This short article will be an attempt to describe the challenges I experienced so far, working for the eLearning Team of the Berlin School of Economics and Law from Sankt Petersburg, Russia. In this context, three main aspects will be closely examined: infrastructural obstacles, “the distance factor” – increased complexity and remoteness from the team, as well as the need of coping with working in a new life dynamics.
1. THE INFRASTRUCTURE
Productive and efficient working from distance requires above all stable Internet connection. Connection with speed less than 1 mbps (~ 122.1 MBps)multiplies the working time by a certain factor. The following 4 paragraphs summarize my experiences in the first three month in finding a suitable solution.
1.1. Working from the FINEC Dormitory for exchange students
In the FINEC dormitory for foreign students there are two wireless networks. They serve the approximately hundred students. One provides connection for the left and the other for the right wing of the dorm. Often a signal is available only in the community rooms or the kitchens. In the first three months I was able to work productively, mainly in the community room of my floor and only at night, for during the day the internet connection was often overloaded and there were just too many people around. Once I had to spend more than 7 hours answering eMails and solving the tasks induced, as the semester in Berlin just started. Normally, I wouldn’t need more than 4 hours for the same workload.
1.2 Working from the University
In the first month I tried several times to find places in the university, where I would be able to locate a reasonable wireless network and hopefully an atmosphere, where working could be productive. Among the places I tested was also the university library, which often can be better described as a big room for group work. On different locations I was able to find some protected networks, no one I asked, however neither students nor lecturers or even a person from the IT team, knew the necessary passwords. In the library there was supposed to be wireless LAN. Sadly, I didn’t have the luck being there, while it was working. After several attempts I stopped trying.
1.3. Working using Mobile Internet
Mobile Internet is pretty popular in St. Petersburg and there are many providers. One needs to purchase an USB modem (from 1000 rub/~25 €)* and sign a contract, paying different monthly fee. Such connections are pretty comfortable, for they work basically everywhere. The prices for 900 kbps start from 900 rub (~23 €)* per month. Very popular is the Yota 4G network. With the 450 rub (~11 €)* per month tariff of SkyLink, providing a speed of 128kb/s I was able to check my eMails and log in to our learning management system for a reasonable time, however this was only the case, when no more than three internet sites were opened simultaneously. For everyone considering working from distance in St. Petersburg and not living in a private room or flat, I would recommend using similar connection for at least 900 rub (as of February 2010) tariff per month.
1.4. Working from a private room or flat
The best internet one can get is in a private room or flat. Though the city is segmented between different providers for different regions, making every one of them a monopolist in his area, the price-performance ratio is more than satisfactory. In my case this was Cubionet. Paying 450 rub per month (as much as for the 128kb/s Skylink wireless connection) provide me with a 32 times faster wired connection.
In case one works on projects in a virtual world, e.g. SecondLife, it is advisable to consider the technical specification of the used machine. Though I am in general very pleased with my Lenovo S10e, in such environment I feel sometimes unpleasantly restrained.
2. “THE DISTANCE FACTOR”
This term I use to describe the complexity co-occurring with the distance and the arising feeling of “not being” part of the team. Now I really appreciate our weekly team meetings and the small talk. It was fascinating to find out, how much essential information our personal contact provide (or in my case didn’t provide), often unrealized. Most frustrating were messages including phrases, such as “as we discussed in the team meeting” or “according to what X said/did yesterday”. For me this meant in the most cases up to 10 minutes researching in order to understand, what is actually meant by that, for tasks I was responsible for. For such I wasn’t, similar messages were mostly ignored. In the worst case scenarios, even after ~15 minutes I couldn’t find out the necessary information, which forced me asking “obvious” questions and feeling guilty about it. On the other hand, messages with subject “for ivan” (”just fyi”) or similar, presenting a concrete task or a couple of sentences with background information, e.g. links, proved to be very helpful and time-efficient.
3. NEW LIFE DYNAMICS
The most intangible challenge was the change in my life dynamics. My thoughts and my work dichotomized, thus staying “plugged-in” was a serious task – especially in the beginning. Being an exchange student, trying to get the most from the people, the language and the culture of a completely new country, in addition to visiting all necessary lectures and wanting also to spend a while with the other exchange students, can be very time demanding. Spending 10 hours per month (in the first quarter only on two or three days) working as an eLearning coach in a country, where electronically supported studying is not really popular, is certainly not enough to keep it on one’s mind. What I found very useful were some funny or interesting sources, links, articles, etc. Subscribing to a mailing-list, where one gets ca. 15 eMails daily, though accompanied with not really very pleasant feeling, while opening your mailbox in the morning, certainly did the trick. In this case, however there is a real danger of immerging sense of a significantly increased “overall working time”.
This brief report illustrated the main challenges, in terms of the infrastructure, “the distance factor” and the new life dynamics, which I have encountered so far, working for the eLearning Team of the Berlin School of Economics and Law from Saint Petersburg, Russia.
* all foreign exchange calculations are made of a RUB/EUR rate of app. 40/1.