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!