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.”