made that you’ve found to be most beneficial. How have you made a big improvement over the last year and a half?

Featured image by Johnson Wang on Unsplash