Remembering the Value of Face to Face

To date I’ve remained true to the primary focus of this blog and have avoided areas like e-learning and distance/remote learning (mainly because they are big topics and I don’t know where to start!)

However on reading the Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report written by the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX) I couldn’t help but consider some of the overlaps.

The report provides a “coherent and accessible account of the potential for Web 2.0 technologies in higher education” and makes for a very good read.

One incite that struck me was something that Andy Powell also pointed out in his blog post. When discussing whether there is still a role for universities in a Web 2.0 world Andy concludes that luckily for universities “there are strong hints in the report that aspects of the traditional university, face to face tutor time for example, are well liked by their customers“.

Learners

The report repeatedly makes the observation that “face to face contact with staff – the personal element in study – matters to students“. When considering student expectations before enrolment, face to face teaching was found to be preferable to that via technology. This is to some extent directed by the influence of the school model where face to face teaching is the norm. Not only this but personal teaching is something fee paying students expect as part of their ‘purchase’.

However physicality isn’t always possible (or desired). When talking about ongoing drivers to change the CLEX report talks about diversity in the learner population and makes the observation that:

e-Learning incorporating Web 2.0 offers the sense of being a contributing member of a learning community, which is one of the hallmarks of higher education. For learners unable to participate in an actual community for some, or even all, of the time – notably part-time, distance and, increasingly, work-based – Web 2.0 may be a reasonable proxy.

Of course for most learners the use of ICT and Web technologies will go hand in hand with personal contact, which is the ideal solution.

Remote Workers

The need for that personal contact resonates strongly with many remote workers. A quick look at the guest posts will confirm. Although remote working is for many a lifestyle choice it is also quite often a necessity. Despite the advantages it brings most who have tried it will acknowledge that sometimes nothing compares with meeting with people in the flesh. For many of us much work can be carried out in front of a PC, some work can be carried out using social networking tools but for other tasks (notably those that require quick interaction -like a meeting) the preferred option is face to face.

The extinction of face to face meetings has been predicted many-a-time (along with the paperless office and a world without books). Back in 2005 Alan R. Winger wrote an article for Business Horizons entitled Face-to-face communication: Is it really necessary in a digitizing world? in which he argued that despite changing technologies it was still the best way to communicate for two main reasons:

First, being physically close brings into play in a robust way all of the senses: sight, sound, smell and touch. There are more than a few differing types of contact. Messages can be expressed vocally, the content of which can be the outcome of rational thought. Vocally, the content can express feelings both in terms of what is said and how it is said. Perhaps even more important is the ability to see another when face-to-face, which brings nonverbal cues such as body gestures and facial expressions into the fray. Many consider these to be critically important in business communication. Being near also permits touching and smelling, both of which can provide important clues in some discussions.

Second is the matter of speed. Information communicated in a face-to-face setting is instantaneously received, as is any resulting response. In this sense, speed is argued to contribute significantly in situations where the problems to be dealt with are best addressed with knowledge contained in the minds of those working to find solutions, i.e., tacit knowledge.

So now we remote workers are in a predicament. Face to face is preferable for some tasks but often not possible. Luckily the CLEX report concludes that if face to face is not possible “ICT (can be) accepted as an adjunct if managed well“.

My previous Ariadne articles have offered suggestions (such as virtual meetings) and I hope in the near future to write more about the use of video, which is one possible approach.

I suppose as remote workers with limited time and limited organisational budget for travel the trick is identifying which face to face activities hit the biggest score productivity wise.

For now I’d argue those that:

  • include problems that need people to use tacit knowledge to find solutions
  • pack the most into the shortest time (conferences)
  • include the most opportunities for networking
  • can’t be well replicated using video or audio
  • are mission critical to a project

should be first on the list.

Any thoughts?

Also any thoughts on the connections between remote and e-learning and remote working. How about remote research? I’d be happy to broaden my scope if people are OK with it.

6 thoughts on “Remembering the Value of Face to Face

  1. You might want to factor an environmental element while looking at when to pursue face-to-face activities (alongside the issues of time and budget?)

  2. Hi Owen,

    Yes. I’ve just covered ‘content’ reasons in the list but travel, budget and environmental reasons have a big role to play.

    I’ve heard of people flying out to the states for a 1 hour meeting. Hopefully the recession has put an end to activities like that. The environmental impact aside, what a waste of commuting time, though at least now people can work whilst travelling….but jetlag has a cost too.

    Personally I’m really pleased that face to face contact is still seen as important. Living only in a online/virtual world is enough to make anyone go a little skewy!

    Marieke

  3. I’d be really interested when you get a chance to post more about software for video conferencing and/or meeting.

    In this month’s PCW there is a review of some Videoconferencing kit (Aastra Telecom Vipr). Review very positive describing it as “an affordable and easy-to-manage” solution, before going on to outline the cost of £7700 per terminal + £2798 for the Application server (both ex VAT)!

    Having looked at the use of video just for site-to-site conversations, I’ve struggled to find options that allow good multi-way video conferencing. The Apple iChat solution looks good, but only if you’ve all to Macs. The Windows Live and Office Communication Suite doesn’t handle multiple video streams (not properly anyway). I found some software called ooVoo which offers some multiple video stream functionality (up to 6 participants) at what looks like a reasonable $17.95 per month – but although we did a bit of testing, we haven’t got further than the free trial.

    One challenge is getting people to use the software – it definitely takes some getting used to, and again, like face-to-face communication, you have to feel it is worth it to use it as opposed to a phone call or email etc.

    Finally, while I’m commenting, a suggestion for another future post🙂 I don’t think you’ve covered ‘presence’ notification stuff on the blog? I mean s/w which allows you to see when your colleagues are available – Messenger supports this a bit, and the MS OCS (Office Communication Suite) has presence integrated with Exchange so your calendar can update your availability. I always really like this idea, but I have to admit it doesn’t seem to work in practice – I’m not sure why.

  4. Thanks Owen,

    Phew…quite a few pointers. Will do my best!😉

    I have to admit that I have little personal experience of using video conferencing software (apart from Access Grid and VRVS). The University of Bath have a Video conferencing suite so that might be a good place to start.

    Anyway will keep you posted!

    Marieke

  5. Pingback: Cultural Heritage » Blog Archive » Elsewhere on UKOLN Blogs: May 2009

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