Over the last two decades we have witnessed dramatic changes in the nature of information and communication technologies and their application in higher education. Within academia, we see a growing imperative to integrate new and emerging information and communication technologies into all aspects of our workplace. There exists a large and diverse corpus of literature on the effects of technologies in the teaching and learning process, leadership and administration, globablization and internationalization, professional development, and policy. Noticeably absent in this body of literature are investigations into the effects of the technological communication innovations in the academic workplace.

In particular, web communication technologies are influencing the way academics are working. As most of us in the academy are beginning to notice, many of our colleagues are not in their on-campus offices. Not only are many academics teaching their courses off-campus, but much of their research and scholarly activities can also be conducted off campus. For example, data collection and library searches have given way to online searches, and many different kinds of data can be collected using communication tools—and in many cases very cost effectively. The result is the creation of (intentionally, or by accident) a distributed work environment.

At this point in time, we have little understanding of the effects of a distributed work environment in institutions of higher education. Are we abandoning our colleagues in cyberspace? Or is this trend resulting in the creation of virtual academic communities? And if so, are these communities enhancing, replacing or damaging academic culture?

Depending on who we talk to, the answers seem to be yes and no.

A number of institutions have noticed this trend and begun to offer teleworking options for their fulltime academics. In Canada, Athabasca University decided to pilot a teleworking policy for its academics. The pilot ran from 2005 to 2008. Like other universities in Canada and beyond, planning for succession and retention is a high priority. Administrators of post secondary institutions are implementing creative efforts to keep senior faculty from moving into early retirement as well as to recruit promising new scholars into academia—rather than to risk their opting for more lucrative jobs in the private sector or being attracted to larger or more prestigious universities.

Teleworking—which offers the freedom to work whenever and where ever—is being viewed as a promising option. Teleworking refers to the practice of employees working away from the conventional office (e.g., at a home office, satellite office or neighborhood work centre) and communicating with the organization through the use of telecommunication technologies. Requirements for attendance by teleworkers at the employers’ premises range from “as needed,” to weekly, monthly and, rarely, to “never.” Attendance for teaching campus-based courses offers a compelling rationale for faculty attendance, but more universities are offering courses at a distance, using a variety of communication technologies. The reduction of compulsory attendance activity, coupled with time and place shifting technologies used to support administrative activities, reduces the need for academics to physically come to campus.

While relatively new to academia, the notion of teleworking is not new in the corporate sector. The effects have been studied, with well-documented benefits and drawbacks. This research shows that teleworking can, in many ways, be an attractive option for both the employer and the employee. Benefits cited in this literature include:

  • flexibility in personal and family scheduling, especially dual-career couples
  • more positive views about family and personal life than employees working in on-site offices
  • increased productivity and work quality
  • less distraction and fewer interruptions
  • an ability to work during the most productive part of the day
  • time saved from commuting
  • an increase in perceived job satisfaction

Drawbacks cited in the literature are:

  • increase in turnover intentions
  • the lack of contact (e.g. being out of sight) limits opportunities for informal socialization, promotion and organizational rewards
  • loneliness and a sense of isolation from the organization

The feeling of belonging to an academic community is incubated by face-to-face learning interactions.

At first glance, the list of benefits clearly outweighs the drawbacks. However, these drawbacks can easily translate into serious workplace problems in academic environments when not accommodated in some manner. For example, when universities function with central, integrated units (and most do) and faculty members are distributed, the balance of power between administration and individual faculty can become unhinged and top-heavy. Decisions on how the university functions tend to move to those in the central, integrated units located on-campus. This situation arises from the lack of contact between colleagues and a lack of identification with the institution by those academics choosing to be teleworkers. Additionally, research has shown that as identification with an institution and commitment decreases so does the contribution to the institution and job satisfaction. The result is erosion of institutional loyalty and an upsurge in turnover intentions. Ergo: it is questionable if teleworking policies are effective at achieving one of its main goals—retention—while at the same time resulting in the potential for unbalanced institutional power structures. In addition to reduced institutional attachment and identification, many employees in distributed work environments experience feelings of isolation. Though, it needs to be noted, research has shown that this can be easily decreased when there is regular, planned and regulated contact and collaboration amongst colleagues.

To determine if these same opportunities and challenges were evolving at Athabasca University we conducted an institutional survey (Kanuka, Heller, Jugdev & West, 2008). Perhaps not surprisingly, we found similar results. The data in this study revealed that the academics choosing to be teleworkers did so for many of the same benefits cited above; the data also showed that they experienced feelings of isolation, a disconnect with the institution and fewer opportunities to make meaningful contributions to the institution through committee work. Also consistent with prior literature, the data indicated contact with colleagues through continuous learning and research activities helped defray feelings of isolation. Other unresolved issues which tend to frustrate academics opting to be a teleworkers revolve around additional expenses incurred when working from an off-campus office: desks, printers, travel to campus, internet connectivity, etc.

Additional comments also revealed that a possible solution is the delivery of continuous learning activities via digitally-based web-spaces. Using, for example, Web 2.0 communication tools, teleworkers can participate and/or access information, attend functions and collaborate from their home office. The survey data also indicate there is a desire by teleworkers to attend face-to-face workshops, with the assumption that time and travel to attend would be paid for by the institution. Given that a university’s most valuable and expensive resource is its academics, and a university’s future is dependent upon the success of its academics, providing funding for time and travel may be a wise investment.

Analyzing the results of our study, we concluded that academics who choose to be teleworkers at Athabasca University, and in particular new hires, want to be connected with like-minded colleagues in the development of innovative and nurturing interactions that support excellence in instruction, and research. They also want to contribute to the direction and growth of the institution.

But we also discovered that if left unattended, academics working in a distributed work environment are likely to experience a sense of isolation. Other research shows that the sense of isolation often progresses toward exasperation, disillusionment and eventual alienation. Educator and author Parker Palmer explains (in his seminal book The Courage to Teach, 1999) how collegial socialization is an essential aspect of continuous learning activities. Without collegial socialization, a privatization of work evolves which “creates more than individual pain; it creates institutional incompetence as well.” He asserts, further, that the outcome of privatized teaching results in performance that is more conservative, rarely straying from what is “tried and true”—even when it does not work. Our institutional study reveals evidence of resistance to move from the “tried and true” and what Palmer refers to as the “silent consensus.”

On the upside, our survey data also revealed, consistent with prior research, that institutional offerings for collegial and continuous learning activities could result in an increase in job satisfaction and work performance. Further, prior research has also confirmed that when continuous learning and involvement opportunities are offered, it can result in improving relationships between teleworkers and the institution. It would, therefore, seem reasonable to conclude the provision of continuous learning activities facilitates a culture that supports academic growth and development, while fostering connectedness between and among colleagues and the institution. While not a new concept, the creation of these kinds of collaborative learning activities is commonly referred to as learning communities or communities of practice.

For a variety of reasons, a “coming together”, face-to-face, in distributed workplace environments is difficult—as is the case with Athabasca University. Working within these constraints, we explored the notion of creating a “virtual” academic learning community as an alternative. Our initial efforts began with a new listserv and an invitation email for our colleagues to join us in a collegial discussion on issues of importance in teaching and learning at Athabasca University. These discussions were facilitated using Elluminate (a webbased, synchronous audio system), with planned sessions once a month. From the start, participation by Athabasca University academics was uninspiring (5-10 participants, including two moderators). After a few sessions, with dwindling participation numbers, we discontinued our efforts to to create a virtual learning community.

At this point in time, we had only explored the creation of a managedvirtual academic community whereby we created and facilitated the virtual community toward our interests, and were consistent with our institution’s aims. However, despite our good intentions, we seemed to lack an informed understanding of the complexities of forming and supporting a virtual learning environment for academics in a manner that is both effective and sustainable.

We decided to conduct another study exploring whether academic support and development units were successful at fostering communities of practice through communication technologies, and if so, how. Of interest is how Internet digital communication tools (e.g., Web 2.0) might be reshaping possibilities for collaboration and the creation of virtual academic communities. One question we investigated is whether a community can be constructed for a group of people or whether it must emerge on its own.

The data from our second study revealed that we are not alone in our inability to sustain virtual academic learning communities—proving once again that it is easier to build an online environment than it is to populate that space. The participants interviewed in this study stated that it was the face-to-face contact and meetings that led to developing and sustaining an academic community. Virtual environments tended to be viewed as not having key mechanisms for initiating a learning community. The provision of physical learning spaces and opportunity appears to be necessary for fostering a sense of community. In particular, the feeling of belonging to an academic community is incubated by faceto-face learning interactions.

The results of this study also indicate that academic communities are more likely to emerge with structured learning or administration experiences than with the more emergent and ad hoc communities that might arise through the spontaneous use of web technologies. Participants were cognisant of the knowledge, skills and effort required to cultivate effective academic learning communities. Our findings suggest that it is a struggle to nurture and sustain virtual academic learning communities. Much of the literature concurs, suggesting that this process is not easy and that strategies for community support must be diverse, stimulating, and be perceived as adding value to academics’ busy lives.

As we were analysing these data, we noticed that one approach, used by all participants in our study, is to begin the process of creating virtual academic learning communities through face-to-face events. This brings academics together initially, providing a place to connect with like-minded colleagues. Once connections are formed and established faceto-face (often through sustained activities, such as cohort-based certificate programs), virtual learning spaces tend to be more successful and sustainable. Most successful online communities depend upon a range of tools beginning with both real time and asynchronous communication using text, audio and video media—including of course the ubiquitous email list. Communities also need tools to support the collaborative construction of documents, including versioning and robust permissions for access and editing. Finally, notification and presence tools that provide members with awareness of the presence and contributions of their community help community members stay connected with each other. Many of us have noted (and some are shocked) at the time and effort millions of users devote to Facebook, MySpace and other social software mega sites, as well as the level of disclosure on these sites. However, academics seem less interested in expending limited time resources on purely social interaction. Thus, the community of practice must add value and not just consume time—pleasurable as that might be for some. Most academics are not early adopters of networked technologies and thus continuing efforts at support and exposure are usually key to developing effective virtual communities.

It was noted by our participants that community building is a labour intensive approach that requires resources, such as a community coordinator to moderate and to keep the dialogue going. Moderators are key to introducing new issues, summarizing, tying topics together, and moving the discussion to deeper levels. Effort, commitment and some charisma are required in order to cultivate and sustain virtual academic communities. A virtual learning community will not form without a champion, a purpose, and easy to use, yet powerful, tools.

The gap between the advantages of present communication tools, such a Web 2.0, and the way academics are using them is a catalyst for research on sustainable virtual academic communities. At present, we need a better understanding of the theoretical and practical approaches required to develop effective virtual learning communities. Drawing on the results of our data, initiatives should consider offering several approaches: combine formal and non-formal online learning programs; allow for both individual and collaborative activities; create online spaces that are easy to use and navigate; and provide opportunity for spontaneous interactions that embed virtual communities within the regular information space of the institution’s web presence. Some virtual academic communities will likely evolve through more on-campus, less virtual activities; some will form resulting from a charismatic champion who manages and moderates the environment; and some will be emergent and organic, self-created by academics. Each of these possibilities provides avenues for the creation of virtual academic communities. Whatever the form or structure, with the increase in distributed workplaces, we need to continue to explore creative ways to build and sustain effective virtual academic communities. AM

Heather Kanuka is a professor and academic director of the University Teaching Services at the University of Alberta. Terry Anderson is a professor and Canada Research Chair at Athabasca University