Alison is a faculty member in the Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) at Camosun. While she does not currently teach in the classroom, she works very closely with Camosun students who register for accommodations through CAL. When COVID moved us all online in March 2020, Alison says she “was new to CAL, and was just starting to understand the pre-covid CAL systems. So for me, it was interesting because all of a sudden I was on a more level playing field with everybody else because moving online was new for us all.” For Alison herself, she found working virtually “promoted better teamwork in the department. We could meet so easily, whereas before, because CAL has offices on both campuses, it was always complicated to have regular meetings. But all of a sudden it was so easy to meet, and I thought we worked extremely well together to re-invent ourselves.”
In addition to how teamwork in CAL had to change, the way CAL worked with students also had to change. “We had to rethink every step of our processes and really consider how we were going to make things work for the students. And by the end of last summer we had a really good system in place for meeting the needs of all students.” Of course, there were bumps along the way. Normally, making such huge changes to how you serve students requires time, study, talking to students, etc. But last year, this was impossible. Alison noted that for students for whom coming in for face-to-face appointments is intimidating, “moving to online was wonderful because this whole weight lifted from them, which opened my eyes to how we can provide a more diverse and inclusive service to everyone. I don’t think I realized fully how in-person meetings didn’t serve some students. From extreme social anxiety to physical disabilities, there are many reasons why our penchant for face-to-face isn’t convenient or comfortable for many students. Why should they have to come to meet with me face to face when we can easily do it differently?”
In terms of technology, Alison reflects that CAL had to use things differently with the pivot. “We had a front desk where students dropped in to ask questions, and the faculty had in-person drop-in hours as well, but we had to figure out how to handle drop-ins virtually. Now, I have virtual drop-in times, so that when a student has a question, they don’t have to book an appointment, meaning I can respond to them quickly.” In addition, Alison noted that CAL had to rethink how they provided support to students for exams. She didn’t want to speak to that herself, except to say “CAL Exams had to do some really interesting things in terms of accommodated exams. For example, if a student needs a reader or a scribe, how do you do that with technology so that the student is at home, while the scribe and the invigilator are both somewhere else entirely?”
Alison noted something I think many of us felt last year: how challenging it was (some days more than others) to not just have to pivot online, but to live through a world-wide shut-down, with a pandemic raging around us, while working to support students and instructors through normal course-related concerns like completing coursework, assessments, and writing exams. But in spite of all the chaos, CAL somehow “had to review all our systems and evaluate our processes, and then figure out how we were going to change them to support this completely new scenario. And of course, sometimes we made decisions, only to later discover something that didn’t make sense because of something else we hadn’t thought of.” I reflected to myself how we in eLearning had a similar experience: we had to make a lot of changes in the moment, without having the time to do them as mindfully as we would have preferred.
But Alison sees huge rewards coming from moving online because CAL can now offer students more choice in the ways they can interact with CAL. “For many students the move to online was a huge gift. I worked with students who said this was what they had always wanted – for health reasons, social anxiety, or the whole realm of challenges our students face – to remove the pressure of having to come to campus for everything. It was a huge game changer for them, and I suspect some students will be dreading the idea of having to go back on campus. I really hope the institution remembers the good that came out of last year.”
Alison ended our interview with some comments about her view on how COVID has affected the way we interact with each other at the college. “I think it changed not just how we supported students, but about how we communicated with other areas of the college. COVID in a way has made some of our silos disappear. If you’re in this building and I’m in that building, we see each other as separate. But when we’re just a Teams meeting away from a conversation, it becomes easier to work together within the institution. So in some ways I find it’s helped working relationships, and made communicating and collaborating easier.” Like Alison, my personal hope is that we keep all of what we learned over the past, stressful year, and continue to use the best tools to support, communicate, and collaborate with our fellow students, faculty, and employees.