What is Your New Normal? Online Learners, Instructors, and Scholars as Digital Nomads

Our learning experiences now extend well beyond the walls of brick and mortar institutions. As a result, our geographical locations do not limit institutional affiliations as learners, instructors, and scholars. Instead, online learners, instructors, and scholars are digital nomads who regularly experience transience. They aim to find and/or create digital nooks to facilitate collaboration, interactions, exchanges, and learning opportunities that are the norm in the learning and knowledge generation process. 

Digital nomads put serious time and effort into building these nooks as a support system.  For example, Pauline Salim Muljana, an online doctoral graduate student attending Old Dominion University and an instructional design professional, described how, as she transitioned from on-campus instructional designer to full-time online graduate student, she started to slowly build her digital nook:

“As I got to know my classmates, I started expanding my support system. I asked a classmate to be my study buddy. We were friends on Facebook and we texted about research and assignments. Next thing I know, I started to make friends with more classmates on Facebook and LinkedIn.”

Bret Staudt Willet, an online doctoral student attending Michigan State University, expressed having similar experiences with his support system via Twitter. In his new normal as an online graduate student, Bret described Twitter as “the single most important tool of his doctoral journey.” Although this digital space (Twitter) has its fair share of negatives, it still serves as a digital nook that allows for easy exchanges and connection. As Bret states, “there is something about the spontaneity and brevity of Twitter that lends itself to back and forth between colleagues that feels like a shared space, full of potential and possibility.”

In other instances, the new normal for digital nomads in academic settings is to consider the affordances of a platform to create digital professional learning nooks. In the case of Pauline, she clearly identified the need for a digital nook for instructional designers. This is how with two other colleagues, Pauline created a digital space called “iDesign Learning, an informal learning Facebook group that provides free synchronous professional development for instructional designers around the world. iDesign Learning is essentially from instructional designers, by instructional designers, and for instructional designers.” For Bret, the intimacy of Slack and Keybase facilitate daily communication with research collaborators on projects and manuscripts. These digital nooks are personal and confidential. According to Bret, “the only question is who will say ‘hi’ first on Keybase in the morning.”

For instructors, on the other hand, online teaching provides access to students from various geographical locations and the opportunity to create digital nooks that can help enhance learners’ educational experiences. Dr. Wendy Ann Gentry, Assistant Professor of Education at Baker University, connects her students in the Direct Field Experience (DFE) program with professionals and members of her team worldwide. As Dr. Gentry mentioned, this digital nook combined with the DFE “is an incredible opportunity for students to work on projects under the mentorship of an instructional design & performance technology professional.” In this instance, the professional digital space consist of virtual video conferencing meetings.

For Dr. Gentry, the existence of digital nooks facilitated by Internet access is really an expansion of what was the norm in her family when she was growing up, since her parents ran a remote business serving the oil refinery industry since the early 1970s. This early exposure to remote work taught her that “it was possible to create something out of nothing with a phone line, a post office, and airport access.”

So, how satisfying are these experiences as digital nomads for online learners, instructors, and scholars? Mixed. 

Pauline expressed feeling truly satisfied:

I do not remember how to deal with traffic, the daily commute, or finding parking in order to attend a class or meet with a colleague. I’m not saying that I am ignoring my initial support group, nor saying that traditional spaces won’t work... But, these ‘digital spaces’ expand my support system and save me time. Since I have both, I wouldn’t trade it with anything else.

However, combining digital spaces with physical spaces can be challenging. Bret, who regularly joins his doctoral level courses from hundreds of miles away, mentioned that sharing the classroom as a digital nomad requires more than good technology, it also requires instructors and classmates who fully invest in his presence. He shared that the best case was when “the instructor just stuck an iPad on a table and had me join [class] discussions via video call... the instructor was fully invested in my presence and value to the class, and my classmates matched that enthusiasm.”

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