Blog / Edtech

Reflections on 2020: Learning in the Time of a Pandemic

At the beginning of 2020 , all I could think about was migrating our students from Gmail to Office 365, and then promptly escaping to a rite-of-passage vacation to the Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge with my tween who was on the edge of aging out of that experience. Within days of us holding an event to promote the switch to Office 365 in March 2020, OCAD U’s Graduate Exhibition was cancelled, store shelves were empty of pasta and toilet paper, and University academic and research activities were temporarily suspended while the University devised the next phase of emergency remote teaching and learning.

With the end of 2020, I’m reflecting on the past 9 months, trying to summarize what did and didn’t go well, and imagining what it might mean for the future. While I’m a strong believer in listening to and measuring feedback via surveys and focus groups, that data is not yet available: folks are crunching numbers from our institution, and like rooting for your favorites at the Oscars, one likes to imagine what this has all meant. I’m adding this story to the many others; if you’re an edtech leader, instructor, support staff or student, perhaps it will resonate with you.

Much of this is not new information; rather, it’s my opinion. I also switch back and forth between insights from what I’ve learned at my higher-education institution (OCAD U) and the broader higher-ed sector. So take all of this with a grain of salt, or salt mine.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Emergency remote teaching and work from home provided a crash course in the technologies and practices to make it work. But it wasn’t easy.

This phrase has been wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill but is by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” cited by Rahm Emmanuel. I imagine there are many faculty who previously thought online teaching was not for them, and totally contrary to their self-conception as an instructor. While some will feel that their remote teaching experience will entirely validate their reservations, I suspect there is a large swath of faculty who want to either want to continue teaching online either by incorporating online practices into a hybrid teaching practice, or by teaching exclusively online because it has better affordances for their living situation, family or professional life. This cannot be understated or underestimated.

However, do I expect teaching and learning to be immutably changed forever? Maybe. History has a fondness for repeating itself, and it seems if we haven’t learned the lessons of the last pandemic 100 years ago, it’s conceivable we can forget the lessons of this one just as easily. A recent episode of White Coat, Black Art provides some good insight into the psycho-social responses to the pandemic and suggests that while some things tend to return to normal afterwards, some things will perhaps be changed forever. Pandemic aside, I do believe technological and economic factors have enough chutzpah on their own to exert some force on higher education to make the change more permanent. Why?

Many public institutions are not seeing new dollars as other pandemic related priorities rise to the top (as they should), and that perhaps Canadian universities are viewed as a utility. One-hundred years ago we didn’t have laptops or internet, so I expect this pivot to be longer lasting. It’s probably about time. There’s never enough space for students and instructors to use specialized equipment or facilities that can’t be replicated easily online or at home, or study and collaboration space for students such that I would hope to see more space at institutions dedicated for this purpose. Offering more online or hybrid sections of courses in the future could free up some classroom spaces – and with a common vision – I expect there could be new and better uses of on-campus space. Across the sector, perhaps limited funds are targeted towards making less space more useful.

One must also acknowledge how difficult the transition was for everyone. The experience was not without a mountain of anxiety, frustration and despair for some. The endeavour was a challenge to overcome – and despite lessons learned – I suspect it didn’t feel that way sometimes for some folks, who feel they are still in a state of shock, walking out of a fog wondering where the front is. However, I see how hard my colleagues have worked at my institution and others to ensure that instructors have a good experience, and that students are well supported.

The Explosion of Academic Video Content

Faculty, staff and students alike created and consumed more video than ever to get their message across.

This is an absolute epic win in my estimation. Everyone is creating more and consuming more video content, and faculty and students alike are finding video content terrifically useful, whether it be introductions, how-to videos or assignments or discussion feedback. Techsmith Knowmia, our “institutional YouTube” for privately hosting video went from hundreds of videos per month with thousands of views, to thousands of videos with hundreds of thousands of views per month: the gains were something between 25x to 50x the number of videos in one month. I’ve connected to many new people though YouTube and streaming on Behance, as well as uploading video to my internal institutional platforms. When Adobe approached me to start streaming on Behance, privately, I thought they were bonkers. However, I’ve come to learn and understand that streaming is a whole different thing altogether, with its own set of rules and benefits. Thanks, Adobe.

However, this explosion was not without barriers. Some folks want professionally shot videos with cinematic lighting and sound, a level of production values that requires the tools and the know-how and practice to use them. Some were concerned about editing and tasteful post-production. Some instructors were afraid that their intellectual property would be misused or stolen. Certainly all valid concerns, but we emphasized at the beginning that, as Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good” and just getting it done was more important than getting it done in style. Presence didn’t have to require 4K, amazing lighting or pristine audio; just turning up, being a real person and trying to connect with students was the overriding goal.

Minimum standards ≠ one size fits all

Ensuring students and faculty had the laptops and creative software they needed before the crisis started helped the transition immensely.

In 2004, we never conceived that a global pandemic would force all of us to teach, learn or work from home, but we knew that having a mandatory laptop program would enable these activities, and vastly simplify a great many problems with basic access. We have known for years that ensuring that your community has a standard suite of software like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud, and learning tools like LinkedIn Learning (previously are key to educating faculty, students and staff. I’ve spoken on this topic many times before, and when we were forced to remote teaching and learning, the killer app was that we knew our students had the digital tools they needed to be creative and productive. Prior to entering the university, we told them “you’re going to need a laptop” and how we were going to help them. It was brilliant: we didn’t need to scramble to figure out how to virtualize computer labs or specialized software applications.

In the future, I can’t conceive of other universities not having some sort of requirement for this, as there is a significant difference between assuming that students will have some sort of personal computer, and telling them that we expect them to have a computer, specifically what that computer should be capable of, and that the university will provide assistance with them getting what they need. Who knows what might happen with Apple and the convergence of the iPad and Mac, but based on the recent excitement around Apple M1 processor, the Apple Pencil, and seeing how students love the Microsoft Surface, the future is portable and powerful with a screen you can touch and draw on.

Moving all of our students to Office 365 was one of the most fortuitously timed transitions. Putting aside for a moment whether you standardize on Google GSuite versus Microsoft 365, I knew that if everyone used the same tools, the common experience would improve communication, collaboration, and ease the learning curve. Faculty and staff would understand what students had access to and vice versa, which was not previously the case. Once we migrated student email to Office 365, our next step was to deploy Microsoft Teams to everyone in time for remote teaching to start in March 2020. We knew that synchronous activities would play a huge role in teaching, learning and working from home, but Teams offered other asynchronous features and integration which would make things easier for people.

Platforms need to be equally accessible to all users to break down the barriers of have and have not and they must integrate. Integration reduces friction and it became essential once emergency remote teaching and learning started. There were new steps for people to learn, and if there was some missing automation, it harms the faith in the tools: this is part of why we also upgraded from Canvas Community Version to Canvas Cloud. Again, whatever platform you choose, ensure it integrates well with other technology. Canvas incorporated integrations for Microsoft Office 365, Teams, and other tools and for that reason alone it was a worthwhile upgrade. While students were not commuting, some with poor internet connections enjoyed the benefits of the mobile app so they could stay on top of their assignments via notifications and messaging.

The Internet is not free, equal or universally accessible to all

Poor internet connections are a difficult barrier to overcome, with rural locations and international geographic regions affecting access, as well as the cost.

When you’re accessing a 1 Gigbit connection to the internet, it’s possible to do things with ease that you would have never conceived of otherwise, but it’s too easy to forget that this is not a universal experience.

One of the most basic issues the emergency remote teaching and learning revealed is uneven access to technology or services and then having the skills and practice to use it well. In 2019, the Canadian Federal Government aimed to have 50/10 Mbps broadband service available to most Canadians by 2021, with rural communities joining by 2029. It was clear in the early days of lockdown that some students and faculty suffered with poor internet bandwidth due to a combination of factors: rural domestic locale, legacy or low service levels and international geographic region.

In many parts of Ontario and Canada, internet service levels drop significantly as soon as you veer off a major highway or stray far from an urban centre. The best connection some folks can get might be 10 megabit download, 1 megabit upload capacity. Due to lockdown restrictions, many alternative means of access were not available, as you couldn’t just camp out in your local library or coffee shop: they too, were closed. I heard of stories in the US where large suburban or rural campuses had their parking lots occupied by students sitting in their cars accessing the campus internet. As a downtown campus, we had no such parking lot. Nor could students be redirected to Eduroam access elsewhere as every downtown campus was in the same situation. As a result, some resorted to tethering their mobile phones, either resulting in giant bills or limited access.

The second issue we saw was that some folks had very basic internet plans, either due to affordability or that prior to the lockdown, their plan was good enough for their basic surfing needs and fit their budget. In my experience, upgrading your home internet connection is arduous, so many locked into a plan and never changed it. Basic plans provide very poor performance per dollar by a significant margin, and when you have multiple people in one household trying to work or learn from home, it’s a perfect storm of bad performance. On top of this, many rely on their broadband router for wifi connectivity, and unless you’re in a small apartment on one level, it’s woefully inadequate. Not all folks have mesh networks or wifi extenders, and so we were frequently telling folks to snuggle up to their broadband modems with an ethernet cable. As well, monthly plans aren’t cheap either, and if you’re a student, this is a cost on top of your mobile data plan.

Many international students returned to their home country, with some combating several geographic issues. Not only were international students remote to our Canadian campus, but possibly remote within their home country with poor service levels. We discovered that not all cloud applications made use of a Content Delivery Network (CDN), or even if they did, they did not incorporate any kind of content bandwidth tailoring to the end-user’s connection. We take for granted what YouTube does by default with varying levels of video quality, and this notion needs to be incorporated into more applications. In some cases, students resorted to VPNs either provided by their institution or themselves, due to services blocked by the Great Firewall of China or because they lived in an embargoed country.

Nobody’s perfect

Even the big tech companies had difficulty with the demand for their services and the strains were sometimes public. Cybersecurity attacks increased with more vulnerable workers and students at home.

It was sobering and somewhat reassuring to see large technology companies struggling with demand for their platforms: both Google and Microsoft experienced downtime with their platforms. Large tech companies were slow to respond to user inquiries, slow to fix bugs unless they were absolutely critical, slow to add features in some cases and fast in others. In general, the pace of change with Office 365 has been decent overall, so I’ll have to give Microsoft the thumbs up. There were issues with ISPs trying to scramble with the deluge of traffic and user upgrade requests. Even internet routing seemed to break as it does occasionally. Zoom suffered several embarrassing  security issues and Zoombombing events.

However what has persisted is the number of threats to internet security: hacking, phishing either at the individual level with folks working, teaching or learning from home, surveillance of students in remote geographic regions, academic institutions being hacked or the US government getting hacked by the Russians at the end of the current presidental term. All of it very troublesome, and with us distracted and busy, we’re all the more vulnerable to attack. With everything else, it was hard to cut through the noise, but academic institutions took additional measures to harden their security: for some people, the lockdown meant more time to focus on long wished security improvements.

Online Learning: you keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.

Once assumptions about what it meant to be an online student or instructor became apparent, we provided exemplars and better guidance.

Across the higher education sector, the Winter 2020 semester provided initial insight into institutional cultures and the working assumptions of instructors, academic administrators and executives. The early days of the pandemic revealed how many folks thought online learning should be conducted based on the little experience they had without much intervention. Across higher ed, results varied from inspiring to diabolical and punitive; they revealed either the battle-hardened sensible experience and good advice from those who showed great consideration towards students and instructors alike, or the result of poorly-informed, wrong-headed decisions made under pressure, or worse, through dithering (which is a choice as well). My biased and subjective experience was my own institution displayed some inspiring results. Instructor Julius Manapul delivered an online version of Pixel Pusher that incorporated some great practices. Two courses focused on the subject of working from home itself, COVID-19 Responsive Art and Working from Home. OCAD U’s new President Ana Serrano lead the startup of an online streaming channel for students called OCAD U Live. Finally, the University switched to an online Graduate Exhibition to showcase new talent.

Inigo Montoya disagrees with your perceptions of online learning

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and many of my colleagues across higher education witnessed well-intentioned but problematic practices: replacing all the in-class contact hours with 100% synchronous content, forcing users to turn their cameras on, and requiring attendance at synchronous sessions despite it being in the early hours of the morning in a student’s time zone were just some examples. IT folks, too, were subject to this: it’s easy to underestimate the effort required to learn a new skill or to use software that you’ve become accustomed to, and there were occasions where we made assumptions about what folks knew or were capable of, and we were just dead wrong. These practices and decisions – in the context of all the technology challenges – prompted us to provide better guidance and more support. We ran numerous synchronous workshops, some in the context of a 6-week online course we created together with the Faculty Curriculum Development Centre, offered 1-on-1 support to students and faculty via a Microsoft Bookings page, drop-in Q&As, and did so relentlessly until the same group of folks started showing up to the same workshops.

Flexibility > Orthodoxy

Providing learners with flexibility in a time of crisis lowers anxiety and improved the learning environment

The teaching and learning folks at OCAD U were just fantastic and the same goes for the broader educational technology community. The amount of goodwill, knowledge and resources people were willing to share for free was overwhelming and I think this represents the best of the education community and what it’s for: furthering the sum total knowledge of all people. The Faculty Curriculum Development Centre and Writing and Learning Centre folks at OCAD U worked hard to come up with great ideas. Our institution crafted some excellent Guidelines for Hybrid and Online Learning to serve as a blueprint for instructors, students and support folks to convey the kind of learning environment we wanted. The values embedded in those guidelines emphasizes student flexibility, diverse ways of knowing, learning and demonstrating knowledge and attempts to recognize and overcome situational barriers to ensure student success:

Use technologies, tools and platforms in ways that are attentive to the situational differences of students related to geography, language, social or economic status, and ability such that our hybrid and online learning environments do not reproduce or create systemic barriers to learning; review and address new needs and barriers as they arise.

OCAD U Guidelines for Hybrid and Online Course Delivery

I’m very proud to work at an institution that believes in these values and grateful to my colleagues and peers who contributed to writing them.

Thankfully, my institution used alternative assessment models rather than force students to endure remote exams, because my goodness, the evidence on Twitter to suggest that exam proctoring is dreadful is plentiful.  The questionable technology that creates racial biases or discriminates against those with disabilities, invades student privacy… the list goes on. It makes one wonder what is the actual point of examinations and are they indeed effective. I have a personal bias against exams as I can say they were my least enjoyable activity as a part of university experience; I never felt they reflected my ability nor my performance in the course over the term.

I expect many universities are considering how they parlay emergency remote teaching into long-term hybrid and online learning strategy. Again, in the words of Laurie Harrison from the University of Toronto, will we “shift or drift” into long-term online and hybrid learning strategies? Will some actively seize the moment to make changes to hybrid and online deliver, or will others postpone that decision, only to later discover they’ve arrived somewhere new. Like the Ship of Theseus, if you spend a whole load of time reconstructing replacing the parts of an academic program with a significant number of hybrid and online parts, is it still the same academic program? In short, no. My hope is that more of us choose to “shift” rather than “drift” as the former implies proactive planning: the technology requirements implied by hybrid learning and work are nothing to be scoffed at.

Hybrid is the next Utopia, but are we ready for it?

Hybrid learning and work is the most difficult mode to support, requiring careful planning

As mentioned earlier, I suspect many instructors are keen to teach hybrid courses in the future. Similarly, many academic administrators, executives and administrative staff are more positive about work from home or some future hybrid of working from home and on-campus work than once previously imagined. However, what I’ve learned is that hybrid is the richest but most difficult mode of delivery for teaching and learning, because it opens up the greatest range of activities for learners and instructor, which requires careful planning and support. My fear is that many conflate hybrid with Hyflex: the simultaneous interaction of remote and local learners with student choice as to which they want to participate in.

On the administrative side, given that so many administrators spend time in synchronous meetings, the Hyflex model is the apex of my terror. Hyflex is the Pacific Coast Trail of hikes. Without planning, it is the worst kind of Zoomification and fatigue of everything synchronous that folks simultaneously loathe and perpetuate. Often, this is because the content of the interactions are not designed with both local and remote participants in mind. On the admin side, clearly understanding what meetings are for and how to conduct them is key. Official university governance meetings are exceptionally well run but there are many other meetings that universities conduct and they’re not always good.

Meetings are for consultations and decisions first, in order to drive an outcome, and not for presentations or information sharing where there is no immediate action required. Capable tools exist in Office 365 to comment and review documents, and when used with colleagues, it’s more succinct. Organizations who have learned to asynchronously consult, collaborate and inform will do better on their road to this hybrid utopia. Others will have more meetings, get less done, and blame the technology.

“We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

Good communication was key to cutting through the noise. Quickly rethinking and rewriting was key to improvement.

I keep returning to the sage advice of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the WHO’s director-general that the pandemic itself was addled by misinformation, fake news, information overload and the politicization of what should have been strictly scientific fact: the parallel infodemic that cursed the effectiveness of any conveyed idea.

In response, my colleagues spent a lot of time looking at analytics data, rewriting documentation, deleting outdated docs that no one read, recording personal summarized messages to instructors and learners, contributing to courses and documenting and captioning content to make it accessible. Did it work?

For those that engaged, yes, of course. We received tons of positive feedback from folks, even when we screwed up the first time and tried to put it right. However, with the lack of face-to-face interaction, we now have fewer opportunities to course correct when things go wrong. There was no opportunity to accidentally run into an instructor you’ve been trying to reach, so helping folks the first time with the minimum amount of friction is critical. In spite of our best efforts, people sometimes don’t engage until it’s a crisis. I don’t expect this to change. What it does do is create an even greater need for a high-quality, efficient support experience across the academic enterprise, whether it be a student’s need for financial aid, advising or IT support or employee’s basic need to untangle a problem with a Powerpoint.

The last aspect of the infodemic that deserves an entire blog post of its own is the occasional leadership vacuum we found ourselves in during the pandemic. There were times when municipal, provincial, or federal governments, corporate leaders, academics, or any folks in positions of power and authority just did not align their actions with their words and values. Or they dithered or waffled. Thankfully, people don’t just look up for leadership, but to those around them, and amongst the healthcare and academic community, there are many loud voices asking why, and making great suggestions as to how to improve.

Are we getting any better?

I think we did.

Some differentiation must be made between the Winter 2020 semester, Spring and Summer 2020, and then Fall 2020. Winter 2020 was a crisis: it was a race to get emergency remote teaching and learning running so that the academic activities could continue and get us to the end of semester from Friday March 13th. As Laurie Harrison put it, it was the ultimate “crash landing” to the end of semester. Spring and Summer was an improvement as faculty had slightly more time to prepare, and typically enrollments are a third of what they are in Fall, so we were able to offer more 1-on-1 support to faculty. For the Fall, faculty and students had the Summer to prepare themselves. My impression is that full-time faculty had more familiarity and were more prepared, contract faculty had a much more challenging task. My impression is that instructors had got over the hump of struggling with the tools, to discover they wanted to make improvements to their pedagogy, which is a much slower prospect.

Are the Kids Alright?

Some students very much liked asynchronous learning because they could attend to their learning when it suited them best. However, students faced many challenges.

The impression I got was that 2020 was a mixed experience for students, and like the previous Inigo Montoya quote, online learning meant a great many things depending on which instructor was delivering the goods. Along with that came the same anxiety, frustration and despair, along with joys of being able to continue one’s education learn remotely. The mental health and financial challenges that students – especially BIPOC students – have faced are numerous. Some students took well to asynchronous learning, but finding the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous connection is a learned skill. I’m a bit hesitant to prognosticate on this one, given that some of the feedback recently reported by Forbes suggests that things got worse, not better. I would like to optimistically believe that the students we supported did better than average due to all of the supports we offered, and that they already had laptops and software. Working in higher education at an art and design institution is different, and the broad studies issued during the pandemic didn’t always reflect the experience of the staff and students. In the Forbes article, I think part of the story is missing, and more likely, students got fed up of the same approach to emergency remote learning and rated it worse. Either way, I’m optimistic that there will be good feedback around the innovative methods some faculty are using (like OCAD U’s Julius Manapul), validation and some surprises.

What’s next?

Many universities are now compiling feedback about the Fall emergency remote teaching and learning experience, and we’ll know within six weeks how it all went and what the future holds.

High Five, y’all

Again, much gratitude to the colleagues at my institution and the wider edtech community for their support, and high-fives to all you healthcare and front-line workers.

Stay safe and stay sane.