Distributed Workforce: Better Conditions, Costs, & Outcomes

Blended learning isn’t just handing kids a laptop, it’s new school models that incorporate differentiated and distributed staffing strategies–educators of different levels and in different locations–to boost learning productivity.

Distributed workforce strategies have been used in education and many other sectors for a long time. “Kelly Girls” showed up right after WWII.  But better tools and more demand for flexible conditions put this distributed work on steroids. Labor Day 2013 seems like an appropriate time to consider this emerging human capital trend.
There are two basic distributed workforce competencies: hiring and managing workers that often work remotely; and placing and supervising workers on a full or part time basis. Both can be a challenge, but the tool set improved enough in the last five years, that distributed solutions are becoming far more common.
“Traditional work is being uprooted. Knowledge and creative workers are increasingly distributed and decentralized and their work and project teams transient,” claimed Gigaom  last month. “Workers are geographically dispersed and increasingly blurring the boundaries between work and home life. This all leads to loosely coordinated teams collaborating on high-velocity, short-term projects. At the same time, the consumerized, easy-to-adopt-and-use technologies supporting the distributed workforce are entering a company’s IT infrastructure through the “side door” of line of business and functional management and by individual users.”

Graphic designers often learn their trade on Lynda or Udemy; they find their work on Elance or dribble. Similar markets exist for software engineers. Virtual law groups make legal services more accessible and affordable.  On Care.com you can find a babysitter or elder day care.  Angie’s LIst doesn’t manage a distributed workforce but they extract some friction from a decentralized market by improving discoverability and sharing recommendations.

Education applications. Itinerant specialists have been part of special education for decades. Cheaper computers, more broadband, and developments in video conferencing are bringing the benefits distributed workforce to education- particularly in special education, in categories the feds call Related Services: speech therapy, physical and occupational therapy, counseling and psychological services.

Four years ago Clay Whitehead and Jack Lynch were wrapping up at Stanford Business School. They conducted a landscape analysis and saw an opportunity for impact serving special needs students with a distributed workforce of specialists. They launched PresenceLearning to combat the challenge that small and rural schools often have hiring and retaining specialists.  They quickly found that online services such as speech and language therapy can be very effective and can save districts money while enabling specialists to live wherever they want and work as much as they want.  (See Three Online Speech Therapy Success Stories.)

As Clay noted in a recent post, “PresenceLearning is just wrapping up our third full year of delivering online speech therapy in K-12, having delivered over 200,000 live, online sessions to thousands of K-12 students in 26 states.”

“A typical clinician has 550 meetings and completes 2,860 forms every school year,” said Whitehead. The online services addresses specialist on leave, impossible schedules, understaffing, and hard to staff situations. It makes it possible for therapists that would have left the workforce to remain employed and work flexible hours.

Connections Learning also launched an online speech therapy service. (Download a paper about Online Speech Therapy.)

PresenceLearning recently launched online occupational therapy using a combination of a licensed therapist on videoconference with a paraprofessional at the school.

During the 2013-14 school year, PresenceLearning will conduct more than 200,000 live online therapy sessions in public, charter and virtual school districts of all sizes nationwide.  PresenceLearning ensures access to over 400 great Occupational Therapists or Speech Language Pathologists regardless of any schedule or location constraints families might have.

“The online service works for about 90% of students,” say Clay, “There are some that just can’t engage online.”

Like local staff, “The quality of online therapist is key,” said Whitehead.  “A blended approaches make sure there is an I in IEP,” he added about the benefits of a specialist online and a paraprofessional onsite.

Hard to staff. The other growth area for distributed workforce strategies is expensive and hard to staff courses including Advanced Placement, STEM, foreign language , and electives.  With small classes and veteran teachers, these courses often cost two or three times as much as core courses on a per student basis.

National online learning providers including Connections, K12, and Florida Virtual are partnering with thousands of districts to extend part time access to valuable upper division courses on a cost effective basis. It’s now very cost effective to offer every high school student in America access to every AP and foreign language course taught by a great teacher.

In Utah and Louisiana students are gaining online options as the state expands course choice. Louisiana recently approved five teachpreneurs as statewide providers of online courses.

National school developers like New Tech Network are launching in-network online courses to leverage great teachers and expand student options.

Sourcing and placing substitute teachers is headache for every district. Andre Feigler, founder of enrichED, is tackling that problem in New Orleans.  Her updated Yelp meet platform über platform launches next week. They are not only providing substitutes who are actually culturally aligned, vetted, and reliable, but also bringing in content experts to be guest teachers. “We’re also matching schools with other part time and short term staff–tutors, paraprofessionals, coaches, and enrichment specialists on an as needed basis,” said Feigler. She see big opportunity in ‘flexible’ school staffing more broadly with a network of specialists.

Want to get better at life, work, play? PopExperts schedules video conferences with experts.  StudyEdge and InstaEDU matches tutors with high school and college kids. Udemy and SkillShare allow anyone to learn almost anything anywhere.

Best practices. Organizations that effectively manage a remote workforce are clear about their goals, focus on outcomes more than activities, provide extensive training, make a variety of collaboration tools available, and, finally, they plan the work and work the plan.

The distributed Getting Smart team is on Skype all day and uses Google Drive and Dropbox for collaborative document development and sharing.  The Connections team relies on the cloud-based Issue Aware function in Connexus management system for tracking tasks and documents.

Pat Laystrom, who leads a national team at Connections Education, recommends shared calendars and weekly check in calls with each team member. “People on a remote team need to be accessible,” said Laystrom, “By being accessible, the remoteness becomes less of a factor.”

“It’s recently become clear to me that virtual teams have to commit to sharing the anecdotal juice of their work,” said Connections’ Mickey Revenaugh. “Those vivid stories about the families we meet, the students we serve, the communities we encounter, bind us together in ways that “just-the-facts” can’t quite. In a data-driven company culture like ours, teams sometimes need to make the extra effort to share these slices of life through all the techniques at our disposal–conference call, instant message, email, text, etc.–so we feel like we really know each other despite only seeing one another in person a few times a year.

Utilizing specialists at a distance–often sourced and managed by a partner–can help schools improve student outcomes while increasing flexibility and reducing the cost of service. Working remotely can improve employee satisfaction and retention. Successfully deploying distributed workforce strategies requires effective planning, ongoing communication and outcome monitoring.

PopExpert, and Udemy are Learn Capital portfolio companies.  Pearson, FLVS and PresenceLearning are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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