Camosun Story #55: Allyson

Allyson is an Instructional Assistant (IA) for the BEST program, now called Education & Career Planning program (EDCP).  I have already shared stories from her colleagues, Diane and Val, as well as the story of the BEST program review as told by my CETL colleagues Monique and Deidre.  So, of course, I wanted to see if Allyson would also be willing to talk to me, and she was!

Allyson started by telling me a bit about her background. “I had a 20-year career as a technical writer and instructional designer. As a technical writer, I wrote curriculum to support classroom learning, but I also developed asynchronous curriculum. But what was missing for me was direct contact with students. In the spring of 2020, I came to the BEST program.”  Just as Allyson was looking forward to being in the classroom and moving away from her computer, COVID hit.  But while she missed that in-person contact with students, “COVID was a blessing for me because I was right away able to apply my years of experience with online and asynchronous documentation.  It was such a gift to have a new job that I wanted and to be able to connect with people, albeit online.”

Because she was new, Allyson was able to approach the new online delivery for BEST with fresh eyes.  As you may remember from Monique and Deidre’s story of the BEST program review, they had online content to draw from (unlike many faculty who were creating their content at the same time they were learning to teaching online).  “We had adopted the BC curriculum, which was for self-directed asynchronous learning. Initially, the content was structured by topic” which didn’t match with the way the BEST program approached content delivery. “After the first academic year we all agreed that it would be best if we moved to a week-by-week content structure, displaying that week’s content each Monday at 10:30 am. Then we added the Checklist tool which listed the readings, the assignment due dates and what students had to prepare for class.

Adding the Gradebook (and naming it My Progress) was huge help for both instructors and students. We don’t assign grades – we give strength-based feedback. By renaming it to My Progress and displaying the students’ week-by-week progress as they complete assignments, students can manage their own learning.  But the Gradebook is also an important tool for the instructors to very clearly determine if a student has met the criteria for the certificate or not.”

With the new week-by-week curriculum organization, the Checklist and the Gradebook, the program design became more accessible and easier to navigate, and some of the weekly content could be lifted out and ported to other programs at Camosun.

Putting BEST online opened literally the world to anyone wanting to come into the program.  “Being online allowed us to have a student in Chilliwack who, through our program, felt seen and heard. She turned a corner and is now on the path to following her dream. We could never have helped that student if we weren’t online. And now we now have inquiries and students from Canadians living in Chile, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg and Whitehorse. How amazing is that? We have also successfully added BEST to Camosun International’s roster of programs for international students.” The diversity of students goes beyond geographical location. “We have people who are just out of high school, retirees, and everyone in-between. That diversity is a huge benefit for our students. In the information sessions I talk about how everyone’s going to learn from each other, how the program reflects the diversity of real life.”  But everyone in the class is there for the same reason: they are looking for guidance to help them make education and career choices that are a great fit for them.

Allyson explained that a large part of the process is making people feel safe to explore—to try new things.  One example is when students try out a Table Topic after attending a Toastmaster mini session.  “This is in week two: a couple of brave ones go first, and then the more hesitant students take a risk to join in. They feel safe enough to try new skills right then and there after being introduced to Toastmasters. I can’t stress enough how gifted Diana and Val are in terms of making people feel safe. That’s a huge piece of this program is making people feel safe to try new things.”  And all this online!

But while Allyson admires the way Diane and Val work with students, she is equally a part of the team that makes BEST such a success. Val and Diane encouraged Allyson to consider which pieces she might want to teach, and since she has a passion for the power of an effective resume to land a job interview, she developed a four-part resume writing workshop to demystify and simplify the resume-writing process.

I asked Allyson what rewards she sees in the work she does, and she told me the reward “is when a student’s dream is realized by the connections that we help them make; the process of going through the program, going from feeling stuck to having confidence, and having the courage to go out and do something that they really want to do.”  And over the past two years, Allyson has seen “many shining moments, even for that person who is just doing one small thing which may not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal – it’s a shining moment for that person.”

When I asked about lessons learned, Allyson said “what surprised me with the online classroom is how you can have an engaged, supportive learning space in an online environment. It doesn’t have to be in-person, and it may even be better because it’s so focused. Our students are so keen on coming to class on time, and they miss the regularity of the class after the program ends.”  In their synchronous classes, they used breakout rooms frequently.  “Every seven to ten minutes we’re getting them to do something which increases engagement.”  But frequent communication between Allyson and the two instructors was also key to improving engagement. “Every morning at 8:30. I meet with the instructor so we can review the plan for the class. For example, if there was going to be Breakout groups, I know that ahead of time and so I am well prepared to support them. Having that advance check-in ensures that what happens during the class is as seamless as possible for the students.

My job as the Instructional Assistant is to listen for cues from the instructors and to keep an eye on the students’ participation.” You’re another set of eyes and ears for the instructor so they can concentrate on the content and the flow of the class; and you’re an advocate for the students to make sure they are heard.”  The better you know your students, the more you can see their progress.  “You can see them become more comfortable and less anxious as they open up, as they speak more.”

When reflecting on what she might say to herself of March 2020, Allyson said she might say “it will work out and it will become clearer. And students are going to be forgiving of mistakes. That first online class, those students were amazingly forgiving. They were so understanding because we were trying to figure it all out – I still think of them: even though there were bumps on the road, they still got a lot out of the program.”

Here’s to BEST (now EDCP) continuing to support and inspire students for years to come.

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.”