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In my opinion

5 recommendations from teaching centres to teaching centres to help faculty shift online

Ensuring equitable and quality education, as well as effective and efficient evaluation of student learning are among the imperatives identified for this disrupted academic year.


As university campuses around the world emptied out one by one in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, centres for teaching and learning (CTLs) and their equivalent services – with their teams of instructional designers, teaching and learning experts, and multimedia developers – became the “academic heroes of COVID-19” and a “pedagogical lifeline” for faculty struggling to transition their courses to hybrid, flexible or fully distant modalities.

Despite their experience supporting faculty members in their teaching, most CTLs were not equipped, capable or ready to scale up their support to the extent of moving all courses online in record time. What’s more, they had to ensure the delivery of quality courses while avoiding issues of inequity, especially when it comes to evaluation practices.

This past June and July, our research team ventured to understand how CTLs addressed and plan to address issues in digital learning in the context of educational disruption caused by COVID-19. For our study, we met with 19 centres for teaching and learning and equivalent teams from Canada, the U.S., Lebanon, the U.K. and France to discuss the challenges they faced and anticipate for the coming fall 2020 and winter 2021 semesters, the practices they have employed to support online delivery of courses in the face of the pandemic, and the preliminary lessons they have learned.

An initial reflection on lessons learned since March 2020 generated many recommendations from centres to centres. Here are the top five:

First, taking care of faculty requires centres to prioritize their own team.

Centres shared nine actions to ensure a well-performing, productive and efficient team. The actions are:

  1. Identify team members’ unique strengths and challenges, and distribute the responsibilities accordingly and in a way that ensures the team’s cohesion, agility and responsiveness;
  2. Allow enough time for efficient and effective course development processes to be completed;
  3. Equip team members to become nimble and flexible;
  4. Encourage them to put aside their professional autonomy for the benefit of the group;
  5. Flatten the decision-making structure and empower them to lead;
  6. Facilitate proper well-being practices and policies to promote self-care and to prevent isolation, burnout and mental health issues;
  7. Value the team and share the positive feedback from faculty and upper administration,
  8. Facilitate and support a hybrid of fully remote and in-the-office working arrangements whenever possible;
  9. Create communities of transformation that bring the team together with faculty from various disciplines and different academic and professional services experts to foster interdisciplinary and inter-faculty collaborations and innovations. Experts within faculties can share great insider perspectives and help address blind spots.

Second, to succeed, centres must work smarter, not harder.

The CTLs we spoke with identified seven steps to do that. These are:

  1. Be holistic in the services and support offered to faculty in order to provide answers to the wide spectrum of faculty’s technological and pedagogical needs;
  2. Establish a platform that allows centres to extract the wants and needs of faculty on an ongoing basis;
  3. Identify faculty’s more pressing wants and needs, the spectrum of their skill set and autonomy when it comes to using technology for pedagogical purposes, the kind and level of care and after-care they require, the time they have, and then meet them where they are, while setting reasonable expectations and celebrating small successes;
  4. Keep the answers to questions and the solutions to problems simple to avoid cognitive overload that happens even with faculty;
  5. Examine students’ readiness and requirements to learn online and make sure faculty not underestimate their skills nor overestimate them;
  6. Avoid the one-size-fits-all approach – the quick band aid in the time of emergency – and strive to personalize and scale up their care and after-care to faculty;
  7. Aim for faculty to become autonomous by helping them recognize their own abilities and capabilities, identify what holds them back, and find strategies to engage in lifelong upskilling when it comes to designing and facilitating their courses using innovative pedagogical approaches, and choose critically and responsibly the digital technologies to integrate in the learning experiences they create to their students.

Third, centres emphasize the importance of practising empathy within their team and with faculty, and of cultivating human relationships.

Centres encourage centres to be honest and clear when they communicate with faculty, to reassure them even when they do not have the answer, to listen carefully, actively and non-judgmentally to them and to try to get as close as possible to the faculty’s reality. They encourage creating and nurturing a safe space for faculty and inter-faculty exchanges. They also urge centres to remind faculty to communicate with their students, to listen to them, to be empathetic and patient with them and to acknowledge their efforts and their commitment to learn.

Fourth, centres should opt for practical solutions to conquer the assessment beast and inequity issues.

CTLs have to think about how they can realistically support faculty in transitioning to very different models of facilitating learning and evaluating it, not only conceptually but also with practical, feasible evidence-based best practices. Centres recommended looking at what kinds of support faculty will need and software to create accessible materials, to choose adequate digital technologies, to record lectures for asynchronous availability, to caption videos and audio content, and to schedule flexible timing for participation and assessment. Some centres also spearheaded initiatives to provide financial support and technical equipment to students.

Fifth, centres urge centres to adopt a proactive leadership role, to bring the best practices in the scholarship of teaching and learning to faculty, and to foster risk-taking and innovation.

Centres encourage CTLs to aim high but acknowledge their faculty’s and institution’s limitations. They have to anticipate needs, do risk assessments and look further ahead than just the winter of 2021. They should direct faculty to already available resources and efficiently use their team’s time to focus on more complex challenges. One key leadership opportunity is to break the silos between programs, departments, faculties and educational institutions, and support going beyond the notions of multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity and involving multi-, inter-, and trans- educational institutions. The goal is to put in common the approaches, the strategies and the tools for the service of all and share them within the global community. Finally, to refocus on quality education, centres should promote the idea that teaching should be valued as much as research in an educational institution and be ready to navigate the politics as they come out of the crisis and strive to maintain the momentum and energy fueled by the crisis.

The full white paper can be viewed here. The project was prepared as a part of the research project of the International Observatory on the societal impacts of AI and digital technology (OBVIA) regarding the societal effects of A.I. systems and digital tools deployed to combat the spread of COVID-19 and funding by the Québec Research Funds (FRQ). It was also funded by Université Laval’s Chair in Educational Leadership in Innovative Pedagogical Practices in Digital Context – National Bank and Concordia University Research Chair in Maker Culture.

The authors are Nadia Naffi, Université Laval; Ann-Louise Davidson, Concordia University; Richard E. Clark, University of Southern California; Dawn M. Snyder, Dawn Snyder Associates; Roger Kaufman, Florida State University; Brian Beatty, San Francisco State University; Guy Wallace, EPPIC Inc.; Azeneth Patino, Université Laval; Edem Gbetoglo, Université Laval; Nathalie Duponsel, Concordia University; Céleste Savoie, Université Laval; Ivan Ruby, Concordia University; Didier Paquelin, Université Laval; and Isabelle Fournel, Université Laval.

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