3 Questions for Adam Croom on OU’s Now Fully Remote Office of Digital Learning

We have gotten to know Adam Croom, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, over the years through the grassroots HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) peer network. When we learned that Adam’s team at OU Office of Digital Learning was moving to a fully remote working structure, we wanted to learn more. Adam graciously agreed to answer our questions.

Q1:       What is the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Oklahoma? What is your role in the Unit?

I lead a team of instructional designers, instructional technologists, and media specialists who partner with faculty to design and develop digital learning experiences. We have managed to build quite a catalog of services including a Domain of One’s Own initiative, game-based learning faculty learning communities, digital humanities projects, academic media services, and online program design. We also played a significant role in helping faculty pivot to remote teaching in spring 2020.

More recently, we’ve been more focused on online programs. In mid-2020, OU adopted a new strategic plan. A pillar of the plan is to grow revenue in order to improve affordability and accessibility, and new online professional graduate programs were identified as a tactic to help OU achieve its larger goals.

To give you a sense of how the strategic plan has impacted us, between 2014 and 2019, our office assisted with the development of seven fully online programs. Since 2020, we’ve helped design and develop eleven more programs. That has resulted in more than 200% growth in online course development needs over two years.

Naturally, the accelerated growth has meant the lion share of my time has recently been focused on strategic planning for our office, which I equate to driving in dense fog. All joking aside, it really has allowed us to reassess our organizational structure, focus our efforts, and thoughtfully plan for growth.

Q2:  In a recent blog post, you shared that your Office of Digital Learning is going to a fully remote working arrangement.   What is the thinking that led to that change? 

The simplest answer is that our work has fundamentally shifted over the last 18 months and having every staff member in a physical office 40 hours a week no longer feels necessary (at times, it can even be a hindrance).

There are multiple practical reasons. Due to the recent growth, we now work with many faculty and instructors who have never set foot on our campus, so all faculty support is completed virtually.

Second, at a time when campus real estate is at a premium, we have simply outgrown our space.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remote work allows us to hire and retain talent from a broader and more diverse pool of candidates. Remote work is particularly attractive for talent with family care obligations, disabilities, and eliminates location bias.  You could say that, in many ways, this shift will allow our team to be more reflective of the people we aim to serve: the online adult learner population.

Q3:  There seems to be a trend in our digital learning world towards remote work. Many in higher ed, including both of us, are concerned about what fully digital teams will mean for collaboration and productivity. How do you think about this challenge?

I share and sympathize with your concerns, and also recognize that we have yet to identify every problem or solution. Even so, I’m fortunate enough to lead a group of individuals who are thinking on a daily basis about how to foster social interaction, both student-to-student, and student-to-instructor, in these spaces.

Speaking for my own team, at our core we preach taking a human-centered approach. This often means centering the needs of the individual within the context of institutional goals. We are not anything if not designers, and so we plan to take a similar iterative approach to constantly improving the design of our workspace. This means we are committed to evaluating the environment on a regular basis and adapting it as necessary based on our team’s needs.

To get teams started, here is a short list of values we’ve adopted:

  1. Bring more visibility to conversations. If you use communication tools such as Slack, encourage team members to spend more time in Channels rather than Direct Messages in order to include more voices.
  2. Develop a culture of documentation. We recently adopted a significantly more robust project management tool that allows us to document, monitor, organize, and preserve projects. Good documentation is an incredibly helpful tool for distributed team members who can’t get a deep dive of the history of a project by shouting across the room.
  3. Don’t fully give up on physical meetings. Your team will still find immense value in a regularly scheduled face-to-face meeting. We are holding one monthly, which currently meets our team’s needs. We’ve scheduled these out until the end of the year, and we’ll reevaluate if that meeting cadence is still appropriate.

Like everyone else, transitioning to work-from-home in 2020 allowed us to work through the initial growing pains that any organization would experience when trying to adapt to a new environment. The necessity of the situation required us to standardize new norms and practices, and we now feel confident in making the shift permanent. I’d even go as far as to say we like it.

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