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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Bortolin

How Teaching and Learning Centres Saved Higher Ed during Covid 19

Updated: May 12, 2020

By Kathleen Bortolin, PhD

Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Vancouver Island University

Not that long ago, I ended up at a party where a number of the guests were

faculty from my institution. We milled about drinking cocktails, wading carefully into political conversations, giving a little, getting a little. Amid this dance, I learned about their disciplines and how long they had been at the institution. They learned that I worked at the vaguely understood teaching and learning centre. As I was leaving, one individual turned to me and said warmly, “Maybe I’ll see you sometime, if I ever need help turning on my computer.” It was funny. Sort of.

Educational developers and instructional designers situated in teaching and learning centres do a bit more than just help faculty turn on their computers. In fact, if someone called me asking to help them turn on their computer, I might not know how. But I would do everything I could to find them the help they needed. That’s where educational developers shine—supporting faculty in doing their job to the best of their ability. And since the COVID crisis, ed devs across the country, and really, the western world, have finally had the chance to prove that we do a whole lot more than just help faculty turn on their computers.

During the early days of the crisis, institutions across Canada halted face-to-face classes suddenly. In mid-March when this happened, many students and faculty only had a few weeks to go before semesters ended. Classes went online or into what my institution and many others delicately referred to as “alternate delivery” (the term “online” is fraught with gentle trauma). It would be a couple of weeks before the credit/no credit option was announced, so faculty scrambled in the short term to connect with students, finish up the semester, design “alternate” assessments, or take existing assessments and find a tool to deliver them. It was at this time that educational developers across Canada rose up as key colleagues, and as leaders. Long misunderstood, we were now the high-demand gate-keepers, the keyholders at the door to the alternate universe. And as many will have seen, we responded not only with steadfast good intentions and expertise, but with empathy and kindness, perhaps not always to ourselves, but always to faculty. And that, in essence, is what an educational developer is.

In the first few weeks of the crisis, our centre offered countless zoom sessions on everything from how to use zoom (after you’ve turned on your computer) to why testing in the online world is problematic, or even fraught with trauma. One of the sessions I designed was called “So you really (really?) have to put your exam online.” I called faculty on their cell phones (their cell phones!) to talk about learning outcomes and how (and if) they could be achieved in the alternate world. I brainstormed assessment strategies for a nursing instructor who wondered how students could demonstrate cathertization remotely. There were questions related to accommodations for students with disabilities and deep conversations about equity. We kept track of how many people we engaged with, and it was literally hundreds, over only a few weeks. In every conversation, zoom session, email, and telephone chat, my goal was always the same: support every faculty member where they were and help them get to where they need to be. Which is the gist of our job every day, crisis or no crisis.

Amid the big pivot, most of us, including me, worked overtime just about every day for the first six weeks, also putting in handfuls of hours every weekend. Once the semester ended, there was intercession to prepare for, and an uncertain fall looming in the distance. Even if nobody really knew what alternate, normal or near-normal universe higher education would be in, we carried on preparing as if alternate was the new normal. Add to this our children at home being home-schooled (I have three), demanding attention all day long, and the general sense of doom that came and went all day everyday with updates and figures. Through all of this, educational developers responded thoroughly, creatively and kindly.

In the in-between moments of madness, dread and support, I combed through the Twitterverse, grateful for the generous sharing of resources (and hilarious memes) by colleagues across the country, weeding through stories and resources to build and design my own. Like many of us, I wore myself out. What wasn’t lost on faculty, however, was how helpful teaching and learning centres had been. And what wasn’t lost on me was all the gratitude. The numerous emails thanking me and my colleagues for our support, for the late night phone calls, for the ideas, and for the kindness. This is, ultimately, why I do my job, in the wee hours of the night, on weekends, and after my kids go to bed, so that I can help someone else not only do their job, but feel confident and proud in doing it.

As many of us wonder what a post-covid world will look like, and what if anything we’ll take and keep doing differently after life returns to normal (or near-normal), I hope one is a greater awareness of what teaching and learning centres do, and how educational developers are a valuable asset to faculty, curriculum, students, and institutions. As well, I hope for perhaps an even greater institutional and national awareness of the essential role educational developers play to the development not only of curriculum and course design, but of people. We’ve always been this awesome and dedicated, just now everyone knows, not just our moms and our faculty fanclubs. So go on, send your questions, your course design challenges, and your gratitude to your local educational developer or teaching and learning centre, and know that crisis or not, we've got your back.

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