Handle with care

Reflections from Festival of Learning, 2018

Photo by: Chris Fernlund

Late May is a good time of year to go West. The rhododendrons are in full bloom and the Pacific is warm enough to swim. We packed it all in to 3 full days at the Festival of Learning conference, hosted by BCcampus.

The conference theme – Handle with Care – explored the many manifestations of care and compassion in educational processes, policies, principles and pedagogies. An opening keynote from digital pedagogue Jesse Stommel set the stage for a vibrant discussion that carried throughout the conference. Jesse challenged the audience to flip the power dynamic between teacher and student through deliberate acts of compassion. This effort to build a trusting relationship between educator and learner can be an uphill battle in a traditional higher education environment, which, as Jesse noted, tends to wield learning outcomes as weapons.

Visual Note by Giulia Forsythe https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/27542852987/in/photostream/

This opening keynote provided the perfect segue for my colleague Chris Fernlund and I to share our thoughts on the importance of learner and educator empowerment. Through initiatives like the Student Experience Design (SXD) Lab and Ontario Extend, eCampusOntario demonstrates a commitment to build human-centered spaces and communities that nurture the individual skills, attributes and talent of Ontario learners and educators.

The work of the SXD Lab, for example, unpacks the lived experience of learners to better understand the pain points in their educational experience. As a centre of excellence supporting institutions, eCampusOntario is well positioned to find solutions that better serve technology-enabled learning and teaching across all colleges and universities. In this environment, we advocate for reciprocal, compassionate and empathetic relationship between the educators and learners which prioritizes meaningful learner participation.

It is not uncommon to hear frustrated educators say some students are just lazy. It is not uncommon to hear unengaged students say some teachers are just bad. Those perceptions are directly challenged by a ‘handle with care’ philosophy. If empathy and compassion underpin the learner-educator dynamic and institutions proactively support these environments, we might find ourselves having a different kind of conversation.

If the cultivation of user experience becomes standard practice, learners, educators, administrators, and institutions all stand to benefit from a better understanding of the motivations, attitudes and perceptions within our higher education community.

Thank you to BCcampus for the opportunity to share in the conversation at the Festival of Learning conference.

eCampusOntario – two and a half years out

I went to Québec to talk about the future.  I ended up thinking about the past

A few weeks ago, I got on a plane to Québec without my winter boots. It was January and I was on my way to visit colleagues at TÉLUQ University for a series of conversations and presentations regarding the potential shape of an eCampus initiative in Québec. I received a very warm welcome and a ton of concern about the temperature of my feet (I blamed my BC roots).

My trip consisted of two full days of meetings, conversations and presentations to the community. We were joined by government officials and post-secondary education stakeholders interested in learning more about the Ontario experience and the potential model that could emerge in la belle province. Mostly I was just peppered with questions.

  • How does the Ontario governance model work? What are the benefits?
  • What is your research strategy? To what end?
  • Why open education?

All of these questions had me reflecting on the short history of eCampusOntario – where we have been in the past few years and what has changed most significantly in that time. I am going to work towards answering each question above in a series of blog posts.

But first, a bit of context.

I think it is safe to say that eCampusOntario, as an organization, is just now emerging from what we will soon look back on as the ‘start-up’ years. There are a few key indicators which mark this transition. These are all things that were either non-existent or in a state of flux a few years ago.

A sense of self A few years ago, the concept of eCampusOntario was met with some hesitation. Are we duplicating efforts? Are we competing with institutions? What do we do, anyways? These questions have been replaced by a growing sense of self which crystallizes daily. In a province as large and diverse as Ontario, it was apparent early on that any new initiative needed a clear vision and space in which to operate.

Engaged members Our colleagues are reaching out to talk strategy. They want to know how their institution can get involved, leverage an opportunity or take a measured risk which moves the needle in an area of strategic importance.

 A growing team Slowly but surely, we’re moving closer to a team size which allows us to provide a high level of service to our institutions and our partners in government.

All three of these elements, taken together, represent rapid progression for a new organization. Things are lining up.

Question 1: How does the Ontario governance model work? What are the benefits?

Ontario’s model is representative. We are an incorporated, independent, non-profit entity. We represent 45 member institutions which make up the entire post-secondary education system in Ontario. Our funding comes from government and we are governed by a Board of Directors composed of member representatives. This governance system could have worked against us. It could have restricted activity and decision making to a point which hindered creativity and new ways of thinking.

But it hasn’t. I think this is due, primarily, to two factors:

A diverse, strategically-minded Board of Directors: eCampusOntario has benefited significantly from a diverse of Board of Directors dedicated to strategic, elevated thinking and nothing else.

Engaged and curious government partners: Our colleagues in government always want to learn from us and our members. This is a relationship of mutual benefit and trust.

Given the size of the province of Ontario, a representative, member-driven model may be best. It has held up in the early years and contributed to a collective sense of ownership over the eCampusOntario initiative. It works for us.

Whatever the governance model, Québec has a bright future ahead. They have talent and ambition. But, success requires leadership from government, interest from institutions in action-based research and open practice, and a collective willingness to step outside of the usual academic constraints. The release of the Stratégie numérique du Québec is a great start and an eCampus Québec initiative would the place to invest if the government wants to make waves. Because in the end, no province is immune to the fluctuations of our current education and technology climate. And, every public institution has a responsibility to future-proof.

If you are interested in learning more about my trip to Québec you can:

Read this article from leSoleil about my visit

Flip through my presentation to theTÉLUQ community

Listen to my CBC Quebec Radio interview with colleague Martin Noël, Directeur general at TÉLUQ