TESS Online 2020: Flexibility, feedback and forgiveness: Lessons in humanity from UBC’s digital learning frontlines

eCampus Ontario

Thank you for that kind welcome, Daniel.

I am truly honored to be able to join you today from the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Musqueam First Nation, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean here in Vancouver, BC.

It is always a privilege to be included in important conversations about the trends and practices that are revolutionizing the future of teaching and learning.

And speaking of such trends: my virtual presence among you is just one example of the many ways all of us in education have had to flex since March to meet the profound challenges of a deadly and disruptive global pandemic.

I am just slightly exaggerating when I tell you that at the University of British Columbia we have been moving at warp speed since March.

Two years ago, we made a commitment to advance “transformative teaching, mentoring and advising” in our new strategic plan.  It’s called Shaping UBC’s Next Century—you’ll find it easily online—and it represents our collective vision for the next 100 years as a top-ranked public university.

But you know…we are definitely not going to have to wait another hundred years to see significant progress! Because I can tell you that with the arrival of COVID-19, we have managed to accelerate our online learning environment by 10 years in just over six months—a case of move fast and break things, as tech innovators like to say.

And I know we’re not alone! I am certain that your own institutions are experiencing a similar runaway-train momentum. And I have no doubt that the foundational work of the Extend professional learning program from eCampusOntario has been invaluable in empowering educators in your province to keep up with the current breakneck pace of change!

I am daily inspired by how students, staff, faculty and administrators at UBC—and across the country!—have navigated this rapidly shifting landscape with resilience and grace. They are definitely bringing their full humanity to this unprecedented experience.

I know everyone watching today has their own compelling stories about changing-on-the-fly—and we want to hear them! You’ve all been on the digital learning frontlines, supporting faculty or teaching students. I promise we are definitely going to have time at the end to share!

But before we get there, I’d like to offer five important lessons we’ve learned about humanizing digital spaces at UBC in the past year.  Because let’s be honest: for many people the terms “humanity” and “technology” are mutually exclusive! As we embrace the promise and possibilities of online learning, so must we confront the very real limitations.

My hope is that these takeaways will lay a foundation for some of the deeper conversations you will be having over the next few days on themes related to emerging technologies, learned leadership, research and data-driven decision-making, and empathy and engagement.

So, let me start now with the first essential lesson…which is that flexibility is not optional.

It’s a fact by turns exciting and exhausting: online, as in real life, change is the only constant. To say there has been an upheaval in the academy is a gross understatement. For many of our faculty, it feels like they’re back in their first year of teaching again as all their comfortable classroom routines disappeared in a flash with one terrible news cycle.

In this ultimate test of vulnerability and flexibility, they are learning that their students may be valuable co-creators when it comes to designing engaging online courses. They are learning that they may never again teach the same course twice. And they are learning that online tools may have a very short shelf-life… but that digital fluency endures.

In a world where there are ever-more online tools and technologies available, the ability to build “digital Lego” by understanding and applying different tools and services to the educational goal at hand is critical to successful online teaching and learning.

And the old requirement to build a learning community still stands, even in a virtual classroom. Our faculty are also learning that sharing power with students by understanding and embracing their preferred platforms—as opposed to the ones provided by the institution—can be  equal parts terrifying, energizing, and ultimately, unifying.

The second important thing we’ve learned is that feedback fights fatigue.

 Zoom, Slack, Canvas, Microsoft Teams and so on. With so many different apps and platforms to figure out, cognitive overload is real and it’s exhausting—especially for our students who may be taking three or four or even five online courses at the same time.

So, we are recommending that our faculty put themselves in their students’ shoes and make time for a mid-course check-in to learn what’s working, how students are managing their workload, and where there’s room for improvement— on both sides.

It’s definitely not intended as a performance evaluation, but rather a way to “shorten the distance” between faculty and students.

And we’ve found that when professors take the time to consider all the feedback… and then respond authentically to the class about what will change as a result… it goes a long way to strengthening trust and improving engagement.

Next up, we’ve had to reimagine faculty support.

Note that I said RE-imagine. Because the truth is, before COVID our Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology—or CTLT—had already shown incredible leadership in supporting faculty to make the transition to digital learning.

Now, we’ve stretched that capacity.

We have redeployed financial reserves of more than $15 million to support faculties in the rapid shift to online teaching and learning: about a third from our Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund, and the rest from Academic Excellence funding and from faculty reserves. I do think it’s important to note that our faculties have stepped up to help share the burden of these challenges!

We have implemented new 1:1 sessions for faculty members to meet with educational consultants to help design online courses, or to review and improve existing courses.

And we have doubled the capacity of our Learning Technology Rovers program to provide rapid-response solutions to ed tech issues among faculty.

Tech Rovers, as they are known, are undergraduate students hired on co-op terms from across all faculties to help faculty members do-for-themselves when it comes to technology. They won’t fix your printer or do copyright clearance for your texts — but they will show you how, so that next time you can do it with confidence.

They are highly responsive and incredibly professional… and now there are twice as many of them—which is really reassuring for our more tech-timid faculty!

The fourth lesson we’ve learned is that that one size does not fit all.

Inclusion is integral to our vision at UBC. We believe no student should be disadvantaged and we have long accommodated diverse student needs in traditional classroom settings.

But today, our students are scattered around the globe, facing a whole new set of virtual-learning challenges that require an even broader range of concessions.

Your 2 pm lecture? That’s 2 am in China. Your requirement that students leave their cameras on to demonstrate participation? That’s challenging for students who may be in care-giving roles, or who have spotty internet, or who simply don’t have access to a camera.

As you’re planning your virtual courses, think about students living in a variety of different contexts and circumstances and make your design decisions to support and include as many students as possible.

I like the example of UBC English professor Tiffany Potter, who has found a way to foster community among online students without overwhelming them. First, she creates small Learning Teams of three or four students who are assigned to check in with each other over the term—just as they might in a traditional classroom setting.

Then, recognizing that it would be impractical—not to mention overstimulating—to have 180 faces on a single Zoom screen, she assigns six students at a time to appear on-screen as “designated respondents” for synchronous class sessions.

She doesn’t have to lecture into a void, and her students are able to schedule their class participation and get to know their peers in a more intimate way. It’s a win-win.

The fifth lesson I want to leave you with is perhaps the most important of all… and that is to forgive yourself.

I’d like to share some thoughts from Dr. Simon Bates, the force behind UBC’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. While reflecting on what words of encouragement I might offer you today, he said:

“None of us chose this environment, yet here we all are. There is no perfect solution. Make changes and corrections as you go. Give yourself permission for it not be perfect.”

To that end, Simon points to the first principle of UBC’s Teaching Online guidelines—all of which, by the way, you can find online at keepteaching.ubc.ca.

The first guiding principle states: Approach course adaption decisions with a commitment to compassion and care for everyone involved.

For everyone involved. Including you.

When you start from a place of care and compassion, students will forgive you when things don’t work quite right. And you’ll forgive yourself too. You’ll reduce stress all around.

And that’s a good thing any time—even when there isn’t a pandemic nipping at your heels!

So: those are my brief learnings from our recent experiences at UBC. But be assured: there are many more!

I urge you to visit keepteaching.ubc.ca and the complementary student-facing site called, naturally, keeplearning.ubc.ca.

If ever there was an example of not letting perfection get in the way of “good enough,” those two sites are it!

We knew the pandemic’s arrival in BC was just a matter of whenand not if, and so we moved fast to get those sites up. We embraced an iterative approach and had the first helpful content up in early March—even before lockdown.

It certainly didn’t look as good back then as it does now—but it got the train on the tracks and made sure our faculty and students had a go-to place for online learning guidance and support right from the start.

I believe that as educators, we have an important role in stewarding the conversation around humanizing digital spaces. And if you find these web sites valuable—we know they are being accessed by people from all over Canada—I hope you will feel free to share them across your networks.

Thank you for staying with me this past little while. I hope you aren’t experiencing too much Zoom fatigue! I’m really keen to hear about your own experiences in this realm, so now let’s open up the conversation!