Lessons from the Pandemic Journey (Part 1)

Yesterday, I gave a virtual keynote at the 2021 OLC Accelerate Conference. The title of my talk was 20/21: A Pedagogical Journey. In it I reflected on the journey of higher education over the past 18 months, including the many lessons learned and some of the lessons that have gone begging. In this post I share two of those insights…

Looking Back: Centres for Teaching and Learning as First Responders

As the pandemic hit our shores, our team in the Teaching & Learning Commons felt a deep sense of purpose and mission. We knew that our faculty were overwhelmed and anxious about what lay ahead and that our university community needed our assistance and guidance. My team rose to the occasion in more ways than I can articulate, developing new resources and training, bringing on new learning technology platforms, redesigning our workflows, partnering with units and colleagues across the institution like IT, accessibility services, and the privacy office, and especially building relationships so that our faculty felt supported and reassured that we had their backs. In those early days of the pivot to emergency remote teaching, like so many other Centres for Teaching and Learning, we were working overtime and in overdrive, responding to literally thousands more requests for technical support and hundreds more requests for pedagogical consultations than ever before. I have often said that it felt like we were the fire department at a time when every single person’s house was on fire.

This sentiment was echoed by a white paper on disruption in and by Centres for Teaching and Learning during the pandemic, which described how CTLs operated as academic first responders and how our instructional designers, teaching and learning experts and multimedia developers operated as “sherpas of online learning teams.”

At KPU we quickly developed and offered an intensive 5-day course on learning to teach online. Consisting of 5 modules, all underpinned by the Community of Inquiry framework, it covered everything from the building blocks for online course design through reimagining content, activities, feedback, assessment, and facilitation in digital spaces. Now, of course, this training wasn’t designed to support effective online or blended course design under optimal circumstances. As my friend Rolin Moe wrote, “you can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.” No, this course was primarily about equipping faculty members who had never before taught online with a basic, foundational understanding of how they might approach emergency remote instruction in a way that would provide a supportive learning environment for students. Happily, hundreds of our faculty members took this course and hundreds more took advantage of the great many asynchronous resources we developed, from how-to guides to webinars to self-paced modules. 

This early phase of the pandemic was both exhilarating and exhausting. It was certainly never easy. Fortunately, our university leadership didn’t hesitate to invest in supporting teaching and learning through this period and, on top of the investments in upgrading our technology infrastructure and new equipment for faculty and instructional staff, we grew the size of our team in the Teaching & Learning Commons. But, despite this, the massive surge in demand for our supports meant that we were still stretched to the maximum, which is why it was even more important that we made the time to reflect on our core, shared values as a team. Through a collective and iterative reflective process we identified four of these: community, ethics, creativity, and care. And since then we have made sure to distill our thinking through these values, whether we are dealing with resource constraints or addressing critical strategic questions.

But through it all we had immense empathy for our faculty who moved online with little time, no choice, and often through herculean efforts, most of them teaching online for the first time. The brief 48-hour instructional pause just before our pivot really felt like that final gulp of air you take before the wave hits you. So we advised faculty members to retain what they needed, to trim what they didn’t, and to change what they had to in order to survive the remaining weeks of that semester. We urged them to provide students with flexibility and compassion, and to be gentle in their expectations of themselves as well. The pivot was never going to be graceful, but it was about keeping afloat and keeping students afloat.

Without question, this entire pandemic journey has helped forge far stronger relationships between faculty and Centres for Teaching & Learning like ours. This has been critical, especially as we shifted over the past year and a half from a focus on firefighting in the short-term to something closer to showing faculty how to build with fire-retardant materials; or how to design for more effective blended and online teaching and learning.

I really appreciated this wonderful acknowledgement from Sarah Elaine Eaton, a faculty member at the University of Calgary last June in the magazine University Affairs:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning centres (TLCs), and the educational developers and instructional designers who work at them, have shown the deep value they bring to their institutions. During the crisis, they have become instructional superheroes who have not only supported an unprecedented “pivot” to online and remote learning, they have taken the lead in ensuring universities stay open.”

She went on:

“In some cases, those working at TLCs have literally rescued faculty members who otherwise would have been pedagogically paralyzed. As a result, many instructors have managed to do what they might never have imagined possible. Although most faculty members would still prefer to teach face-to-face, the reality is that many have quickly learned new instructional and delivery skills. As a result, hundreds of thousands of postsecondary students across the country finished their courses, and in many cases completed their programs, because professors continued teaching. They have not done it alone. TLC colleagues have empowered them to adapt quickly and with as little disruption as possible.”

But Sarah wasn’t only reflecting on the assistance that CTLs were providing. She was also highlighting how the degree to which an institution had previously prioritized teaching and learning determined how well-equipped they were to navigate the pandemic. Certainly institutions that had CTLs in the first place, but especially those that were well-staffed and well-resourced, because of course your budget is really a statement of your values. Plus, as we should all know by now, anytime you are referred to as a hero or a first responder, you should be nervous because you run a grave risk of being undervalued and considered expendable.

But I will also reflect here that in addition to the actual instruction and guidance provided to faculty, the increased support for teaching and learning practice through the pandemic has had another positive repercussion. And that is that faculty members who engaged more in learning opportunities themselves—whether about universal design for learning or even about learning technology tools—themselves began to appreciate more what it felt like to be an online learner.

Consider for example the relief you feel when you are not required to keep your camera on for a 2-hour synchronous session, or when you enjoy flexible deadlines, or when your course includes a stripped-down set of required activities with the option for deeper dives wherever your interest is peaked, when you perceive that your instructor is present and engaged, when you don’t feel like you are engaging in independent learning but rather like you are a part of a learning community, when your contributions are respected, and when you feel trusted. And oh the resentment when you are forced to engage in activities that you perceive as busywork!

It is interesting to observe how these elements—direct support for teaching and learning, indirect advocacy for care, and perspective-taking and reflection—came together to shape the approach of faculty through the pandemic. 

Looking Ahead: An Opportunity to Shape a More Inclusive Future

As Cathy Davidson and Dianne Harris wrote, “From this horrific catastrophe, there are lessons that higher education can learn from itself.” This reflection must occur now, because as many of us have shifted back to campus this Fall (at least in part), there has already been a sense of a snap back to reality (and oh, there goes gravity!)–an uncritical push or pull towards comforting pre-pandemic malpractices without an eye to retaining the growth or lessons of the past year and a half. This is a real danger. For example, many otherwise brilliant colleagues are sincerely comparing their highly stressful and first-time online experience with emergency remote instruction with a rosy retrospection of familiar, classroom-based instruction during optimal circumstances.

But as Sian Bayne and her colleagues write in the Manifesto for Teaching Online, “The deficit model of online education often assumes a particular pedagogy in which repositories of self-paced, didactic materials are worked through in isolation and tested via multiple-choice assessments” whereas online leaning “can be the basis for opening up a more inclusive form of education” that “places teachers and students in a creative and highly generative space where good teachers find their practice being opened up to new ways of doing things.” Online can indeed be the privileged mode.

To quote Josh Eyler:

“…now is our moment. We must hold the floor and refuse to let these conversations change or fade into the background . . . if we let this moment slip away from us, we may never see this kind of opportunity for reform present itself again. Students, faculty, staff, everyone will remember the beneficial changes that institutions made during the pandemic and wonder why these same institutions are going back to the way things were done in the Before Times, especially because the pandemic has revealed just how inequitable education was and remains . . . Hold the floor. Let’s do this work together so that no one feels alone . . . We cannot let this chance pass us by.”

One of the most beautiful things I have witnessed over the past year has been the open sharing of ideas, practices, and experiences. This has happened a lot at the individual level of course, but incredibly many institutions have also managed to shed much of their usual territoriality. There has a lot of open collaboration and a lot of new open resources. Some of my favourite examples include this collection on resilient pedagogy (edited by Travis N Thurston, Kacy Lundstrom, and Christopher González), this cookbook of asynchronous activities from the Office of Digital Learning & Inquiry at Middlebury College, and this professional development resources for open online educators from four wonderful colleagues from Ireland, Orna Farrell, James Brunton, Caitriona Ni She, and Eamon Costello. Of course, this is precisely the value of open educational resources: to generously share instead of jealously guarding our expertise, and to not reinvent the wheel but instead to be able to build on one another’s work.

At KPU we are determined to build on the lessons and the momentum of the last 18 months. We have held university-wide discussions, surveyed our faculty and instructional staff, and have been building new institutional supports that will help raise the bar for teaching and learning. This includes the launch our new framework for educational development, called the Foundations in Teaching Excellence program. This comprehensive yet flexible framework encompasses a series of modules organized around the five core domains of: learning design, learning assessment, learning technologies, inclusive teaching, and reflective practice. And it’s just the start. Ultimately of course this is about culture change, both within and beyond our institution, towards one that values, supports, and celebrates teaching in all of its modes.

As Kevin Gannon writes in his book Radical Hope:

“Change in higher education can sometimes occur dramatically . . . [But] the real work of change in higher education is done students by students, classroom by classroom, course by course, and it’s done by educators who have committed to teaching because it and their students matter”

So let us lead with trust of students and trust of faculty. Let us move beyond toxic academic hierarchies and boundaries. Let us no longer pay lip service to caring about teaching and learning. Let us remember that online can indeed be the privileged mode. Let us continue to widen equitable access and increase affordability. Let us ensure that we design inclusively. To draw on a wonderful insight from Christina Katopodis, if we are going to talk about rigour, let us ensure we have rigorous standards of flexibility and accessibility. If we are going to talk about academic integrity, I will suggest that we extend that concept to our own ethics and our own approach both technology and pedagogy. Let us lead with care but not forget about self-care. Let us build supports and structures that support humans and that foster humanity.

Let us begin now.

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