University teaching and learning centres are working long hours to help instructors adapt their courses to online delivery this fall in response to the pandemic. To get the inside scoop on how it’s going at one institution, we spoke to Gavan Watson, associate vice-principal, teaching and learning, and director of the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, at Memorial University.
University Affairs: What are your main priorities for the fall?
Gavan Watson: My priorities are being driven by the health and welfare needs of the community – and that’s not just physical health but mental health. Beyond that, [the priority] is students having rich and rewarding learning experiences. My role is to provide the framework and support so that instructors can think that through and be prepared.
UA: What’s the view behind the scenes from where you sit?
Dr. Watson: I hold two perspectives. I’m the director of a teaching and learning centre. We take a really applied and pragmatic view to the shift to remote online instruction for the fall. That means ensuring that the educational infrastructure is in place and is robust enough. It’s ensuring that, for instructors and faculty who have never considered what teaching in the online learning environment looks like, that there are means and modes for exploring that, and frameworks to consider when adapting and translating their face-to-face course to an online course.
Memorial is also unique in the country, in that we have a centre that has a lot of different capabilities. Memorial has had a 50-year history of distance education that turned into online education. We support students’ and faculty members’ technical needs, and coordinate assessments and individualization. So we’re thinking about how those kinds of practical questions play themselves out as far as the fall semester is concerned, where the scale is just a lot different.
In my [other] role as AVP teaching and learning, I sit around the table with deans and other system vice-presidents. One of the things that I did early on as we were planning for the fall was develop a draft list of principles and values to ground our decisions.
So on one hand, it’s pragmatic and getting stuff done. On the other hand, it’s a very thoughtful and measured examination of a situation that changes almost on a daily basis. You’re weighing all of these different variables to try to make informed and good decisions, but also being prepared to shift.
UA: What are some key challenges?
Dr. Watson: A challenge for the fall is equity as far as technology is concerned, wanting to make sure we’re not excluding students. We need to consider who our students are, where they’re going to be, the context where they’re going to be learning, and what they’re going to have available to them.
On the other side, we have instructors and faculty members who are at home with challenges of their own. What do we need to do to support them to complete their work? Some of those are structural outside any one institution’s capacity, but there are some internal ones that we look to address by providing the right kinds of tools, direction and support.
Prior to this, discussions around online teaching and learning have often been around pedagogical approaches. How do you teach a blended course? What’s a flipped classroom? When should you use this particular tool or this technology? How do you achieve your learning outcomes? All of those are still integral to the learning experience. But, overarching all of this is the need to consider what’s been called the “pedagogy of care.” If I was speaking with a faculty member today, I would be saying, “Let me argue that care is the defining value upon which your teaching practice should hinge in the fall semester.” And it’s one of the values that I’m placing high as far as thinking about how we support instructors.
UA: What’s been most surprising to you about the response to COVID-19?
Dr. Watson: One thing I shouldn’t consider surprising is the spirit of all-in-it-togetherness, and the willingness to discover and try new technologies. Academics see teaching as a core value, a pillar of what they do. But the truth is that research is often most valued. Academics across the institution and across the country have shifted their perspective, pulled up their socks and said, “I’ve got this. I’m going to go in and do this as best as I can. This is something new to me, I’m feeling uncomfortable, but I want to be able to support my students.” I’m pleasantly surprised at just how well academics are adapting to the new situation.
UA: What will help you, Gavan, as you do this work and move towards the fall?
Dr. Watson: As director of a teaching and learning centre, I’ve got to ensure my staff are available and responsive to the institution’s needs, but that we’re also managing our own capacity and well-being so that we’re not available only in May, but also through September and December and possibly January. Back to this notion of care, it’s often too simple to externalize that and care for others and not care for yourself.
UA: Anything else you’d like to share?
Dr. Watson: I’ve been really impressed with how staff and teaching and learning centres, not only at Memorial but across the country, have stepped up. That’s not to say that they weren’t operating at a high level of competency or weren’t able to meet the needs of the institution. But this put a new lens on the work that educational developers, instructional designers and teaching and learning centres do. I think it’s important to see their work, to acknowledge and celebrate it because the success of universities this fall happens in partnership between students, instructors and these centres. This is how the teaching and learning experience is going to be actualized.