Sept. 29, 2020

Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning receives $1 million to catalyze online and blended learning

How the Flanagan Foundation grant is going to help UCalgary develop world-class student learning experiences in online environments

On March 13, 2020, with just six weeks left in the winter semester, the University of Calgary announced that all in-person classes would be temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, crowded lecture halls and popular study spaces became eerily quiet as tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff were advised to stay home. 

By March 18, an astounding 6,000 classes had transitioned to remote teaching in the single largest unplanned learning experiment in the institution’s history. What happened in those five days?

Faculty and staff pivoted, setting up makeshift home offices in kitchen corners and bedrooms. Most found themselves redesigning course syllabuses and final exams as they started to navigate the world of remote and online teaching for the first time.

“Transitioning to online teaching was challenging for me as a new faculty member,” says Dr. Adela Tesarek Kincaid, PhD, an instructor in the International Indigenous Studies program. “I was new to D2L and tried to stretch my teaching practice to include Zoom.”

Many instructors like Tesarek Kincaid sought help from the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning and the learning technology coaches to make the leap to online teaching. To meet the needs of the community, the Taylor Institute expanded online programs and workshops, launched a resource website and offered hundreds of remote consultations. This effort required close collaboration with multiple units across campus, including Information Technologies and Student Success.

Designing world-class online learning experiences

As the pandemic’s forecast extended, the need to go beyond remote teaching to produce high-quality, online courses was identified. Unlike remote teaching — where an in-person course transitions online — online teaching involves developing courses using online learning design principles. For Semhar Abraha, a fourth-year undergraduate student and vice-president (academic) at the Students’ Union, engaging, well-designed online courses make all the difference.

“Our discussions in the SU are around the quality of education,” says Abraha. “We are asking, ‘How can we make sure that the quality remains high in an online course? How can we make sure courses are engaging? How can we make sure that students are getting the full benefits of the courses they are taking?’”

The Flanagan Foundation also shared these concerns. The foundation’s board is comprised of five female family members, nearly all of whom are educators,  and is chaired by Jackie Flanagan, founder of Alberta Views magazine. The foundation gifted the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning a $1 million grant to meet the immediate challenges of pivoting to online learning, and to catalyze innovation that will transform online and blended teaching and learning even when the pandemic is over.

Linda Flanagan, a director of the Flanagan Foundation, is a three-time UCalgary alumna and holds a graduate degree in leadership and educational technology. “We wanted our grant to support rich learning experiences for UCalgary students,” says Flanagan.

“President Ed McCauley once said that students need to have opportunities to learn how to discover, create and innovate. We think they should be able to do that in any learning context — even online.” 

Jackie and Linda Flanagan

Jackie Flanagan, left, and Linda Flanagan of the Flanagan Foundation.

Catalyzing online and blended learning

This gift will accelerate the development of an institutional strategy that positions UCalgary as a  leader in online and blended learning. 

“The University of Calgary is committed to creating rich student learning experiences, whether they are face-to-face, blended or online,” says Dr. Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic). “I’m very proud of the dedication, innovation and flexibility that our students, faculty and staff have demonstrated during these challenging months. I am grateful that this gift will support the university in continuing to deliver world-class student learning experiences, enabling the dramatic expansion and transformation of online learning across campus.”

The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning was established in 2016, made possible by a $40 million gift from the Taylor Family Foundation. Under Marshall’s leadership, the Taylor Institute has also developed as a community that crosses the virtual barriers of departments, faculties and programs to build a culture of evidence-based teaching and learning at UCalgary.

With the funding from the Flanagan Foundation, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning will lead an Online and Blended Learning Project set to launch in winter 2021. The project will:

  • Build expertise in online learning by bringing together a cohort of academic staff to develop new innovative, high-quality online courses.
  • Strengthen mentorship and leadership networks among instructors.
  • Contribute to a growing body of research related to innovation and creativity in online learning by investigating the impacts of COVID-19.
  • Strengthen resources and programming that promote evidence-based practices for engaging students in online courses.

“We hope that the lessons learned in this three-year project will provide a framework for online and blended learning in years to come, and empower faculty to create meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for students,” says Flanagan. “We believe in the value of post-secondary education in developing the leaders for the future. Even as universities move to online and blended learning, it is critical to ensure that students will still have rich learning experiences that will support their own development.

"Students should have a chance to create knowledge, follow their own interests and collaborate for the common good. We believe that’s the true value of a university education. We hope that this gift can support UCalgary in realizing that vision.

Fostering innovation in evidence-based teaching and strengthening capacity in online and blended learning are among the Taylor Institute’s key priorities from its 2020-25 Unit Plan. Learn more about the Taylor Institute and how you can support its transformational work at UCalgary.

Through the generous support of our philanthropic community, we are creating lasting, positive change — on campus, in our city and beyond — for generations to come. Read more about UCalgary's historic $1.41 billion Energize campaign.