Online Communities of Practice: Lessons from Yahoo

No doubt you’ve read the news reports telling us that Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, informed all Yahoo employees that they could no longer work at home. There were many people who felt that Mayer did not understand the value of having employees work at home. Some employees were outraged that they could no longer work at home. Yahoo is a very large Internet-based company, why in the world would the CEO order everyone back to work?

Tracy Grant, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote a piece about why working from home doesn’t always work. Her column focused on Marissa Mayer and telecommuting, and according to Grant, Marissa Mayer got it right. Grant has had a long experience at the Washington Post. In 1999, she was the newsroom’s first editor in charge of getting breaking news from reporters on “the new-fangled” thing called the world-wide web.

Communities of Practice

When companies like Yahoo enabled employees to work from home, they were extending to the Internet the community of practice that existed in Yahoo’s corporate headquarters. Working from home, employees could use tools such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing, social networking, and blogging to communicate with colleagues over the “net.” Grant points out the she worked from home as an editor at the Washington Post for years, but found that the quality of her work suffered.

The reason she gave for her work suffering was she was not in the office! She was not collaborating! She didn’t have the opportunity to run into colleagues in the hallways, or at break time. Another important point that Grant made was that serendipity was missing when you stayed at home to work. She realized that the whole (of a team) was greater than the sum of the parts.

Face-to-face communities of practice seem to have the advantage of serendipity. Some researchers have found that the lack of interaction in the workplace actually reduces the quality of one’s work by at least 5%. Researcher John Sullivan, a professor at San Francisco State University, suggests that more “innovation occurs when people meet and interact, stop and talk with each other, especially people who don’t normally work together.” Sullivan joins Tracy Grant in thinking that the move by CEO Mayer is smart one.

According to Sullivan, telecommuting stifles innovation.

The decision by CEO Mayer ought to stimulate discussion about online learning in higher education and secondary education. For the past 20 years, the idea of offering courses online whereby students can earn degrees at home has mushroomed. Remember the Stanford professors that enrolled more than 150,00 students in online noncredit and open enrollment courses on artificial intelligence. Online courses are available free from major universities. And online courses for middle and high school students have been available for more than a decade.

Should colleges and universities call in the troops that are taking their courses exclusively online? Should secondary schools re-evaluate the use of online coursework.

Face-to-Face, Hybrid and Online Courses

Higher Education

According to recent study (The Babson Survey Group), there are more than 6 million students enrolled in online courses. The study also reported that more than one-third of all higher education students take at least one online course and this figure is growing. However, as the researchers point out, there is still a debate about the effectiveness of online vs face-to-face instruction. As an alternative, courses that use a blended format of face-to-face and online learning are described as “hybrid”   Babson researchers define hybrid courses as those that use between 24% to 75% of the course to deliver content online and the other as face-to-face. They note also that hybrids can be courses that use one of the several online Learning Management Systems such as WebCt or Blackboard. WebCt, which I used for many years at Georgia State University in science education courses, is a course management system that enables instructors to use tools such as discussion boards, mail systems, live chat, document and web pages.

I talked with a friend of mine this weekend about online and face-to-face learning. He is enrolled in a university degree program that is 100% online, but he indicated that he is considering transferring to a university degree program in which nearly all of the courses are taught face-to-face. He’s been enrolled in the online program for about a year and a half, and has discovered that he is isolated from other learners, even though the courses use Chalkboard which enables students to do online collaboration. Indeed some of his courses require team learning projects, but he has not found these to be fulfilling. He’s doing we’ll in the courses, but feels he’s missing out on some of the attributes of getting a degree at a traditional brick and mortor university.

I asked him if he had choice would he take an online course or one that was offered in a face-to-face environment. “Face-to-face,” he said.

In a recent New York Times article entitled The Trouble with Online College, research is reported from work done by Columbia University’s Community Research College about online learning. Follow this link to access their online and technology research reports. For example, students who traditionally did not do well in face-to-face courses, did not do well in online courses. Males, younger students, Black students, and student with lower grade point averages struggled in courses such as English and social science. In another study which compared performances in online courses vs face-to-face courses, the results do not bode well for online instruction. The researchers found that completion rates were lower for students in online courses. Students’ grades also suffered, and the progress of the students moving along in a program of studies was undercut.

In an other study comparing online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses over a five-year period, researchers found that students with stronger academic backgrounds enrolled in online courses. However, students who took online courses were more likely to fail or withdraw and also less likely to return to school. Students enrolled in hybrid courses appeared to perform as well as students enrolled in face-to-face courses.

High School

At the high school level, millions of students are enrolled in online courses. In another Babson Survey Group study, researchers completed a two-year study of online learning by surveying a sample of school principals in the state of Illinois. In a comparison of results in Illinois with a national sample, areas of similarity included the following:

  • Online credit recovery courses are proliferating across the country as well as in Illinois.
  • Concerns about costs and course quality continue to dominate the opinions of the principals in both Illinois and across the country.
  • Quality concerns are not preventing the expansion of online learning.
  • High schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop courses in house.

Researchers also reported that credit recovery courses (making up coursework because of illness, being homebound, scheduling conflicts, academic failure) are becoming the major type of online course. And most of the providers of these courses are online private companies. Principals were somewhat concerned about the quality of online instruction, yet, the data show that online learning is popular, especially for lower-performing students. Maybe there is no other choice for these students besides dropping out.

The principals reported that the pedagogy is evolving differently than in college courses. Many students are getting assistance from teachers and and tutors while they enroll in online courses. And in some high schools, students “take” the online course in a lab or library, which enables students to communicate with adults, as well as peers.  Communication with others face-to-face appears to be an important finding in the Illinois study.

Online, Face-to-Face or Hybrid: Which Would You Choose

The Yahoo model of learning, at least based on the decision to bring employers back to the work place, appears to resonate with some of the findings in the Babson study. Collaborating with others face-to-face underscores the human need for team learning, and working with and assisting each other to pursue shared goals.

The effectiveness of fully online degree programs is not as solid as some educators would have us believe.  In a response to a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis report on the effectiveness of fully online courses, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Thomas Bailey of Columbia University have found that the claim that online courses are superior to face-to-face does not hold.  It does not hold for students enrolled in fully online courses of semester length, and there is no evidence that we can generalize to the traditionally underserved population of students.  The researchers write in their report that:

the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.

What are your experiences with using online learning with your students?  Do you think fully online courses are more effective than hybrid or face-to-face from your experience?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University