Communities we live in and serve: universities and places

Voluntourism, geoarbitrage, and digital nomads

Reasons to be Cheerful is among my first ports of call for news most mornings because I hate to start the day on a negative or banal note. The news is mostly good, but it’s never trivial, cute, or frivolous. This article from a few weeks back, Remote Work Is a Chance to Do Something Meaningful, describes how some people are engaging in voluntourism while working their day jobs. Voluntourism is too often perpetrated by a bunch of privileged do-gooders with colonialist, missionary, or white saviourist motives, whose minds are not so much broadened but flattened down to two dimensions by travel (sometimes, there’s only so much mind to go around). However, as long as it is driven and controlled by those receiving help – as described here – rather than by their helpers then it is, on balance, a pretty good reason to be cheerful.

Remote work much more usefully allows people to do more for the communities in which they actually live, and thus to bring their skills, labour, and support to a much broader geographical area than those traditionally served by place-based organizations, with a bit more time to spend doing so, and a lot less environmental damage (this is also, as it happens, one of the benefits of distance learning). Distance working is good for communities everywhere, spreading environmental, social, psychological, and economic benefits equitably across regions. Individuals can move to (or stay in) areas they prefer to live while doing jobs they value, accommodating the the needs of their families, and geoarbitrating so that their money goes further. And this is rapidly becoming the norm. According to a recent Gallup poll in the US, a majority of people whose jobs can be done remotely (around 56%), would be extremely likely to change companies if they were not offered remote working options. Compared with 2019, when only 8% would prefer to exclusively work remotely, 34% would now prefer to do so, and another 60% want hybrid working. Around the world, countries and towns are increasingly competing to try to lure highly paid knowledge workers to their regions, attracting them with flexible visas, cheap accommodation, co-working spaces, tax breaks, communications infrastructure, and so on. In some cases, they are reversing migratory trends that have occurred over decades. Geoabitrage can bring its own problems but, when it is mindfully done, in harmony with what local residents want, it is good for all concerned.

Communities we live in and serve

This brings me, rather obliquely, to another news source on my regular morning reading list, OLDaily, in which, not long ago, Stephen Downes made a wonderfully succinct comment about the ongoing fracas at Athabasca University:

I think there’s a point to be made about living in the community you serve – though the question here is whether the university serves the 3,000 residents of Athabasca or the 40,000 students connected through telephone wires and internet services.”

Brilliant. Of course. But AU lives in and serves more communities than those of a town and its students. It lives in and serves a community of about 1200 members of staff, scattered around the country (though over 80% live in Alberta). It lives in and serves the broader world-wide research community. It lives in and serves indigenous, rural, and remote communities across Canada. It lives in and serves jails in Ontario, tents in Africa, and military bases in Afghanistan (I’ve had students in all of these). It lives in and serves countless networks, organizations, places, and people all over the world. And AU lives in and serves the places where its staff and their families live, too. We don’t just live in a communications network. All of us live in real places, with real needs, surrounded by real people. This is something to celebrate and to nurture.

But why can the university not also live in and serve a little town in the middle of nowhere?


The economic value of in-person universities

medieaval lecture About a millennium ago, the first truly modern universities, in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, were founded by city burghers with one central goal in mind (not unlike that of the Albertan government today) to bring in money and people who spend it into their cities. 1000 years ago, pretty much the only people who had the leisure and means to afford a higher education were rich, so it was very much in the interests of city leaders to get as many students to live in their cities as possible. To achieve that goal, the city leaders gathered together communities of scholars and resources to support those students, so as to provide the best quality and breadth of teaching available. This led to a virtuous circle whereby scholars attracted students who attracted more scholars, who attracted more scholars and more students, bringing funds for more resources, and so it went on. Everyone was happy. Well, maybe not everyone. Increasingly, students were turned away because many more people wanted to join than could be accommodated in the limited physical space available, a fact that universities turned to their advantage by filtering the intake so that only the best (or richest) got in, increasing their own value while reducing the effort needed to educate their students. And so universities spread.

Students are rarely very rich any more, albeit that lack of money remains a huge obstacle for far too many. In fact, most students are now actually funded by governments to attend universities out of the public pocket because, as universities grew and matured, the benefits to society came to be recognized as far greater than the benefits to the locations in which they were based, and often greater than the benefits to the students themselves. An educated society is a better society and, by and large, a richer one. Place-based universities do, however, still bring a lot of prosperity to the towns and cities that host them. Though rarely spending much (individually),  all students need food, accommodation, and entertainment, not to mention a host of other services like bookshops, IT equipment, proof-reading services, and so on. Because such universities are necessarily selective, most students are smarter than average. This is particularly good for host locations, because graduates often stick around to join or to start up businesses in the area, and students often fill part-time jobs with smart, willing workers. Sometimes, those companies are offshoots or partners of the university. University campuses still attract skilled scholars, drawn by facilities and the chance to work with fellow scholars, as well as to teach students. The concentrations of academics and resources attract visiting scholars, too, which provides further incentives for faculty to hang around, and supports the travel and tourism industry. The vehicles that tend to fill university car parks help keep local gas stations, car sellers, and mechanics in business. The space they use up makes property developers and builders happy. Universities are often big local employers of administrators, support workers, care-taking staff, canteen workers, and so on, all needed to support often tens of thousands of staff and students. Universities typically extend their reach into the local community, with everything from evening classes to museums, which bring in revenue and extend the skills of local people. Everything is mutually reinforcing: everyone wins, virtuous circles abound.  If you want to boost the fortunes of a region then a place-based university is not a bad investment. It spawns an ecosystem around it that is beneficial for almost everyone.

The economic value of distance universities

But what if a university has no students or faculty on its campus? What if the bulk of its facilities exist in the Cloud, and its resources are mostly virtual? At this point, the mutual reinforcement largely breaks down and the basic value proposition no longer applies. Without co-present academics and students, the main way that an online university can directly bring economic prosperity to a physical community is to hire admin, technical, support and professional staff to work there in person. There is virtually no virtuous circle in this at all. Such staff don’t attract more staff (apart from their families) or students to the area. Without faculty and students to drive outreach initiatives, businesses, and so on, the location doesn’t benefit from all the fringe benefits of having a university situated in it. All it gains is a slight short-term boost in population. Unless it is in a particularly attractive location it may fail to attract sufficient staff, or a greater than average proportion of those that it does attract may be of significantly lower quality than what is required.

From the perspective of the university itself, it makes no sense at all. An online university does have some physical needs (typically things like libraries, archives, labs, mail rooms, and so on) but they are relatively modest, so relatively few staff are needed to support them, and the space for it could be pretty much anywhere, as long as there are decent transport and communications links. Much of the time, such things may be outsourced or shared with other institutions. They don’t even all need to be in one place – in fact, distributed locations make a lot of sense, when students are distributed too, because it makes it easier and cheaper to distribute resources.

Employing any staff who do not need to work on-site costs a lot of money that would be better spent on improving the education of students. Buildings must be maintained, heated/cooled, secured, cleaned, and so on. The costs of supporting remote staff are not insignificant, but they are orders of magnitude lower than supporting a whole campus. Given the fact that all the academics and students are online anyway, it makes much more sense for any staff who don’t need to work on-site to work in their communities, rather than in in-person satellites that are largely disconnected from it. If that’s the case, then there’s no reason those staff should live in one town or city. In fact there are many advantages to the university in actively promoting distance working. Staff can more easily cater for students across the country if they live in the same time zone. Support hours can be extended, both because of time zones and because, with no need for everyone to be in one place at once, more flexible hours are possible. Staff can be hired based on best fit for the job, rather than best of the local bunch (an especially big issue if there is not a large pool of potential applicants, as might be the case in a rural area). Staff with minor non-debilitating ailments are often able to work productively from home when they couldn’t or shouldn’t on a campus. When their families have to move elsewhere, they can keep their jobs, which is good for the university because, quite apart from the direct costs, those staff are nearly all highly skilled, creative, non-fungible knowledge workers, who are weavers of the fabric of the institution, not just threads in some pre-ordained pattern.

So why would a distance university ever want its staff to be together in one place?

It might be (and has been) argued that there are many benefits to working in person, especially in terms of tacit knowledge, relatedness, community, and belongingness. For some kinds of work, without smart technologies and methods, there may be productivity gains. It is sometimes easier to coordinate some kinds of activity when people are physically co-present. The ease and speed of communication, the ability to fill in gaps in rigid processes, the effortless communication of tacit knowledge, and so on, all contribute to making ill-defined soft systems work, and are particularly useful when onboarding new staff. Being able to share a beer or a hug is incredibly valuable for bonding, for motivation, and for going beyond the functional day-to-day roles of working life, and recreation time spent together can very often lead to new ideas, solutions to problems, and greater efficiency in working. Some people are motivated to come to work precisely because they can connect with other people, in person. Some people like to smell other people while they work. We and our technologies have evolved over countless millennia to live and work efficiently together. Online systems that attempt to replicate this are doomed to fail, because they will never be more than crude models, at best, inadequate copies that miss all of the fine detail. More often than not we have to learn significant new skills simply to operate the tools (digital, physical, conceptual, organizational, etc), which can be tricky when, being at a distance, our only means of doing so is through the tools we are trying to learn to use. It is made much worse by the fact that digital tools constantly evolve, so our ability to use them is never in step with their capabilities or interfaces.

However – and it is a huge HOWEVER – if a distance university cannot work out how to deal with those issues for its own staff then it is not going to be much good at dealing with them for its students. In the days of the industrial model of correspondence education, where education was literally provided in a package (sent through the mail), it might have worked as well as can be expected, at least for the relatively few students with the predilection, determination and local support to study alone. But the world has moved on. We did such things because there was no alternative but, now, we can and should do more, and there are plenty of others willing to step in if we don’t.  Walking the talk is essential if we are to understand our students’ needs.

Getting online working right – and that includes making effective use of the locations and communities in which people actually live – is therefore the most basic, sine qua non foundation for a modern online university. Unfortunately, groups of people working in-person strongly undermine that foundation, because the in-person team members invariably short-circuit online communication, engaging in conversations and practices that remain invisible to the rest, effectively taking them out of circulation. Proximity bias is brutal, even when remote-first policies are in place and the best online technologies are available to reduce its effects (no, not MS Teams or Zoom!). When a substantial portion of staff work in person, online workers invariably become second-class citizens, dialing in as outsiders. Tacit knowledge, in particular, suffers. The odd small in-person group or occasional larger in-person meet-up is seldom too problematic but, if a persistent in-person community is large or includes particularly significant team members playing a hub or authority role (like, say, executive staff) it will infallibly wreck the online community of which it is a part.

The greater value of distance universities

But, if they are not making much of a direct economic contribution to a region, why would a regional government fund a distance university? Distance and open universities are, like their in-person brethren, means of enriching societies, but their economic benefits are more broadly distributed, and apply a little less directly. Notwithstanding attempts by neoliberal governments to turn them into profit centres and economic drivers, the one central goal that binds every university is to increase knowledge through its creation, its application, and its dissemination. This, in turn, tends to bring economic prosperity in its wake, because societies with more knowledgeable people tend to be safer, more stable, more diverse, and more capable of adapting to change than those with fewer. Some research discoveries can lead to profit-making industries, and some kinds of knowledge can yield direct economic benefits for those who possess them, but the main benefits lie in the knowledge itself. As long as the knowledge has a chance to spread and grow then a society’s people – all it’s people – benefit from this. Unlike trickle-down economics, everyone really does get richer as a result of better education, because knowledge is a non-rivalrous good. My having knowledge increases, rather than eliminates, the chances of you having it. The more who have it, the more widely it spreads, the more everyone gains. It’s a ratchet that lifts everyone up. Distance and open universities are particularly great for this because they get to places that others cannot or will not reach, into parts of societies and locations that traditionally have less access to higher education. Furthermore, instead of siphoning students into already crowded locations far from home, forcing students to leave their own communities, a distance university goes to where its staff and students live, where they work, where there are families and friends around them, all of whom benefit. Everyone wins. It’s a different kind of virtuous circle, that is better for the environment, better for communities, and better for individuals. If the region in question happens to be be extremely large, with highly dispersed communities and a big indigenous population in the least well-connected parts of it, this is extremely good for that region. Yes, I am talking about Alberta.

The future of the town of Athabasca

The Albertan government’s misguided and ill-considered plan to solve the woes of the town of Athabasca by massively and forcibly increasing the number of university workers living there will, if it is implemented, both destroy the university and accelerate the decay of the town. The town’s current woes have nothing at all to do with the university or its near-virtual policies. In fact, it is one of the last major employers in the region to actively support the place. It has never made anyone leave and it has never disadvantaged any of them in its hiring (unless you count hiring from a larger pool where there may be more talented staff available). People have been leaving (often reluctantly) in droves because other local employers – mostly in oil, mining, and forestry – have packed up and gone. University staff’s families have no job prospects and there are inadequate services to support their needs, so they leave because they must. That’s not going to change simply by moving a few hundred more people to the town, and certainly not by forcing the less than 10 people in its executive team to work there. How many single, unattached people, or single-wage families can the university employ, and how many can the town support? What kind of job pool would the university have to call upon? Unless there are more – many more – diverse opportunities in the town to match the demands of AU families, this is ludicrous. There is not even sufficient space in schools for their children. These issues go in spades for the executive team, where getting the best possible people matters most of all. The decay of the town is one of the reasons AU embarked on its near-virtual policy: one of the most notable benefits was that it could continue to support and employ staff members who had to move.

The best hope for the town is, I think, to attract remote workers, but it is not yet ready for them. Right now, there are many parts of the region that don’t even have reliable, affordable, or sufficiently speedy Internet or cellphone coverage. Medical facilities are inadequate, schools are over-crowded and underfunded, public transit to anywhere bigger is non-existent, roads into town are dangerous, and even postal costs are high. Half the high street is shut. The town would need to make enormous improvements to its services, to its transit links, and to its communications infrastructure for it to become a viable option for geoartbitrating workers, voluntourists, or digital nomads. But, given the inevitable and increasing decline of all the industries that have supported it over the last century, attracting such people is its best (and perhaps its only) chance to thrive. Though currently decaying and a little rough around the edges, it’s an attractive little town where property prices are low, kids can safely play on the streets, the natural surroundings are pleasant, and there is a strong sense of community. Though it has the population of a European village, it serves as a hub for the surrounding region so it has more facilities, stores, motels, and leisure options than most towns of its size.  It’s the sort of place that many people would like to live, if their economic, health, social, and (above all) working needs could be met. All it needs is better ways to accommodate remote workers. Perhaps, if it (or the Albertan government) fixed those things, it might even attract back a few more of Athabasca University’s own staff.