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The Case for Continuing Virtual Learning

By Melanie Carlson posted 04-07-2021 11:05 AM


Give me a thumbs-up if you have virtual meeting fatigue. 

It has been over a year since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a pandemic. Once the news sunk in, we set up our home offices, fast-tracked video conferencing tools, and became IT experts. We quickly adapted to video conferencing and it became our only choice for continuing our daily jobs. Now, a year later, if you hear “Can you see my screen?” one more time, you are going to actually take a vacation to the remote mountaintop you use as your virtual background.

Humans are social creatures. In prehistoric times, groups were necessary for survival. Social collectives helped us evolve from our cave-dwelling ancestors, to tool-using hunters and gatherers, to the modern humans we think of today. Although science has known for years the importance of social interactions, the past year has provided each of us with any proof we needed. 

However, I believe a case can be made to continue a virtual learning option. Not for our grade school kids, but for working adults. I am in no way advocating that we stop having conferences, trade shows, and face-to-face learning opportunities, but I believe dual opportunities could be extremely beneficial to multiple industries. Virtual learning could be a way to combat many of the social and economic disparities that limit or prohibit certain groups from receiving a higher education, training, or even continuing education.

Closing the gap for working mothers

I work two jobs; I’m a city engineer and a mother. Working mothers make up approximately 16% of the workforce. According to a 2019 Forbes article, “Working women are twice as likely as their male counterparts to run the household, three times more likely to manage their children’s schedules, and eight times more likely to require time off to care for a sick child.” This dual career may be the cause of wage gaps between men and women. According to the 2017 ASCE wage study, licensed female engineers with 11 to 30 years’ experience made 7% less than their male counterparts. In contrast, salaries for licensed males and females were within 2% of each other in all other experience groups. Continued virtual learning can provide working mothers (or fathers) with opportunities which their child care, children’s schedule, or school district’s schedule may not allow.

Supporting small business

Virtual learning could also benefit small and remote employers. Prior to the pandemic, almost one third of civil engineering employment was in firms with fewer than 100 employees. However, these small firms may be owned or managed by a few engineers. Virtual learning can provide these low-staffed firms with learning opportunities they may not have time for otherwise. 

Preliminary results of the 2020 census indicate 60% of the U.S. population lives outside of cities with a population of 50,000 or more. Whether the city is 500 or 50,000, these communities still need the water, sewer, and transportation systems civil engineers provide. As these systems continue to age, there is a continued need for engineers in small communities. These communities are often a substantial distance from the metro areas that typically host conferences, trade shows, and learning opportunities. Virtual learning can not only save employees time, but it can save their employers travel and lodging costs.

Meeting the needs of a diverse workforce

Another benefit to virtual learning is the understanding that we each learn differently. Assuming virtual seminars are recorded, those who struggle in a classroom setting can watch or listen to any part of the lesson again. Recorded trainings can also benefit those who must be in the field during a given time, and although the firm might be paying overtime for evening or weekend training, it will allow normal work to continue. This opens up many options to those who otherwise could not attend. 

Let us not forgot why the world quickly jumped to virtual everything. Even once the pandemic has settled, there will still be those with immunocompromised systems, those who may be extra-cautious with their health due to pregnancy or another life situation, or simply those who may not feel 100% the day of the conference. Continued virtual learning will allow those employees to attend the often once-a-year training they would otherwise have missed out on.

Boundaries will need to be set

Just as virtual learning can be a benefit to those who, for one reason or another, can’t attend a live class, new boundaries will need to be established. Just because you can attend the conference from your vacation, it doesn’t mean you should. Introverted engineers will need to remember that social interactions are good for them and everyone needs a break from the office once in a while. Hopefully soon, clear boundaries can be set between home time and work time. These boundaries will be unique to each situation and will change over time.

Although these “unprecedented times” are hopefully coming to an end, the tools we’ve used intensely over the past year can perhaps take us to a new era. Although the retirement of civil engineers has started to level out, our industry needs to look at ways to retain employees, particularly those with 11-30 years’ experience who are sought for their management abilities. Virtual learning may be part of that solution. As the caveman used tools to take humans from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, virtual learning could provide increased opportunities for many in our industry and beyond. “Just as civil engineering evolves for the future, so does ASCE. Our long-term success calls for a more inclusive organization that is nimbler and more sustainable” (ASCE 2020 annual report).

Melanie Carlson is the city engineer for the City of Fairfield, Iowa. Upon graduating from Iowa State University with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a bachelor's degree in environmental studies, she spent 10 years working as a consultant engineer before moving to the public sector. When not managing a wide variety of city projects and planning initiatives, Carlson enjoys giving back to her community by serving on the advisory committee for the local school district, organizing STEM fairs, and most recently, constructing a Little Free Pantry. She and her husband live on their Century Farm with their three kids and menagerie of livestock.

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