The Quality of Impromptu Online Work

This tweet resonated with me:

Avoiding congregations is a key measure for slowing the spread of coronavirus. As a result, we’re moving online many activities that we would’ve previously done in person. Some activities are easier to move than others.

I had an in-person brainstorming meeting scheduled this morning. We’re now planning to do it over Zoom. We’ll still meet, but it won’t be the same. When I meet with someone to explore new ideas, we use sticky notes and whiteboards to make our thinking visible. The room becomes part of our shared cognitive apparatus. As good as they are, modern teleconferencing apps can’t replicate a physical space with lots of drawing surfaces. We can’t immerse ourselves in the thinking in the same way, so the thinking will be different.

I’m also an educator. I haven’t heard from my institution about canceling in-person classes, but another local university did so last week. So I must at least consider the possibility: what if we need to move classes online? My classes have lecture components and experiential components, such as design critiques and in-class exercises. I can easily do the lectures online, but not the exercises. We don’t have time to restructure the course (literally) in the middle of the semester. So if need be, we can finish the semester online, but it won’t be the same.

Moving activities online on short notice isn’t ideal. Some, such as basic “information transfer” meetings, are relatively easy to do. Others will not be as easy. Moving these activities online will require additional effort, and will likely impact the quality of work in the near-term. But as the cliché says, necessity is the mother of invention. One possible outcome from this time of disruption could be new remote collaboration techniques that outlast the immediate crisis. Ultimately, reducing our dependency on transportation could even be good for the environment. (Looking for a silver lining here.)