Go Big or Go Home: How To Support a Research Faculty’s Transition to Online Learning | D2L Middle East & Africa
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Go Big or Go Home: How To Support a Research Faculty’s Transition to Online Learning

  • 7 Min Read

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 realization 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 realize 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.

Synchronous Learning: Reimagined webinar promotion

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 sizable 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.

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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.