Camosun Story #54: Lizzie

Lizzie is an Instructional Assistant (IA) and tutor for the English Language Development (ELD) program.  Her main role is to tutor ELD students, working with them on their coursework and understanding their textbooks, etc., but she also orients them to their program and helps them register and apply for funding.  Prior to March 2020, she and her colleagues provided this support exclusively in person, but when everything moved online, Lizzie says “we went completely online suddenly and had to adapt quickly to the technology that became our only way of communicating with students.”  And adapting to the technology meant that Lizzie and her colleagues had to gain access to the various tools bring used to support students, namely D2L and Collaborate.  Fortunately, D2L was already in place [*although I will note that not all instructors in ELD were using D2L at that time*] and instructors gave us permission to access their D2L courses so that we could help facilitate their classes.”  But students faced many challenges beyond learning online. “Many of our students are not technologically grounded and even before they set foot in their online classes, they had to register remotely, complete assessments, purchase their e-books, etc.”  

When the world shut down, everyone in ELD’s Assessment and Registrations areas, as well as the IAs, were all on deck getting students into their classes. “Then once they were in their classes, they had to learn how to study online. Many of them were relying on phones, and you can imagine how difficult it is to do a tutoring session or to conduct a class with students who were using their phones.  But even when laptops were made available for the students, they had to learn how to use those.”  But while initially many ELD students were not prepared for online learning, Lizzie said that learning how to use all this technology has some positive results for them.  “By the end of one semester, students had acquired new skills with technology and remote learning, and I think a certain independence came with that.” 

Lizzie’s previous experience with D2L was limited to supporting students who came to the Help Centre looking for help navigating their D2L course sites, so the learning curve at the beginning of the pandemic was steep.  “We realized quickly how useful it was for us as IAs to have access to D2L course sites. Because students often struggled to communicate what they’d been learning in class, we found it very helpful to be able to directly access the support material instructors were providing their students. Eventually, we also connected with textbook publishers so we could also access students’ e-textbooks as well.”  And then to interact with students, the IAs used Collaborate.  “We initially also used WC Online (which was already in place for upper-level courses), but we found that it was challenging for the lower ELDs students to learn yet another tool. So, since instructors were using D2L and Collaborate, it made more sense to meet all students in Collaborate.”  While the IAs are no longer supporting students online regularly, Lizzie says that she has met with at least one student who was unable to attend in-person classes for a few weeks, so she met with her in Collaborate which meant the student could keep up with her classes when otherwise she would have had to withdraw. 

Once Lizzie and her colleagues were set up with, and got to know, the technology, they still faced some challenges.  “We book 30-minute appointments with students, but those 30 minutes were often devoured just getting the technology to work, sometimes to the point where actual tutoring time was reduced to ten minutes or less.”  And once IAs were in Collaborate with students, they needed to learn how to “communicate effectively in order to help them, to show them how to look for their classes, or how to register for the next class. There were many obstacles just trying to convey information to students.”   

I asked Lizzie if the number of appointment requests increased during the pandemic, but she thought the number had actually decreased, saying “I think students were burned out. They’d been sitting in front of a computer all morning with an instructor. They had homework that they had to do. They had families running around in the background. And at the end of the day, they were shutting down. It would’ve been nice if we could have met with students after the kids had gone to bed, but that wasn’t possible.”  And Lizzie felt that same exhaustion. “At the end of the day, I was like a zombie. I think it does something to your neural synapses sitting in front of a computer all day.”  Lizzie is happy to be seeing students in-person again, “but I wouldn’t say we weren’t effective as tutors during the remote period. Some students really rose to the occasion and took full advantage of our services, but sadly there were many who were lost on the way.” 

I asked Lizzie if she felt there were any moments that stuck with her from when she was supporting students online.  “I think it was just having regular conversations with students when they didn’t want to be looking at the textbook.  I think that they had a strong relationship with their instructors, but they wanted some connection with a person other than an instructor. Many students were feeling so isolated (many had just arrived before the pandemic hit and were missing their families back home) so those moments of just talking about what they were doing over the course of the day were important for them.” 

When I asked what lessons Lizzie might have learned during the shift to online teaching, she, like many others I’ve talked to, said “I know that it can be done, that it is possible if we work as a team.” And not just within ELD, but also with CETL and others supporting the move online.  “I think before there was a sense that when you work in a specific area, you don’t really have any connection with the rest of the college – you exist in your own little world. But this opened up the world of Camosun.”  In addition, Lizzie says keeping a sense of humour was important, as well as being open to anything coming your way. “Things can change on a dime so go with it, be kind, and take your time. If you feel like you’ve had enough then just step away for a little bit – go outside for a walk or pet the poodle between appointments.” Wise words to make sure you look after yourself so you can help others, whether during a pandemic or not.  

When I asked Lizzie if the IAs would keep using the technology they learned, she said yes, especially D2L, saying “I never realized how vital it was to tutors. Now we create materials at the beginning of the term and ask instructors to post them on D2L, so students know who we are and how to access us.  We see the same students over and over again, but I know there are many more who just need a little push to come in, so if there’s more IA presence in D2L, then they’ll maybe reach out a bit more.” 

But she would like access to even more technology to support their in-person work as well. “When we did orientations before COVID, we would use a flip chart, and every semester the students would file in and we would point to the flip chart showing our hours, etc.  But this semester I was tired of the flip chart and ready to hit the 21st century. So, we set up a big screen TV (because we don’t have a projector in our orientation space), plugged in a laptop, and ran our orientation that way.” 

Lizzie had a few final words about the experience of the last two years, and where she is at now. First, she sees that students are now open to the possibilities remote learning can offer. “Even with all the obstacles they faced, I think many of them came to appreciate the flexibility of learning from home – they didn’t have to catch a bus or take two buses to get to class every day.” And finally, “there are many opportunities out there, and you have to be open to them, and there are people to support you and get you through pretty much anything.  All of us, all the colleges and universities, have been through the same things, and while we have lost a lot, we’ve also gained a lot.”    

Sarah and Patsy: The story of how one Student’s Open Education project can make a difference

Some days working at Camosun is a joy, when I get to see firsthand the kind of amazing work students are doing with the support of my colleagues, sometimes in CETL and in this case in the library.  This is the story of Sarah, a student in the Child, Family, and Community Services (CFCS) program, and Patsy, the librarian who supports that program and its students, and their Open Education project.  Before I begin, however, I want to thank Sarah and Patsy for agreeing to talk to me.  They had final editing approval on this piece – the voices of our students in advocating for themselves is vital, but we need to ensure that sharing their voices does not exploit them or set them up for being penalized for speaking out.  Sarah had nothing but positive things to say about her program and the people working and learning in it, and she only seeks to improve the experience for all. 

I first heard about Sarah from Patsy, who contacted me because Sarah was working on a class project to find free alternatives to their textbook.  “One of our assignments was to address a social justice issue of our choice and to come up with two actions – they didn’t have to be huge, but some sort of small action to address the root of a social justice issue.  And I chose to address the cost of post-secondary education.”  Sarah comes from Germany where the postsecondary experience is quite different. “In Germany we don’t pay tuition or for textbooks because our courses are using open resources, or we can borrow the texts from the library. When I came here, I was shocked to see how much we had to spend on textbooks, so, I wanted to find a way to reduce the costs of education for students.” 

Sarah started with some general background on her project. “I reviewed Camosun’s website which lists estimates of how much students spend on textbooks per term, then I did the math, and given Camosun’s claim that students pay about $1000 for textbooks and supplies per term (although some programs are more expensive than others) it turns out that textbooks make up around 60 percent of the cost of tuition.  We often hear that tuition is the most expensive barrier to post-secondary education, but textbook costs are a huge barrier as well. I feel like we have created like a world, especially in the Western world, where education has become a privilege when it should be a right for everyone.” 

So, Sarah had an idea for a social justice project, she had completed some preliminary research, but now what next?  Luckily Patsy “came in to teach a library session for Sarah’s class, and after the session, Sarah said she wanted to talk about some projects.  As librarians, going into the classroom to teach research skills is so valuable for making that contact with students.  Students learn that there is an actual person to help them.”  Sarah and Patsy started working together on a couple of projects, including this one.  “Sarah asked about the possibility of textbooks being available for students through the library, but I explained that the reality is textbooks are not only very expensive for students, but for libraries as well, and we don’t have money in our budget to provide textbooks for all students.”  As Patsy and Sarah talked about what other options might be available, “we decided to look at the possibility of finding open resources that could replace, if not a whole textbook, maybe just some of the chapters,” which was one scenario Sarah was exploring – a class which required a textbook, but only used three chapters of it.   

One of the things Patsy says a librarian can contribute when working with students and faculty is networking with people across the college (and beyond).  “We are essentially a reference desk. People come to us and ask; how do I do this? Where do I find that? And if we don’t know, we find out. So, as Sarah and I talked about open resources, I thought, oh, I know someone, and I connected Sarah with you, Emily, as someone who could help her with Open Education and how to find Open Educational Resources (OER).” 

Sarah had heard of OER and open textbooks before. “In a way, we had used Open Educational Resources in Germany, but I never really questioned where all the free resources were coming from. Then last year I visited the Students Society’s booth [at CamFest] where they were talking about open textbooks, and while at the time I was not sure what that meant, I found it very intriguing because I’ve always been interested in trying to reduce costs for education.”  So, after talking to Patsy, Sarah did some more research and “decided that one of my actions would be to present to the CFCS faculty about what open educational resources are, where to find them, and how to use them, including the basic math of how much we could be saving if we were to use open educational resources.” 

Once I had talked to Sarah and Patsy about their project and understood what Sarah’s goals were, I sent them a link to the slides for the Introduction to Open Education and OER workshop I run for faculty every year. Sarah says the slides helped her “learn about copyright, fair dealing, and where to find open resources which was helpful for me because I think one reason instructors don’t use OER is because they don’t know where to start, or what their rights are. Now I feel like I know more about where you can find resources, how much you are allowed to take of a resource, and what you are allowed to do with it which was very helpful.”  And of course, Patsy notes “open textbooks are not only free to use, but usually allow adaptation meaning you can take the content that works, and then add content that represents the concerns or issues or experiences relevant to our students and community, for example integrating Indigenous or LGBTQ+ voices.” 

The first part of Sarah’s project was to examine her textbooks. “I started with the textbook from the social justice class because we were only using three chapters of it, and it was very expensive.  I thought we should be able to replace those three chapters with open resources, so I started looking into it.”  One challenge for Sarah was not having a clear understanding of what was important in those chapters for the instructor teaching the course.  “I asked if she could provide me with the main concepts, but at the time she was very busy and while I was confident that I understood the content enough to decide what was important, I am not the one teaching the course and didn’t feel comfortable making that decision.”  So, instead Sarah went in a different direction.  “Patsy in the meantime, had found an open textbook that was very similar to the textbook we were using in a different class. We were working very intensely with that book, and I had more confidence that I knew what was important in it.  So, I compared our textbook to the open textbook, looking at all the key concepts to see what was lacking in the open textbook, or what extras did it have that ours didn’t, and Patsy helped me with the research.  Then I wrote an assessment and sent it to the head of our program, because they are preparing courses for the next term, and she will see if the open text can replace some, or all, of the current text.”  

The second part of Sarah’s project was presenting to the CFCS faculty.  “Unfortunately, it was not possible for me to present at an in-person meeting with all the faculty members, but I created a PowerPoint presentation with voice-over for them to go through on their own. In the presentation, I began by explaining why this is a social justice issue, why it’s important, and showed how much students could be saving. Then I went into some basic rules about fair dealing and copyright, and where to find open resources. Finally, I showed them what I did with that one textbook, where I found it, and how I worked with it so they could see that it’s not a complicated a process and that there are many resources out there to support them.” 

I asked Sarah how it felt, presenting to faculty and potentially effecting change in her program.  “It felt awesome to be heard because I feel a lot of the time there is a hierarchy between instructors and students, where the instructors give us knowledge and we feel almost powerless in that process. While in the beginning I was intimidated, our program head trusted my competence and gave me the confidence to work on this project.  Knowing how this one small thing could potentially make a big change, is really cool, and even if they don’t replace the textbook with the one I suggested, I got the conversation about using open resources started. I’m really proud of that.” We also need to remember that students have insights that instructors may not.  Sarah recalled in one class, “our instructor remarked on the diversity in the classroom, around gender expression, sexuality, etc., and how students come to the course with a lot of knowledge related to this diversity.  I think students can also make decisions on what is important for the future of our field, because we are the future practitioners.” 

Patsy also feels that there is a lot of potential in students, faculty, and librarians working together to explore open textbooks.  “I think we can take small steps first, for example, examining what textbooks are used for core courses with multiple sections then finding some open resources to replace them, and making it a team effort: students, faculty, and librarians working together. Librarians can do some of that initial legwork (finding resources, determining how they can be used, etc.) for faculty because faculty already have so much on their plate. Then they can bring resources to faculty to see if they are relevant, hopefully making the process less overwhelming.  All the while including students who are standing up and voicing their concerns over textbook costs.”  Patsy, Sarah, and I all agree that this project shows the opportunities afforded by including students as equal contributors in reaching their educational goals. “I’m not suggesting students should work for free, but I think there is a place for students to be investigating the content of their course and exploring alternate resources, looking at other perspectives that could be captured by some of these resources. I think it would help students and help the institution.”   

Patsy echoes my own thoughts that “we need to be talking about Open Education as an institution and need to put more effort and even funding behind it because the rippling effect is profound. It can save students a lot of money, and can also save the institution, indirectly, a lot of money.” And as Patsy noted, we have provincially funded organizations like BCcampus already promoting and supporting open resource creation, so we don’t have to be alone in this work; we also already have a lot of expertise around Open Education at Camosun so there is no reason we couldn’t make this an institutional priority. 

Patsy enjoyed working with Sarah on her project.  “Sarah came to me with a passion and an interest which makes my job easy.  I shared her enthusiasm, and had fun using the tools, as well as the knowledge and connections I have, to support Sarah.  This project was not just about finding open resources, it was also about getting in touch with the curriculum and the faculty and working with Sarah to bring forward something to the administration which is such a great experience for a student.”  I want to emphasize the importance of the curriculum piece:  Librarians at Camosun have connections to programs and departments, serving as subject matter librarians for faculty and students (many faculty don’t know this, but you do have a subject matter librarian!)  But librarians, as Patsy noted, “face a similar challenge to what Sarah experienced where you don’t know exactly what specific content a faculty member values in their courses, meaning it can be very challenging to take a textbook that faculty use and trust and recommend a new resource to replace it, even just a chapter, without their input.” 

Sarah is excited to continue learning more about Open Education.  In fact, as she explored OER for her project, Sarah discovered another aspect of Open Education she hadn’t known about before.  “During my research, I came across this idea of non-disposable assignments. As students, we write so many assignments that are just graded and then disposed – they don’t have any further purpose. But what I found was that some instructors assign their students course readings asking them to find free resources to replace them.  What a great assignment for a professional practice because it would develop our field further, and at the same time, we could work with librarians to learn how to do research. Then we could produce an assignment with a purpose such as replacing textbooks and reducing financial burdens. It could have such an impact if we were to take advantage of all these resources that we already have and come together and work as a team. I would really like to see something like that with non-disposable assignments.”   

Sarah wrapped up our conversation by saying “because this has been such a passion of mine, let me know if you ever need me to be a part of presentations, or to give presentations. I want to share what it’s like to be a student and what our financial burdens are – and I want to point out how important it is to remember that, and how much we could save with open textbooks.” 

Camosun Story #53: Bob P.

Bob is another one of my eLearning colleagues (like Wendy and the rest, amazing!)  He works in our Support area, focusing on our non-D2L tools, like Collaborate, Kaltura, ReadSpeaker, WordPress, and BBAlly, etc.  Bob is one of those quiet types, and you don’t always know how busy he is, so I was very interested in hearing his perspectives on our move online back in March 2020.

“One thing I find shocking right now, looking back, is how little I remember of the move and how long ago it feels now. I wish I had video of those last few hours when we were still here working in the office before we had to leave, with no preparation.” But as he began to think back, Bob echoed something his support colleague Wendy told me as well: “I thought it was fun.  That sudden 24/7 support where we were doing things we wouldn’t normally do – nonstop support. In hindsight, I’m surprised how well faculty and students adopted the technology, adapted to it, and were able to use it so substantially, because as you and I know many faculty did not use technology in their teaching prior to COVID.”

Bob found the move to completely online support fairly seamless, “maybe because most of the support I provided for people up until then was done over the phone or over e-mail. I liked getting on Collaborate or Teams to have conversations with people and go over things with them. Certainly, it’s a lot easier to do something over Teams than it is over email, which is a slow back and forth, back and forth.”  I asked Bob if he found himself wondering why we, in eLearning, had not picked up Teams as a tool to support our work until COVID hit.  “Yes, although I will admit that I was not a fan of Teams pre-COVID.  I didn’t like the thought of having Teams chat open all the time, so you’re not only answering emails, but answering Teams chat as well.”  But now, as with the rest of us, we can’t imagine going back to our old ways of supporting faculty.

And transitioning to working from home?  Well, as for most of us in eLearning, Bob says “I found it easy to do. I had a good setup at home, and we had a robust Internet connection, which helped a lot. For a lot of people, terrible home Internet was one of their major stumbling blocks.”  But, of course, working from home can blur the lines between work and life. “It was not possible to leave your work at work anymore.  Especially because of the volume of work we had.  You’re inundated with so many support calls you wake up in the middle of the night and think about one of the calls you forgot, realizing you hadn’t gotten back to the person, and you might jump up, turn on the computer and get back to them right then and there.”  While Bob prefers working from home, he admits that there are things that “are easier to do in person, for example quickly bouncing ideas off of others when you can stand around the office talking to everybody at once.”

One thing Bob found about supporting people through Teams was that “I felt/feel like I’ve met them. I’ve talked to them, I’ve seen them, they’ve seen me. I was surprised that, while it’s not the same as face-to-face contact, it gave you the sense that you had met the person and gotten to know them.” At the same time, “the disadvantage to only seeing people virtually is that if you go to someone’s office, you might sit down and look beside you and see something that you wouldn’t have seen on camera.  It might have been a poster and you ask ‘Oh, did you go to that concert?’ Or you have a discussion where you find out that they are a friend of a friend of yours.  The nuances of human existence can sometimes be limited by Teams and the field of view of the camera.”

When I asked Bob about what the biggest challenge he faced when we all moved online was, he paused for a few moments to consider.  “Frustration with Collaborate and the myriad problems people had with it initially and trying to figure out how to support them.  Although we in eLearning were familiar with it, we hadn’t yet had to teach an entire two-hour course using Collaborate.  And people were encountering multiple issues with their home device, their Internet connection, and especially with not understanding how to use Collaborate for teaching.  Sometimes I wished I could just go over to the person’s house and have them show me what they were doing.”  All of us in eLearning struggled similarly supporting the complex issues arising from synchronous teaching in Collaborate, but as Bob notes, “for us, we could handle that learning curve because it was our idea to adopt those technologies to begin with, but it was complex trying to figure out someone else’s problem when you’re also trying to figure out how the software works.”

One of the biggest rewards for him from the past couple of years, Bob reflected, was that our eLearning team, which “was a tight team going into COVID, became even tighter. It didn’t blow us apart and we became more supportive of ourselves as a group and around what we were doing and how we were handling things. I think a lot of people never have that in their work life, let alone during a pandemic.”  Bob also says that he didn’t resent the sudden increase in workload, “and I didn’t get the feeling that anyone in our group was feeling resentful – we just jumped right in, and it was a rewarding experience.” Strangely enough, however, transitioning back to “normal” has been challenging (and not just for Bob).  “Coming back to working in the office and supporting people when it’s not as high pressure is a little boring in comparison.”

When I asked Bob what advice he might have for a new support person coming into eLearning, especially during frantic times, he said “try and put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re helping. Try as best you can to see things from their perspective and get out of your own head. But I don’t think that’s any different than what I would say to a new in-person support person: listen to what people say about their problems.” Bob had a few more things to say about this perspective piece, which was so similar to the experiences of faculty teaching online for the first time, in that they were able to step into the shoes of their students much more easily than when they taught in-person:  “There were times I would have to go into someone’s Collaborate class and help either students or the instructor, like I would in other jobs, where I went into someone’s classroom to help them with technology challenges in the middle of a class with all these people watching you and time ticking away. So, while it wasn’t difficult to do the same thing online, it gave me a clearer perspective of what faculty and students were going through.”

If Bob has one regret from the past couple of years, it was wanting to record “certain support cases along with the details of what went on. I kept telling myself that I should do that, but I never did,” which is not surprising considering the pressure-cooker that was eLearning support back then.  But he is proud of the work he and his support colleagues did helping people with issues critical enough to make them want to throw in the towel.  “We did it in the end, and the people we helped were very thankful.”

Camosun Story #52: Wendy

Wendy is one of my amazing eLearning colleagues, and our D2L Administrator.  I wanted to hear her perspective on our move to online support back in March 2020 and the change of what that support looked like up to now (I will be posting her support colleague Bob’s story as well…) 

When we all moved online in March 2020, Wendy says she “wasn’t worried about working from home because everything I do is on a computer, and since everybody was going to be in the same boat, they’d know I was at home so they couldn’t drop in to see me.  But, as someone with extra risk factors, the biggest thing for me was fear. What if what if I get sick? What happens to my kids? What happens to work if I get sick?  That’s what I was focused on – I was watching the updates every day to see what was going to happen.”  But she also remembers feeling that “it was a very exciting time. I don’t mind when things are a little bit exciting because it’s invigorating, and it was an energizing period. It was also a chance to feel less like the unsung heroes keeping things running, instead being the ones keeping everyone teaching. I felt needed and very busy supporting folks who hadn’t really used our online tools before, or folks who had to ramp up their use in a big way. In addition, our team worked very well together, helping each other out which made it exciting rather than stressful because I knew the rest of the team had my back and vice versa.”   

Wendy found working from home both positive and challenging. “I got to look out the window at the birds and the neighbours, but over time started to feel disconnected because I’m used to water cooler talk, daily banter with Bob [Preston], connecting with instructors and students, and just being around people.”  While she prefers supporting people online, not ever seeing people in person was wearing.  “I felt quite lonely at times because my kids are only with me halftime, and work is a big part of my socialization.  In addition, it can sometimes be hard to stay motivated and focused on work when working from home.”  Work can also easily bleed into personal time, because when we first went online, we in eLearning were working sometimes 12-hour days meaning “you had to force yourself to get up out of your chair and take a break.”   

In March 2020, eLearning was short-staffed, especially considering the number of support requests that suddenly began to come in.  Wendy felt internal pressure to work overtime because “if I didn’t answer questions in a timely way, I knew what an impact that would have. So, I think the biggest challenge was the volume of work and the suddenness with which we went home. It would have been ideal to have a couple of weeks to plan and discuss strategies rather than suddenly one day we’re all working from home.”  While being short-staffed was a challenge for eLearning support, ironically another challenge appeared when we were given an extra support position: remotely training someone new in the middle of a pandemic. “Having trained a number of people for support positions over the years I find it easiest if they can start by watching me work to get a feel for the type of questions we receive and the ways to answer. Instead, I had to explain each scenario and trust that the person was receiving and retaining it. I also think that building rapport with somebody is hard until you’ve met in person a few times. And with the work we do, it’s important to feel connected and trusted as co-workers.” 

Moving support online meant ditching the office phone and moving to a soft (computer) phone, but then moving away from phone and email and ultimately to our new ticketing system.  But the big player for those of us supporting faculty was Teams.  “With Teams we were able to instantly communicate with folks and share a screen which has enhanced our ability to help people. We can see what they’re looking at instead of trying to talk them through issues without seeing what they are doing which has always been a challenge for technical support.”  We are hoping that students can have access to Teams in the future as that will really change how we support them as well.  Wendy noted though that in her experience, in-person support will likely still be a first choice for many students and faculty.  But during COVID, when “that option was taken away, we still provided timely support, but by using email and then our ticketing system we were able take more time to review support requests and get back to people with a fuller answer than we may have when answering the phone.  And we haven’t shifted back too much.”  

Over time, we moved from that more reactive support to more proactive (as demand decreased) but that was challenging in itself – when we moved “from a frenetic pace to more normal it was hard to shift back, especially when working at home.”  Since we’ve come back to some in-person hours, Wendy and her colleagues have kept the online service model (using Teams and the ticketing system) they’ve developed.  But they find that now, after everyone has been using our online tools for a couple of years, “we’re getting fewer of those basic questions we used to get from brand new or inexperienced users. The bulk of the questions now come from faculty using the tools at a deeper level. They’re not just putting their syllabus or some content online, they’re actually using the tools, and in variety of ways.” 

When I asked Wendy about rewards she might have found over the past few years, I had to smile when she said “personally, the ability to foster cats was amazing.  I was at home and could have little kitties running around which was fantastic.”  She also appreciated being able to spend more time with her kids – “they’d come home from school, and I’d be there, although it was a little hard sometimes to remind them that I was working and not available. As much as I was disconnected from co-workers, I had more connection with friends and family.”  And finally, Wendy reminded me about the NISOD Excellence Award eLearning received back in February 2021 (which I had completely forgotten about!)  “That NISOD award was pretty cool. It felt neat to be recognised in CamNews.  Most of the recognition I receive is from individual saying, thanks you’re a lifesaver, but that wider acknowledgement meant a lot.”  

With regards to work, Wendy says “I love the shift in workshop delivery that happened when everything went online.  The idea of standing in front of a large group is unpleasant for me but being part of a Teams workshop feels easy.  I joined in on many workshops when they were online, sometimes to learn, but also to contribute and help the main presenter, and I really enjoyed the experience.  I feel like attendance was a bit better, too, with people able to attend from wherever they were. Regardless of the future I hope we keep offering meetings and workshops this way. 

When I asked Wendy what lessons she might take away from the past couple of years, she reflected on another challenge of working from home.  “It’s important to not take your mobility for granted.  Working from home meant I was eight feet from the bathroom, eight feet from the kitchen, and I didn’t move for a year and a half. I’m still fighting my way back to a level of fitness to keep myself healthy. So now when I’m working from home, I make a point of taking breaks. I’ll take the garbage out or walk a lap of the parking lot or just something to get myself moving.”  And also, make sure your home office setup is well organized and ergonomic.  And, of course, “we say it over and over – we can do our work remotely. Having two campus locations doesn’t have to be a problem and we don’t have to all travel to one place to have a productive meeting.” 

Wendy had some advice for people having to support faculty and students remotely. “I find our new ticketing system to be very helpful. It’s important to have a good system for receiving support requests, assigning them, and marking them.”  in addition, make time to connect and socialize with your colleagues. “Bob and Kailin and I have a weekly check-in because we don’t physically all cross paths.  That way we have a half hour every week to chat about anything that’s come up, and also to talk about our weekends etc., because I think it makes for a better working environment if you can connect with your colleagues on a personal level too.  As for advice to her past self, Wendy says “I would tell myself to relax a bit and not be so afraid of getting sick, and I would remind myself more that I didn’t create the problem – everyone having to go online wasn’t my fault. I took ownership of more than I probably should have in terms of trying to fix things out of my control.”   

Finally, Wendy related to me something she heard one of our newer colleagues say.  “She said that we have one of the best departments at Camosun in terms of how we interact with and support each other, collaborate, just get along.  And I think the way we work as a team was crucial over the past two and a half years. I don’t think we all would have survived this if we didn’t work so cohesively. I’m really thankful that we did work so well together, and we have such a great group because that’s important.”  Wendy, it’s been a pleasure working with you over the past 8 ½ years, and I look forward to many more! 

Camosun Story #51: Martha

Martha is the Chair of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) – my Chair – and is also an Educational Developer in the Faculty Development unit of CETL. She also taught for many years in the Community, Family, and Child Studies Program.

I asked Martha what it was like for her when we all moved online in March 2020.  “One thing that stands out for me is how we suddenly all needed to know how to use Teams, and I remember diving in deeply to learn how it worked.  While it was a steep learning curve, I realized that it would be our primary tool for communicating with each other in CETL, and with other faculty. Then I began thinking about all the other ways that we could use Teams as a space for meeting and sharing resources.”  Martha also realized that because CETL was deluged with messages from panicked faculty looking for help with teaching and assessing online, she “took a crash course on using the LibGuides [the Research Guides in the Library]. We focused on collaborating to find and vet resources so we could build them on the LibGuides. I spent a lot of my time learning those tools and collaborating within CETL and with the librarians.”  Collaboration went beyond Camosun as well.  Martha remembers a site developed by STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) which shared resources related to teaching and learning online from across Canada. It “became an important place to check-in and find what else was going on, what other people were doing, and then sharing that to our Camosun community.”

During this initial frenetic time, Martha said “I remember feeling excited, and there was this sense that we were all in the same boat together.  I was amazed at how everybody rose to the occasion; we were getting things done as opposed to meeting to talk about planning to get things done. There was a sense of immediacy, taking action, and collaboration.”  I asked how she felt about this lack of time for planning (post-secondary institutions can be notorious for endless planning and discussions before any action is taken – certainly not what was happening back in March 2020).  “I tend to be action oriented; I recognize that everything is always a work in progress and will never be perfect. I would rather create something, get feedback, keep working on it, have it evolve, and keep adding to it. So, this way of working fit with my style.”

Of course, there were challenges.  “I’ve never been a techie, but I’m always willing to try new things, and am not afraid of technology. I was happy to get in there and muck about and give it a try, which was good because there was no choice. I admit, however, I felt frustrated with the technology because as I learned more about Teams, for example, I discovered that there were some things that it couldn’t do that I thought it should be able to do.  So, I have become more familiar with the imperfections of technology – that it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a ‘good enough’ tool for so many things.”  Of course, the technology was not the only barrier to Martha doing some of the things she wanted to do.  “One of my original visions for using Teams was to support the communities of practice with things like resource sharing and chats.  But faculty were so busy, they didn’t necessarily want to check in on Teams outside of the scheduled meetings, so that hasn’t been utilized to the full extent of how I imagined it. I haven’t given up on it yet though – I still think we could be doing more with Teams; I just haven’t quite figured out how to take it to that next level.” And maybe once people are a little less fatigued from the past couple of years, Martha will find a way!

But Martha prefers to think of challenges as opportunities.  “For example, working from home seemed like a challenge initially, but it turns out I flourished working from home. The two-campus issue evaporated and became a non-issue both for our team working together and for providing support to faculty on two campuses. The challenge of learning new technology immediately became an opportunity because attendance at workshops and communities of practice increased exponentially, not just for people desperately needing to learn new tools, but for people needing to connect with each other in community.”  It’s worth noting that these online workshops and communities of practice continue – some of them much more robustly than they were pre-COVID.

As someone who was a classroom instructor, but now provides learning opportunities and support to classroom instructors, Martha says she “didn’t feel as put on-the-spot compared to faculty using technology for the first time with a classroom full of students. They’ve been out there, in the fire, learning from their mistakes in the moment. And from what I hear, a lot of them have advanced so far teaching online, I feel a little bit left behind.  But one positive outcome from what we have provided in CETL is a recognition that peer-to-peer support and learning is incredibly valuable. What faculty can now teach each other is phenomenal because they have that on-the-ground experience to share.  I feel that an important role I can play through CETL is building more of those opportunities for them to connect with each other.”  In addition to supporting interdisciplinary peer-to-peer connection and learning, Martha also sees a role for CETL to take what we hear from faculty and push those messages up so that college leadership hears what’s going on. “We have this wonderful opportunity to be involved in community conversations with faculty on a regular basis, hearing so many different perspectives, so it’s important for us to amplify those voices any chance we get.”

The amplification of cross-discipline conversations is one reward from the past two years. Ironically, another benefit Martha sees, is “the recognition that mental health and well-being is something we all need to pay attention to, for both employees and students, beyond the pandemic times.” And related to this, faculty thinking more about creating community in their classrooms.  “Faculty came to realize that they had to focus on what was most important for their courses, and that creating a sense of belonging for students was fundamental for their success.”  Creating community in the classroom was always important, but “it may have been taken for granted before, whereas when things moved online, faculty had to be more intentional about building community and engagement.” That’s one of those silver linings that came out of the past two years: even when teaching in-person, it’s worth spending time on and being intentional creating those classroom communities.

Martha noted that another interesting conversation that came out of the past two years was around assessments, and specifically online assessments.  “There was a bit of a panic around cheating, looking at how faculty could tighten up online exams, using online proctoring, etc.  Then there was some recognition that going in that direction means you’re chasing something you’ll never catch.  So, we worked with faculty to explore other ways of assessing, and I think we have had a good response shifting from thinking punitively to more creatively in terms of assessment. But as we return to in-person teaching and learning, we need to consider how we can continue to build on creative assessment and make it part of what we do.”

Like many of us in CETL, Martha is “concerned we will lose the opportunity for creativity that opened up through the chaos of the past two years. Now there seems to be a sense of shutting down the creativity we had embraced. I recognize there’s a balance – you don’t want total chaos all the time and you need to have some boundaries, but you also need to have a willingness to take risks. I’m concerned that things are getting shut down under the guise of returning to normal. Even though we’re in a time of financial constraint post pandemic, going back is not the only solution to our problems.”  And we need to accept that students are going to have different expectations of us as faculty, and as an institution.  “Why would a student come to an in-person class if they don’t have to? If students have competing commitments for their time, there needs to be a really good reason for them to come in-person, and we need to figure out what that is – what about the in-person classroom is an enrichment for them?”

Martha has some words of wisdom to leave us with, reflecting on the past few years, at where we are now, and what our future might hold. For the institutions: “We need to keep trusting our collective wisdom and expertise and trusting each other. Individually we’re not responsible to solve it all, but we each can just do our own little piece.  We’ve learned that we can do it over the past two years and we’re still standing.”  And with regards to CETL: “For the past couple of years we’ve known what our work is and what we need to accomplish. But what’s next is not clear. I think for me, that means we need to revisit and refocus on what our values and priorities are, what’s most important. Our values have to drive our work and be at the core of what we do.”

Camosun Story #50: Tia

Tia is a Student Navigator at Camosun.  If you didn’t know it, there are two Student Navigators in the School of Access (as part of the Assessment Centre), and they do amazing work!  Tia tells me that Student Navigators “help students who have difficulty working through Camosun’s processes or finding information. Sometimes they need help with admissions, registration, financial aid, accommodations, or counseling, myCamosun and our website. They could be a new student, a registered student, or somebody who has been here with us upgrading, or taking College level programs.  We help students navigate to all the college resources and sort out myCamosun.”  What is important to Tia is that “students don’t have to wait.  We answer our phones and texts and get right back to students, where other service departments are often too busy or short-staffed to do this.”  What I liked most was Tia’s description of how Student Navigators build strong and lasting relationships with the students they support.  For example, “I’m working with students in their second or third year of a business degree, students who I might have helped get into Sheet Metal eight years ago, so we have a connection. They know they can text me and get a quick answer. They’ve got a connection to somebody at Camosun.” 

I asked Tia what it was like for her back in March 2020 when we all suddenly moved to remote work.  “When we were sent home, I grabbed a laptop from IT and picked up a second monitor. Then I asked for a cell phone because we spend a lot of time on the phone with students. Our amazing admin team in the school of access made all this happen almost seamlessly.”  Tia also discovered an unanticipated benefit from moving support online: “for the first time in years, I felt safe. We work with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily ready to be at Camosun, and suddenly I felt I could deal with anybody because I was safe at home behind the screen.”  She also echoed what I am sure resonates with many others: “I’ve worked at the college for 32 years and I have never been that busy.” But she told me the main source of the increased demand was for upgrading which “skyrocketed with people stuck at home, wanting to finally get their high school diploma.” 

Unlike many faculty, Tia didn’t have to adapt to new online systems to communicate with students – she used email, phone, and texting, commenting on how much young people like to text.  For Tia it was simply about communicating.  Communicating with the student, with registration, with departments, and about being available and “confirming to the student that we are here. You can’t walk in and see us, but we’re here for you. And making sure, even if you didn’t have the answer, you always got back to a student, letting them know when they could expect to hear from you again.”  Tia said that the average phone call with a student was around 45 minutes because they had so many questions, but it was easier to give each student complete attention “because I wasn’t trying to serve anybody else. I wasn’t having to get up and get a key for somebody or get somebody the stapler or load the photocopier with paper. My focus was totally on that student or their parent.”  

Unfortunately, Tia notes that we did lose some students during that time online, “those students that looking for a day program, who might come into the Help Centre to spend the day working on the computer puttering away at some upgrading. We lost a lot of those students because they didn’t understand how to pick up a laptop or a WIFI hotspot, and then didn’t have anybody at home to help them with that laptop.”  But Tia did say that those students are beginning to come back, although “we don’t have the same amount to face to face we used to – they’re coming back but it’s different.” 

Tia mentioned a couple of challenges to me which speak to the complex world post-secondary institutions now find themselves: first, not enough services going back to previous in-person availability. For example, services like Financial Aid (currently only at Interurban) and Registration (currently only at Lansdowne) now have limited in-person hours for students because they have moved much of their service online, which is great for some students but can be challenging for others. “Now if students need Admissions and are at Lansdowne, they have to use an iPad to talk to Admissions at Interurban” which can be challenging if the student is having a financial conversation in a space where others can hear them.  We have to remember those students taking courses in the evening, those with jobs that don’t allow them to take breaks during limited registration hours to talk to someone, students who find using technology challenging (for example scanning documents), or students who are new and unsure of how to navigate Camosun’s systems.  That ability to walk in and talk to someone in person is something we probably don’t want to lose. 

As for the second challenge, there seems to be a disconnect between what students are wanting and needing for online courses, and what some Schools are adding as options.  Because of a reluctance to offer high-school equivalent math and science courses online, Tia has found herself having to send students to other institutions where they can take those courses in a mode that works with their busy lives.  “We’re asking a student to come to Lansdowne five days a week, two hours a day to get a Math 12 course. And many of these are high achieving students – they know what they need and are just trying to get admission requirements out of the way so they can take our programs like Nursing, Sonography, Radiography, etc.”  One thing we need to remember as a college now is that not only do many potential (and existing) students have jobs and families, and many don’t live in Victoria anymore and we will lose (and have likely already lost) those students if we can’t find ways to be more flexible. 

One other challenge Tia mentioned was how assessment for entry to Camosun changed when we all moved online. “Students used to do their assessments in person, but we couldn’t do that anymore and we didn’t know when or if we could move back to in-person.  The folks in Assessment worked really hard and brought in Examity (an American company) to support online assessments, but students suddenly had to pay $25 US to take a Math or English assessment.” In addition, at the beginning there were a lot of challenges with the system (for example how the booking system worked – students would book time to receive a voucher which they used on the Examity website to book the time for their assessment…confusing)!   But again, the Assessment Centre group persevered to make the process clearer. “We fielded many, many calls and questions from panicked students, but now the system is smooth, and students have the choice to come to campus or complete their assessment online. The staff in the Assessment Center are brilliant.” 

Through all the challenges, Tia has found some rewards.  “For me, it’s the relationships we’ve built with Financial Aid, Admissions, and Registration – I really feel like we’re working as a team. While there was reluctance to have Student Navigators in the beginning, now we have a good relationship, we see real value in what everyone is doing, and we are working well for the betterment of the student. That is a huge win for me.”  And associated with this is that by moving a lot of support away from in-person, we “got rid of a lot of paperwork. We used to ask a student to fill out a piece of paper and take it to their instructor to sign it so that they could get into a class after the add drop date. The students were running all over the place with this piece of paper, but they were intimidated to ask an instructor. So now I can just talk to the instructor and ask them to send Registration an e-mail giving permission and boom, it’s done. There’s no paperwork and the student hasn’t had all that stress.” Another win that is being kept moving forward.  

Tia works hard to advocate for students, and one of the lessons learned from the past couple of years is that if you keep advocating you can make changes that better support students trying to get into Camosun. I would add that if you listen to students, you can find new ways of doing things – ways that might push you out of your comfort zone or challenge existing systems, but that address student needs. “If we’re going to survive as an institution, we need to listen to our customers. For example, an evening course shouldn’t start at 4:00PM – an evening class shouldn’t start until at least 6:00PM. Especially if you’re asking them to come to campus.  If this is a student who leaves work at five o’clock in Langford and is supposed to be an evening class at 4:00pm, it won’t work for them.  Don’t have a Biology class that has students on-campus two days a week at 9:30AM, and two days a week at 2:30PM. Who can fit that into their schedule?  We need to work more at being student focussed.”  To which I would reiterate Tia’s earlier points about services and online course offerings.   

Tia’s advice for anyone finding themselves pivoting to online support services?  “Just help each other. If someone asks you questions, do whatever you can to help them succeed in their job.  I’m all about the sharing.  If you learn how to use something, show somebody else. That’s my big takeaway, especially when we were working remotely without those coffee room chats. Just share information, attend workshops where you can, and hear other people’s perspectives. And be patient, be kind with each other, and have confidence that you will learn it, even if you might not get it today.”  

Camosun Story #49: Sybil 

Over the past year or more I have been sharing stories from Camosun faculty about their move to online teaching during the first 2½ years of the pandemic.  Last month I facilitated a discussion at our Walls Optional workshop with some of those faculty and as we wrapped up our session, I began to reflect that there are more stories to share.  As I left for a walk after the session, our Director, Sybil, asked if I would interview her, and I replied, of course!  And so here is the first in a series of stories from a variety of other perspectives, still stories of the last few years, but through different lenses.  Sybil is retiring at the end of May this year, and I want to thank her for taking the time for speaking to me in what must be a last tumultuous month for her, and to thank her for leading the Library and Learning Services for these many years. 

We started our conversation as all my conversations with faculty have started: tell me what it was like for you when everything moved online back in March 2020.  “I had been on vacation and recall coming back to a growing sense of anxiety at the college.  People were asking me what’s going to happen?  We started in the library with more hand sanitizers and signs about good hand washing technique, but you knew that there was something more coming. Then on that Saturday, I think it was March 12, college leadership senior leadership was called to a meeting with the President to talk about what we were going to do the next week, everything from, moving online, what would be required, what communications were needed, what about our clinical courses, are the supports ready from eLearning, do people have adequate equipment at home. Everything from operational to education delivery to supporting students.”  I should pause here and tell you that Sybil oversees (at the time of this writing, as she is retiring soon) the Library, our Writing Centre, and the Centre of Excellent in Teaching and Learning (of which my unit, eLearning, is a part.)  So here she was, trying to manage not only “the group of people responsible for getting things online, but also perhaps the most important space at the college for students. And it’s not just space, but it’s computer access. It’s about printing, it’s about Wi-Fi, it’s about their reserve textbooks.” 

That initial week everyone was in crisis mode.  “Information was constantly changing, hour to hour to hour, so my concern was keeping everybody informed and also making sure they felt supported and not like they were alone out there.”  Sybil recalled at one point watching Trudeau speaking to the nation in our large meeting room in the Lansdowne library.  “Usually, we would all come into the meeting room with lots of chit-chat, but this time you could sense the apprehension, the fear, and the worry. But watching Trudeau you felt connected to something that was happening globally which I think was just really important.” 

As the week went on, our group (eLearning) moved our operations to remote work.  It made sense for what we do, and as Sybil noted, we had huge demands on our time as faculty and students moved to online teaching and learning. But we weren’t just fielding questions about online teaching, but also has “people needing to talk because of their fear and the worry and you were filling that dual role of supporting somebody in the moment but also being really clear and providing the information and support they needed.”  But while we were navigating our own workload remotely, “the college was still open, including the libraries.”  Sybil told me that those were the hardest days for her.  “I remember talking to my colleagues, particularly at UVic, what while classes moved online, everybody else was still on campus. And the libraries actually became busier because some students had nowhere to go.”  Gradually, however, the libraries began to reduce hours and eventually the Interurban library was closed, and some staff moved to Lansdowne.  Then Sybil had to close that library down as well. Sybil told me that this was an especially emotional moment for her because no one knew what was coming.  “I remember thinking, the next time we’re altogether, people could have experienced loss. Whether it’s two weeks or a year, we will come back and be different. It was one of those moments of feeling so connected and yet also feeling so alone.”   

While that first part of March was so very emotional, Sybil knew she had a responsibility for the people working for her, as well as for students who still needed the library to complete their coursework, “from making sure people had the equipment they needed and proper Wi-Fi access at home, to emotional support for people. And of course, layered onto that were personal worries, about my mom who’s 90, my sister who works in an emergency department, my brother who lives in the States. Everything slammed you all at once.” 

What happened next?  Well, lots as it turned out.  “We made printing free for students right away. We started doing books by mail.  I worked with IT and my colleague Evan the director of Student Affairs to provide clear information to students about a whole range of things related to technology. It was an opportunity for us to bring our expertise together and work in collaboration to rethink how to maintain our operations and support students.  Fortunately, we had a lot of good systems already in place, so thinking about how to we make good use of them and level them up. For example, in eLearning we had three major tools in place, tools the department already had comfort with and expertise in, so thinking about how to use them to their full capacity rather than looking for something new.  Another example was how we took our existing interlibrary loans system and adapted it to provide books by mail on a larger scale.”   

Communication and connection were also key for Sybil.   “We collectively met a lot in those early days, first daily and then weekly.  Those meetings served a number of purposes: one to break down feelings of isolation, and two to hear points of view about what was going on, to see what connections you could make and what the possibilities were.”  Sybil likened these meetings to emergency operation centres, as one place where all the communication happened.  “There was so much energy in hearing that everywhere everybody else was flat out, that gave me the inspiration, motivation to continue to do that response, response, response.”  Eventually things settled, “it wasn’t really settling or acceptance, but you could see that this was going to be the way we would be operating for a while.”   

We talked a bit about this strange place we are all finding ourselves in right now, transitioning from COVID response to something not quite the same as it was pre-March 2020 “I am a huge fan of William Bridges’ work about managing transitions, and the hardest time is the in-between from what was to what will be.  When we were in it, as hard as it was, it was very clear what we needed to do: make sure instructors could, on a day-to-day basis, deliver the courses to students and make sure students were supported in every way possible so they could complete their schoolwork.  But now we’re in this transition.”  To what?  Some people call it the “new normal”, a term Sybil resists.  “Normality to me suggests what the majority wants – it doesn’t recognize the diversity of the community.” We agreed that, in fact, we have been forever changed by the past two years. Sybil likened it to something Neil Postman wrote about technological change.   “He said, technological change is not additive, it’s ecological, and it changes the whole nature of what you’re doing.”  In other words, there is no going back to what was before. 

I asked Sybil what she thought her biggest challenge was back in 2020.  She told me “There are two aspects to my role as a leader that I found really hard. First, I felt this huge responsibility for everybody’s well-being. I worried how everybody was doing knowing that people in my area were working flat out. I probably beat myself up too much about it, feeling that I wasn’t doing all that I should or could. Second, I found during the pandemic, I felt some of my ethics, values, and beliefs being challenged.”  For example, trying to balance issues around privacy when trying to apply a technological solution to a pedagogical problem – namely adopting proctoring software to enforce academic integrity. In addition, Sybil struggled with ensuring marginalized students had equal access to education, “knowing that some students, and some instructors, fell in between the cracks as we celebrated our pivot to online. It doesn’t matter that 70 percent of us were okay; the impact on that 20 or 30 percent left behind was huge, and there was a group of people that were lost.  So yes, for me it was how do I maneuver through this while maintaining my strong beliefs and not put aside the things that I care about. I think sometimes in a crisis, values can be eroded, so you have a responsibility to stand up even more for them.” 

But through all the challenges, there were rewards as well, and for Sybil, she was most proud of the fact that “we were able to open the libraries safely back up to limited hours in September 2020, well ahead of many of our colleagues around the province. Students had access, they could get a bus pass safely, they could borrow a computer or Wi-Fi access, or they could come in if they needed a space to work.”  Sybil remembers one student who told her if that if hadn’t been for the libraries being open, he would not have been able to continue going to school.  In addition, she recalled the accolades the teaching and learning group were receiving.  Sybil even reminded me about the amazing video the English faculty created to thank the eLearning group for all their support.  “Those moments were just so powerful, hearing from instructors over and over again. Every time I would go to an educational or senior leadership meeting, they would tell me people in CETL are rock stars.  As much as it was so hard, I think those moments showed how we, in our department, share those values and principles about delivering quality experiences, and how we have that ethic of care and empathy around the work that we do. We meet people where they’re at and help them move along. I saw that over and over and over again because everybody had a strong personal commitment to a principled and values-based approach to the work. That that’s what got us through. It wasn’t because we just were technical experts, it was because we were strong and shared that same set of values and principles about doing our work.” 

Sybil reflected a bit on some of the lessons learned over the past couple of years.  “When you push yourself emotionally, physically, intellectually, you realize what we are all capable of. I think so often in the ease of the day-to-day we don’t let ourselves blossom and flourish, but when you’re pushed to the edge, you see what’s possible. As hard as it was, we knew we could do it.  There is a Rumi poem that says, ‘out beyond the wrong-doing and the right-doing, there’s a field. I’ll meet you there.’ We were in that field for a good number of months, and being in that field, anything was possible.” 

Sybil has some words of advice for other leaders finding themselves in similar situations: “never underestimate the importance of clear communication and communicating in multiple ways. You need to be seen and be available and be heard.  I made up a service continuity plan in fall 2021 when Omicron was coming, because you need to know, if you have a number of people sick, what your priority service will be: this is what we stop doing and this is what we have to keep doing.  If I was to continue, I would dust off a service continuity plan every year. It could be another global pandemic, with climate change many other things could happen and it’s important to have a solid plan.” 

As we wrapped up our interview, something Sybil said really resonated with me: “I don’t subscribe to the belief that COVID happened for a reason, but I believe we have to find learning and lessons from it. If you read about the pandemic of 1918, we find the same fears and worries, but we came through it. We as humans do learn from experiences and we go on, even though it’s so scary in the moment. But we will get through this. I hope people take the time and read some of the stories that you’re documenting. It’s not just about the practical things, like service continuity plans, and leveraging the technology tools you have in place.  You also need to listen to and remember and reflect on the human stories because that’s where we learn.” 

Camosun College Open Sustainability Project: My Final Reflection

As you have read about here before, in 2019, Camosun College (via a proposal by Sybil Harrison, Director of the Library and Learning Services, and Nannette Plant, from Special Projects, Continuing Education and Contract Training) received an Open Education Sustainability Grant from BCcampus, and in turn funded eight projects to develop or redevelop courses using Open Educational resources. The project brought together 11 faculty members, as well as librarians, copyright experts, instructional designers, curriculum developers, indigenization specialists, graphic designers, multimedia support staff, and others to work on the projects.  Not surprisingly, unexpected events pushed the completion deadlines for these projects to the end of April this year (2022), but despite all the challenges our faculty grant recipients faced moving their regular teaching online during COVID, they still found time to dedicate time to redesigning their courses by adapting and creating a wide range of Open Educational resources (OER) – everything from websites, to open textbooks, to online open homework/test banks – to support their students. 

Now that the project has been “completed” (in so far as the final report has been submitted and some of our grant recipients have reflected on their open projects in this year’s Camosun Showcase publication,) I wanted to take a few moments here to reflect on my own journey over the past almost 3 years. 

First, let me express my immense gratitude to the people involved with this project.  To my Director who invited me in as project manager and supported me throughout.  To the faculty who engaged fully in this work despite overwhelming challenges they were already dealing with.  To my colleagues in eLearning and CETL who supported me and this project while they also navigated a world where everyone suddenly needed their help. To the librarians, our copyright officer, graphics designers, students, and all the others who supported in so many ways.  And of course, to BCcampus for awarding us the initial funding and to our college for contributing matching funds.  I want to make clear that the rest of this piece is in no way meant to negate or ignore these amazing contributions to Open Education at Camosun College. 

But now, I must acknowledge that I struggled with writing this reflection.  I wondered, is it because it’s not just about me?  Am I having trouble separating my journey from that of the whole group?  That would be an easy (and good) answer.  And that’s partly it.  But the other part comes from the me that asks: “What now?”  This project has given me purpose, hope, and the sense that I am doing something useful, not only for the project folks but also for the institution more widely, and I don’t want to lose that. But I can’t do it alone, even if my workload was solely dedicated to Open Education. This project has made me realize how important Open Education is.  I mean, I understood that in theory before, through extensive reading, and from listening to provincial groups and colleagues engaged in Open Education work, but I hadn’t added it to my plate.  Well, it’s there now – no taking it back. 

While we made it successfully to the end, this project was not without its challenges.  One big one was, of course, COVID which exacerbated any and all issues that are typical in a large project like this.  But the more encompassing challenge was (and is) that there is no one person at Camosun who is fully assigned and dedicated to working with Open Education.  Our librarians, of course, engage in Open Education work, and my understanding is that there is one librarian who has Open Education as part of her workload.  Additionally, my Director (and sponsor for this project) is a huge champion of Open, and some of the faculty in the project had worked with Open Educational resources in the past.  But Open Education inevitably becomes off-the-side-of-the-desk work when you have innumerable competing priorities of supporting students, faculty, and entire units of employees who were all just trying to keep from drowning during and after the “Great Pivot” to online that was imposed by the pandemic. 

One of my main responsibilities as the Open Sustainability project manager was keeping the project on track when everyone was so busy – and to be honest, at times it felt like I was all alone in that struggle (and yes, I mean struggle).  I know that’s not a completely fair assessment as people were working hard to keep not only their projects, but their regular work going the best they could under difficult circumstances, but I’m one of those people that needs to hear something back when I send an email.  Anything.  A note to say “thanks – I’m busy but I’ll get back to you soon” so there were times I wanted to just give up and let the project die. 

I’ll pause for a moment here as I know maybe people wanted this reflection to be a rah-rah of excitement and patting ourselves on the back for our accomplishments.  Don’t get me wrong; we did some amazing things. But, well, nothing in life is rah-rah all the time, and if we don’t acknowledge the sticking points, the pain, the struggles, we can never learn how to do better next time.  So, here are some of my take-aways at this moment in time (who knows what they might be in 6 months or a year…) 

  1. We need to listen to students more.  Do your students buy their textbook(s)?  How much of it are they reading?  Are they able to keep the textbook and use it for future reference?  Do they have to make choices around buying texts or eating? Are we truly engaging in equity, diversity, inclusion, indigenization if we are using resources that don’t include diverse voices and perspectives? Do our students see themselves in our courses? 
  2. Program/Department groups need to have conversations about how they are serving students and supporting their faculty to support students.  Some faculty, especially term faculty, feel they can’t take the leap into OER because other faculty teaching the same course, or courses that ladder from the ones below, won’t support the addition or creation of new resources. CETL can help you think through how to incorporate OER into your program and courses – so include us in your conversations! 
  3. The college needs to do better by its faculty and its students.  Developing OER, especially a complete open textbook, much like developing a good online course, takes TIME!  It cannot be done off the sides of desks or only during a Scheduled Development (SD) period, even if that SD time is 100% dedicated to it. Release time, grant opportunities, collaborative development are all models that have been used successfully at other institutions.  Let’s take a closer look at what others have done. 
  4. And finally, we (faculty, instructional designers, librarians, etc.) need to have more support from the college so we can dedicate time to this work.  It shouldn’t rest with only one librarian or one instructional designer – someone needs to be coordinating Open Education work at the college, and this is NOT a part time job.  We learned in this project (no surprise!) that it’s not only librarians and instructional designers who know stuff about open, but so does the Copyright officer, faculty (who are already using OER with little to no support), students (who when they hear about OER want to ask for more but don’t know where to go), and so many others (think the Centre for Accessible Learning, the Writing Centre, Graphics Design, the list goes on and on.)  But who brings them together?  Who brings in the right people for the right task at the right time?  Who brings faculty together to talk about how they can engage in Open Education?  Who brings in students to talk about their experiences and to talk to them about open textbooks?  Who brings in admin to show them the benefits to students, faculty, and the college as a whole?  Who advocates and coordinates larger advocacy? 

I think that brings me to the bottom of my tank for right now.  I hope we can keep this project and our work in Open Education alive and well and moving forward at our institution because if you don’t think Open Education is the way of the future in post-secondary education, then you aren’t paying attention. 

For a little bit of rah-rah to end, here is a list of posts I have written as part of this project. 

Reflecting on where we are today as a teaching institution

I was originally planning to write a reflection on the amazing faculty interviews I conducted over the past year and to look a bit at where we are all at now, almost 2½ years since we moved online due to a global pandemic.  But last week an amazing thing happened.  Our virtual Teaching and Learning Community of Practice had a record number of participants and an amazing conversation.  Why you ask?  Well, I could posit many reasons.  For example, many of our faculty have more time and bandwidth now for discussions with colleagues, especially if they are on scheduled development time.  But what I think really sparked interest this time around was the topic chosen for this particular day and time:  student disengagement.

The article that sparked the conversation, sent in advance, was from The Chronicle of Higher Education and is called A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection:  Professors are reporting record numbers of students checked out, stressed out, and unsure of their future. And after 2 and a half years of online, kind of in-person, fully in-person (except for the students who are sick at home with COVID or mental health issues) and faculty exhausted from bouncing back and forth, who could be surprised by this?

Some faculty I’ve talked to were so excited to get back to the classroom after being forced to teach online for a year and a half (we are talking “back to normal” last fall), but that excitement didn’t last for all of them.  Students were bouncing in and out of classes with a variety of concerns, the Centre for Accessible Learning experienced record numbers of accommodation requests, and faculty were left, often on their own, to figure out how to support students to learn the material and emerge with some success.

This, I believe, sparked the record attendance last week.  I even spoke to another faculty member who was very disappointed to have missed the conversation (he had another commitment at the same time).  What I wanted to share in this post were some of the things faculty needed to talk about.

  1. Students don’t seem to learn as well online as they do face to face – whether this is true or not, do we do a good enough job of preparing them for the realities of learning online and teaching them the skills required to be successful in online delivery?
  2. Technology is distracting (and some is designed to be distracting) and addictive, but there is an expectation of being able to bring in and use technology in the classroom.
  3. But technology is sometimes necessary to support students and enhance their learning – how do we find the right balance?
  4. There is a perception that students are not engaging in in-person classes – one faculty member said she related to a quote from the article where a student said, “I want so badly to be active in my classroom, but everything still feels, like, fake almost.”
  5. There is a disconnect when students come to post-secondary from high school – is it just the COVID grads? Do we need to provide more formalized learning skills courses for new (or all) students?
  6. Student absences are disruptive to the flow of the course and faculty are struggling with how to engage with all students whether they are present or not.
  7. Do we do students a disservice by accommodating them endlessly and not holding them to account for deadlines? Are faculty spending too much time teaching basic “adulting”?
  8. It’s not just students. Faculty (and I would add support staff as well) feel disengaged and like they have lost the ability to concentrate fully.
  9. Some faculty feel like they have lost the ability to teach.

In my opinion, based on many, many conversations with faculty, and hearing from them in the Community of Practice, faculty need more opportunities to talk about their struggles and questions and experiences, as well as space to brainstorm ideas on how to address student disengagement and faculty burnout – to hear from others what they’ve tried (both what worked and what didn’t).

But in addition to peer-to-peer engagement (with both faculty in their programs and outside), faculty also need opportunities to engage meaningfully with administration around their experiences over the past 2½ years. Only then can we work together to build potential solutions. If we are to support students where they are at, and where they want to be (and listen to their needs for more flexible options to fit their lifestyles – and let’s be frank:  if we don’t listen, some of those students will go elsewhere and can we really afford that given the fiscal restraints we are all facing in post-secondary in BC?) we need to support faculty AND the other folks at the college who support faculty and students.

Coming back was not coming back to “normal”.  That ship has sailed, and we need to negotiate a new world, not bury our heads in the sand and hope to pop up back in 2019.

NOTE: I want to thank my colleagues in CETL and the facilitators of the Teaching and Learning Community of Practice for their comments and editorial suggestions for this piece.  We are stronger in community!

A Conversation with Brian Lamb about the Open Educational Technology Collaborative (OpenETC)

Brian Lamb is the Director of Learning Technology & Innovation at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), and he is one of the founders of the Open Educational Technology Collaborative (OpenETC) here in British Columbia.  I wrote about the OpenETC in a previous post, but here Brian and I talked about how the OpenETC got started, and some visions they have for the future.

I’ve known Brian for awhile but was really interested in where the idea for OpenETC came from.  He began “I’ve been active in open education for most of my time in EdTech, going back to the early 2000s and always thought the open web was a great place to connect with people in other places, share materials, reuse other people’s materials, and collaborate.  So, when this thing called Open Education began to take form while I was at UBC, I was able to get support to bring in blog and wiki platforms for the institution.”  But then he moved to TRU and “was confronted with the reality of IT departments who are tightly strapped for resources and rightfully wary of people coming in with a boutique project”, because so often people start up projects, work on them for awhile, then move on leaving IT holding the bag.  While they had a WordPress installation at TRU, it was quite locked down and didn’t do what Brian needed it to do.  He started up something on his own, but quickly realized that being the admin for a service that he wanted to grow was not sustainable.

But Brian had a network to draw on.  “As I talked to people at other institutions, I knew that other people were in the same position, for example Grant Potter at the University of Northern British Columbia and Tannis Morgan at the Justice Institute of BC who was doing amazing work with her team at the Justice Institute.  So, we thought, rather than all of us struggling individually to run three different WordPress installs, we should pull our resources together and get one good one.”

Brian, Grant, and Tannis spent some time considering different models of hosting.  They knew that they wanted a space where they could innovate and collaborate.  They started small, collaborating on a WordPress platform they kept fairly small and private, but then were able to get some shared hosting space from BCNet. “That was a huge shift for us because it allowed us to be more open with the platform because we finally had FIPPA-compliant hosting.  At that point it started to grow and that’s when we started to think we had a model that we could extend to other people who might want to use these tools.”  And that was the moment OpenETC was born.

While WordPress was the main tool the OpenETC started with, they knew other applications were in the same boat with regards to institutional need versus lack of support.  “We’re always playing with things. Grant is the most experimental tinkerer of the group, and he’s brought several things to the table that we’ve played with internally, some of which we brought on (Mattermost) and some we decided not to move forward with. One of the things he brought forward early on was Sandstorm.”  While unfortunately the developers have not continued to support Sandstorm (which allowed people to run applications without having to install them locally), “that model is very powerful and it’s still our dream, to have a wide range of applications available for people throughout the province to take and run – open applications without third party surveillance.  Applications where people can determine the level of privacy they want and have the autonomy to run themselves. We’re still playing with those models but haven’t quite found the framework that we can share widely…yet.”

So, who is the current team supporting the tools they have and with new tools potentially on the way?  Brian tells me that while it can be a bit fluid, there is, of course, Brian himself (as one of the founders).  There is also Troy Welch, a developer on the team who works with Brian at TRU. But it’s a reciprocal relationship, and while Troy works on elements for OpenETC, he shares those back to TRU, “and other people build things that we can also bring back to TRU.”  In addition, OpenETC has support from BCcampus, and BCNet hosts their WordPress service via EduCloud.  Then of course Grant Potter (another founder) at UNBC whose WordPress use case was one of the drivers for the creation of the OpenETC and Tannis Morgan who was at the Justice Institute when she started with OpenETC and is now with Vancouver Community College. “The Justice Institute has done amazing with their open WordPress sites, and I wanted to be able to see how they build their stuff, to go into the back end and see what themes they chose, what plugins they used, how they configured them, etc.  There’s so much benefit in that kind of sharing.” And in addition to this initial group, “Anne-Marie Scott joined us while she was still at the University of Edinburgh. She happened to be in Vancouver when we were having an in-person event and we invited her along because her group at Edinburgh, in my opinion, may be the best EdTech unit in the world.” She is now a Deputy Provost at Athabasca University and an integral contributor to our planning and operations.  And of course, Clint Lalonde from BCcampus gradually became more and more involved as well. “We’re starting to expand now. First of all, anyone who shows up on Mattermost who is engaging with the other participants and the tools, if they want to say they’re part of the OpenETC, that makes us happy.” Then there are people who represent institutions.  “We’re starting to expand that group but doing it mindfully in a way that doesn’t spin out of control.  For example, bringing people like you, Emily, and Ian Linkletter from BCIT and Liesel Knaak from North Island College – you’re the people who are doing the most, especially institutionally.”

Other organizations have also supported OpenETC.  “We haven’t really talked about the role that ETUG (the Educational Technology User Group) plays. Even though there’s not an official relationship between OpenETC and ETUG, I don’t think OpenETC would have worked if ETUG didn’t exist. Because ETUG has created this cohesive community where we share with and help each other. It’s because of groups like ETUG and BCcampus, who emphasize openness and ethical practice as core values, that we have been able to do this work. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the people that are most active in the OpenETC are the same people that have been active in ETUG for years.”

You might be asking yourself, is OpenETC just for BC?  Brian told me that if you understand the model of sharing, we have in BC, supported by ETUG and BCcampus, which in other places seems to be an incredibly radical thing, it really is a natural reflection of the culture that’s evolved here over a long period of time.  “Sometimes we’ve had inquiries from people in other provinces about OpenETC. And from a technical point of view, creating your own OpenETC is no harder than setting up your own WordPress server, but how do you develop that culture? A lot of the things I’ve learned through ETUG we try to embody in our OpenETC practice. We don’t talk about it very often because I think it’s just understood; it’s just a shared set of values.”

When I asked if Brian was surprised by the way OpenETC has taken off in the community, he told me “I expected people would use the tools because there was a gap people were struggling with. What I’ve found most amazing is the quality of work being done with the tools. It’s so satisfying to see people at other institutions doing work that they couldn’t have done if not for OpenETC – that’s the coolest thing in the world. I love seeing committed Edtech people, who care about the ethics of what they do, doing such interesting things on the open web. And if you give them some tools and a little bit of help, what they’ll do with it never stops being amazing.”

But institutional collaborators don’t just bring themselves to OpenETC; they also bring students.  “It’s always been a given that whatever we make available, we want it to be able to work for students – if it’s something only a specific group of people can use, then it’s not really meeting our purpose. The thing with students is some of them can jump in right away, but the majority of students have never worked with tools like these before. I think that’s a big reason why a lot of faculty are wary of adopting new tools because they know they’re going to spend a lot of time supporting students, so we’ve tried to make the sign-up process as smooth and self-serve as we can.”  And they are still working on making the onboarding process smoother, including having more clonable starter sites in WordPress so students (and others) don’t have to start with a blank site.  That way “they can feel reasonably good about showing their site to people quickly without having to learn how themes work.”  But what Brian really likes about WordPress is that students have the control to change themes, delete and add plugins, widgets, design their sites the way they want to. And Brian is also, as he says, “selfishly excited to see the work students are doing with WordPress”.

I asked what the future holds for OpenETC (and I confess, I was asking specifically whether or not they were considering bringing on a Wiki or other collaborative tool) and Brian assured me that they are having discussions, but don’t want to raise expectations.  “We know that Etherpad is an extremely popular application, so we’re probably going to launch that as a stand-alone application which works well for collaborative writing. We’ve talked about Wikis, and if there was significant demand for wiki-like collaborative spaces that Etherpad couldn’t meet, we would have to look at that. We’ve been playing with a framework called Cloudron, which is like an advanced version of Sandstorm in the sense that it lets you deploy apps and includes a number of pretty interesting Wiki applications, but we aren’t sure that it is the right framework for us.”  But Brian is interested in creating a kind of middle-ground for more robust and server-intensive applications, where access is limited to those people at institutions who support educational technology, who can then support people at their institutions.

Then there is H5P.  “I think one of my dreams is to find ways to make H5P a little easier to support. We’ve talked about creating a dedicated H5P-enabled WordPress theme where we could embed sharing tools and user documentation. It’s been really cool to watch how H5P has been used across the province and I would love to find way to promote and support more activity with it.”  Of course, the challenge for Brian and others supporting OpenETC is that this sort of development work is not part of their regular jobs and “unfortunately, a lot of this work ends up being off the sides of all our desks, which is not the way it should be.”  Brian would also love to find ways to make it easier for people to share their work across the OpenETC network.  “My dream would be to improve discoverability and shareability of H5P objects across sites. And I hope one day to create a framework where you can share your own work more easily.”  He has some ideas but thinks this is where the community could really help, because the potential from sharing H5P objects is immense.  “We still have a long way to go, but where I think the future of OpenETC will come from people doing do more on the platform and contributing back. If we have more people doing that, we can start to incorporate what they do to make it better.  We’re better now already because of the participants, but I really think we’re just starting to see the payoff of wider collaboration across the province.”

As participation and community collaboration grew, it became evident that perhaps OpenETC should adopt some terms of use guidelines.  While OpenETC hasn’t been confronted with abuse of content or copyright violations yet, the community began asking about a code of conduct for OpenETC. “Ian Linkletter had developed a code of conduct for his Mattermost installation at UBC, so we adapted his model for our code of conduct and Clint Lalonde did a really good job of facilitating a wider community conversation and getting feedback and input on it. We might not have done it then without that help, but it was something the community wanted, and they were prepared to put in the work to make it happen.”

I asked Brian if OpenETC has seen a lot of growth when COVID hit back in 2020.  But he reflected that it’s hard to know because they had been growing before that point and it’s hard to know what the difference would have been without a pandemic pushing everyone online.  But numbers of users are not nearly as important or interesting to Brian as seeing unique and interesting applications of the tools from around the province.  That being said, with more people signing on, “we hired someone to tighten up the on-ramping for the WordPress clone tool, and to set up better reporting tools so we have a more effective way to look at growth in accounts over time and where they originated.  But, while we’ve definitely seen growth, I’m not sure how much we would have seen without COVID and I’d like to believe the work we did to make the platform more accessible, and our regular development plan would have brought people aboard under any conditions.”

As my discussion with Brian drew to a close, I wanted to express to him how much the OpenETC has supported me and my work with faculty and students at Camosun.  I was able to set up WordPress sites on the fly to support people during COVID, and have introduced many faculty, program groups, and students to the wonders of setting up their own WordPress sites, and even working with H5P.  And I also reflected, and continue to reflect, on more ways I can give back to the OpenETC community.  Brian was kind enough to assure me that we at Camosun have been contributing back, saying “we have just been so thrilled to see the work you’re doing, the way you’re giving back, and onboarding. That idea of ‘contributions, not contracts’ has become one of our slogans, and you’ve really grasped that right from the beginning. And I just want to say how much we appreciate how you’ve taken that idea of contributing back seriously.”  And I want to say that OpenETC makes it easy, and safe, to play and share back.  OpenETC is without a doubt one of the most collegial, supportive, and collaborative groups I’ve ever worked with.  I hope to be a part of this community for a very long time!