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Extreme Commuting and Online Education

Extreme Commuting and Online Education
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How long is your commute?

Do you think that educators involved in online education think differently about commuting – including telecommuting?

Might the growing reach and acceptance of distance learning change how we think about commuting?

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between commuting and online education after reading an article in this past Sunday’s NYTimes on extreme commuting.

According to the Times, the number of people who commute two hours or more (each way) to work is increasing. While solid data on the growth of extreme commuting is lacking, the consensus is that the trend towards long-distance commutes is accelerating.

Reasons for the growth in extreme commuting include:

  • An increased acceptance amongst employers for partial telecommuting, allowing employees to work at home one or two days per week.
  • Rapidly rising housing costs in areas with concentrated employment, while wage increases have failed to keep pace.
  • Continued preference for larger suburban housing.
  • Perceptions around the superiority of suburban schools, as compared to urban K-12 schools.
  • Increases in job mobility, as frequent job changers choose to maintain stability in housing location.
  • The growth of dual income households, with the choice of where to live a compromise for both commutes to work.

Am I missing any of the reasons for the growth in extreme commuting?

In reading the Times article, my response was ‘this is crazy’. A 4+ hour commute – even one by train that allows an extension of the workday into commuting time – just seems insane.

How much of my reaction against extreme commuting is driven by my experience with online education?

The one big thing that I’ve learned in two decades of work in online education is that online education is really good. Done well, and for the right students and the right programs, online education is just as good as face-to-face.

How many jobs are there that truly require everyone to be in the same physical place at the same time?

Yes, I want the person who cuts my hair to be in the office when I go for a haircut. I suppose that there are some jobs that require physical proximity, such as most health care providers and firefighters and cops and other first responders. Construction workers can’t work remotely. Nor can mechanics. Who else?

And yes, all the educators and staff who make residential colleges go need to come to campus – at least most days. Professors need to teach residential courses in classrooms. Researchers who work in labs need to come to the lab. The academic library would be a shell of itself without the presence of academic librarians. All the people who make the physical plant of the campus run need to come to campus to do so.

For most of the work that most workers do, however, I’d venture that telecommuting would be just fine.

What we’ve learned from online education is that with a combination of thought, investment, and a willingness to make data-driven continuous improvements – that distance is not a barrier to quality.

We’ve learned through online education that distance need not impede collaboration, community building, or the development of relationships.

The most important element in teaching an online class is developing a sense of presence.  The best online courses are set-up so that there is a density of interactions. And the best online faculty prioritize rapid feedback, clear communication expectations, and the use of different platforms and tools for rich interactions.

This prioritization of presence and collaboration in online learning would translate well into the world of work. The biggest obstacle for telecommuting would be, I’d guess, a concern about all those hallway conversations and micro-interactions that might be missed if people were not in the same physical space.

This concern, however, is a solved problem in online learning. We know how to build community, presence, and collaboration online – and we can take our methods and tools to goal of improving the productivity of telecommuting.

Have we done enough to take what we’ve learned in online education to improving telecommuting?

Should the champions of online learning also be advocating for telecommuting?

It seems strange that as we get more experience and comfort with distance education that extreme commuting should also be increasing.

Maybe some workers have jobs that truly require face-to-face in office time.  I doubt, however, that the majority of extreme commuters are employed in such jobs.

Are online learning people also natural champions of telecommuting?

How do you see the relationship between online learning and extreme commuting?


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