In early March of 2020, McGill University, a historic, global research powerhouse, made the decision to go fully online. Rather than second-guess its options when COVID-19 struck, the university, conservative by nature, made a complete shift in its priorities and changed all classes to a remote instructional model with the goal of replicating the physical classroom online.
McGill prides itself on its student engagement and active learning experiences. The move to online wasn’t easy, as it required not only shifting to teaching and learning from home, but also dealing with the larger psychological and sociological shifts in our collective unconscious about what was happening in the world, with our families, friends, and our daily routines. What it did was bring conversations about faculty development to the top of the institution’s priority list—something that had never happened before. As Adam Finkelstein, Associate Director of Learning Environments at McGill, noted, “Sometimes it takes a plague to bring teaching and learning to the front of the conversation.”
In a recent webinar, Adam and I sat down for a longer conversation about the storied institution and how things have changed since March. Below are discussion excerpts that have been edited for clarity.
No One Is Prepared for This
AF: Our immediate goal was to prepare for remote teaching, not well-planned, well-designed online learning. Nobody signed up for this experience—not instructors, students, administrators, no one. We purposely avoided using the term “online learning” to describe the stop-gap remote experience. Instead we were aiming for a controlled fall, as in, we know we’re falling, so let’s make sure we do so in a way that is the least harmful.
We focused on getting faculty up and running with the appropriate digital tools. We created webinars on teaching remotely, which meant how to use Zoom and breakout rooms. We knew this would be difficult, and everyone was doing the best they could, given the global pandemic.
Your Multiple-Choice Final Is Not Going to Fly Online
AF: Assessment became a major focus for the faculty development team at McGill. This was a big realisation by many faculty: the final exam they were planning was not going to work remotely.
Adam’s team had difficult conversations with senior university officials about assessment. In particular, they did not want to use any remote proctoring services.
AF: We did not want to focus on the surveillance of students but instead wanted to focus on student success. The reason we did this was that proctoring seems easy for faculty: “Oh, I’ll just put it online and let the proctor make it all work.” But what they didn’t realise was that the back end of this was enormous, the logistics were huge, the privacy implications massive. It was just too much for us to handle. So we basically said we are going to get online proctoring banned, and we did. And that was a complete surprise. We didn’t expect the idea to fly, but even the faculty agreed and said, “You know what, you’re right. We are going to change our assessments.” We had faculty who had not changed their assessments and finals for years rethinking assessment from the bottom up.
As a result, the McGill faculty development team went into high gear to support faculty, working 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, for three to four weeks straight to try to get everything going, including policy adjustments.
AF: We made it through the term. It was difficult and emotionally complex.
Proper Prior Planning
Once the spring term ended in May 2020, Adam and his team faced another massive hurdle: How are faculty supposed to redesign three to four courses in three months given the personal and professional challenges tied to the pandemic? For Adam and the faculty development team, it started with self-care: If faculty overwork themselves over the summer, then the fall would only be worse, and neither students nor faculty would be better off. So, his team set out and created a curriculum for how to consider course planning, assessment design, and implementation.
AF: What was amazing was the interest and uptake. It was enormous. It was off the charts. In 20 years, I’ve never seen that many faculty members interested.
Initial sessions saw up to 450 faculty members in attendance. Instructors were clearly looking for advice and assistance, and the faculty development team was there to deliver. It’s not that what Adam and his team were delivering was new. It was that there had never before been this level of urgency to adopt new teaching and learning strategies.
AF: This was new territory. Face-to-face teaching was out. It was time to get creative; time to review the literature; time to work and open up muscles we didn’t know we had. Emphasis was placed on finding the right tools for the job’s faculty were wanting to do. A lot of time was spent with intellectual property lawyers and the general counsel’s office making sure faculty knew where the boundaries were around fair use and online learning, as well as making sure student data remained safe. This is an important facet of supporting many different types of online learning tools. Lots of vetting was required.
Adam and his team developed weekly Teaching Tip sessions that swelled with faculty and conversations about teaching and learning to a degree that they had never witnessed before.
AF: I cannot underscore this enough: A research-intensive university that’s putting its research on hold so that faculty can focus on teaching, that’s how much things changed—an enormous change that again cannot not be overstated.
As a result, the faculty development team at McGill was building a sizeable instructional knowledge base where webinars could be viewed and reviewed as needed, how-to documents could be accessed, and research on what worked and why could be easily disseminated. They also assigned faculty developers as liaisons to academic departments to make sure all faculty had support if and when they needed it.
“If We Didn’t Scale Up, Then That Was the End, It’s Crash and Burn Time.”
In order to move quickly and effectively, senior leaders at McGill knew they couldn’t do things the way they had always been done. A culture of faculty support became top priority across campus.
AF: Our faculty development team knew they needed to move quickly to create supporting materials and on-ramps to online teaching and learning. They had the knowledge and desire to create scaffolding quickly. And if it needed to be done in one week, then it was done in one week. All hands were on deck. Even administrators were pitching in to work with faculty developers to create and edit content. If we didn’t scale up, then that was the end—it was crash and burn time. The consequences were dire. So, we couldn’t sit back and wait for things to happen. We had to act fast.
Assisting faculty members in determining the best pedagogical paths often required reframing the question. Instead of talking about online learning in terms of being synchronous and asynchronous, the faculty support team used the terms “fixed” and “flexible.” For example, they determined whether a course was “fixed,” as in students all need to be there at the same time, or “flexible,” where students can participate anytime. This helped faculty members rethink how to approach teaching and learning online and helped them quickly make decisions about how to construct class sessions and assessments.
AF: Laboratory work posed major challenges for many scientific and engineering disciplines online. Faculty members began by asking ‘what could students do at home?’ knowing there could be potential liability issues. Some faculty members found tools online to simulate lab work, others pushed those elements of the lab to another term when it’s healthy and safe to return to campus. In some cases, faculty created home kits that they shipped to students with circuit boards–small CPUs, where they could complete labs hands-on at home and discuss the details with instructors and peers online.
Sea Change for Faculty Development
Clearly, supporting faculty to develop quality online learning experiences is not a task that can be completed overnight. It takes time, intention, strong management skills, and a dedicated and qualified team. The current pandemic quickly made this apparent as schools and institutions scrambled to support faculty and students online. Faculty developers have never been needed more than now. And for Adam and his team, this has been the moment they have been training for their entire careers.