Changing lanes

So, a year like no other has rolled into another year like no other. Along with most of Canadian higher ed, TRU has resumed on-campus instruction and staffing, though so far the sense of “back to normal” has eluded me. I suppose normalcy always was an illusion.

The office has a pleasant vibe and delightful coworkers, and TRU has a nice campus. I’m vaxxed. I’ve enjoyed some super-fun and satisfying classroom visits. Like many others, I keep an anxious eye on the numbers and projections, and feel fortunate the immediate prospects are not so dire as in neighboring provinces. I hope the confidence expressed by our public health officials is grounded. I hope that if I am infected the vaccine will do its thing.

Photo of Brian's office plant, looking very happy.

If this is the new normal, I will work with it. My favourite plant is certainly happy to be back at the office.

It can be hard to know what to do in an environment that feels both saturated and deficient in information. I feel called on to “lead”, even as I am not sure what to think. From my vantage, the university seems a complex organism just starting to get its legs back after a period of immense strain, while facing many fresh challenges as well. When I check in with colleagues across the organization, nobody has it easy.

I am slowly letting go of the constant chest-crushing dread and anxiety that consumed me for the eighteen months or so when the campus community was primarily doing its teaching online and I carried ultimate responsibility for supporting them. The endless months when I grabbed my phone and checked my email the moment I woke from brief and fitful sleep. The demands on our team were immense and relentless, the stakes always felt so high. The slightest disruptions created havoc across the institution. Our victories mostly went unnoticed, missteps and oversights were catastrophic. I worried about the team’s well-being constantly, and my fears were too often justified.

The intensity has diminished somewhat, though we are still responding to demand, complexity and stakes far above 2019 levels. It is clear student expectations for digital services are higher, and it is heartening to see so many instructors take what they have learned under duress and to apply it in whatever this new reality is… So the team is still being challenged on a daily basis, and I could not be more impressed by their skill, dedication, and commitment to do everything we can if it results in better outcomes for the students. I don’t have to make motivational speeches, or ask for improvement. We are ragged and rattled but we are still here. We also know that the future is still unwritten, and we expect it all to change rapidly again somehow. I couldn’t be prouder, but also cannot stop worrying. I want nothing more than to stop worrying. I can feel what the constant worrying is doing to me. I can see it in the mirror.

Our team kinda planned for this moment as best we could going back to last spring. We had a feeling that people would feel stretched and overwhelmed, and we also wanted to maintain the advances in accessibility achieved when we moved our training and programming to virtual environments. So early on we talked a lot about what worked best, where, and when. What kinds of learning happened live, and what was best served when accessed flexibly by the participants? We put a lot of thought into addressing the most common needs expressed by our faculty while also expanding what was possible for them. And of course, we wanted to extend the conversations on the effects and ethics of learning technology that we have been having with our community for years.

A lot of what we talked about can be seen in our Fall 2021 workshop offerings. We knew that the bulk of faculty needs and interest would be around using Moodle, so Jamie Drozda and Amanda Smith spent considerable time last summer developing what I consider to be the best set of Moodle Orientation resources that I have seen anywhere. These tutorials have a laser focus on the needs expressed by our users, and lay out responses in the clear and accessible language I have come to expect from Jamie, Amanda and the rest of the team. Some of the materials have a TRU focus, but most of the text, images and videos are relevant to any Moodle install, and if people would like to re-use our CC-licensed resources, we’d be thrilled.

We are also determined to keep opening up possibilities beyond the LMS. I’m co-facilitating a set of sessions with Jamie and Brenna Clarke Gray on using WordPress for developing projects, which extends our model for combining “workshops” with “project development” (that we piloted last summer) that should make our process for building out new websites for unique needs more effective. Having a powerful open platform and a team that knows what to do with it is something I’m always so grateful for… Beyond WordPress, we have a number of offerings in our “Let’s Play” series that “offer a space to explore the joyful, pleasurable role technology can play in teaching… and have some fun.” Not least fun for us… it’s a such a blast to do hands-on workshops on memes and GIFs, H5P, Twine and more. And for those who want to push that sort of working and thinking more deeply Jason Toal and Marie Bartlett have been collaborating on the Visualize This! series of creative and challenging hands-on processes and reflections.

And as ever, the team has a range of offerings on the many wider considerations that go into the critical and ethical application of learning technology. Matthew Stranach is coordinating a book club as we read selections from Hybrid Teaching: Pedagogy, People, Politics, and a Hybrid Learning Community of Practice. And Brenna continues to facilitate deeper conversations with our community in the Build Back Better series and elsewhere.

An image describing the Week One Podcasting Masterclass: Acitivate your voice. By listening to others podcasts, radio, voices, and listening to yourself.
Drawing by Jason Toal

I am especially excited to participate in Brenna, Jason and Jon Fulton’s Introductory Podcasting Masterclass that has just completed its first week. Much like the Moodle Orientation I described earlier, this program models the balance of live and anytime, practical and thoughtful elements that we are striving for, and the resource site is taking shape beautifully. Not least due to the contributions of the participants — you can see Week One’s listening journals from the group here.

And while things are now rolling, it is not too late to join — everyone is welcome, join us! This is a fantastic opportunity to learn alongside some very talented and engaging people. If you have not checked out Brenna’s podcast You Got This! “offering tips, advice, insights, and conversations with folks from across our campus community”, then I cannot recommend it enough. It is such a fascinating and evolving artifact of just how many people and diverse perspectives go into TRU’s learning community. And the Masterclass also draws on the astonishingly cool Amplify Podcast Network, a SSHRC-funded “collaborative project dedicated to re-imagining the sound of scholarship”, to which Brenna is also a contributor.

Given all the tumult and ongoing uncertainty, I would have forgiven the team if they’d chosen to hunker down and ride things out. But the range of our Fall 2021 workshop offerings is testament to just how much they care about and how much they have to offer in developing a culture of effective and ethical learning technology here at TRU and beyond.

Brenna was kind enough to have me on her podcast as the semester began, just as a little treat, and we talked a bit about our hopes for the fall and the range of programming. I tried to turn the tables and ask some questions of her, because frankly hearing how she approaches the work never fails to delight me.

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