UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 17: The new normal

May 4, 2020

With the coronavirus pandemic, organizations around the world have had to move their work online — and fast. In this episode we hear from two of our experts about learning and working online, some of the challenges people are facing, how to change our mindsets, and how an organization as large and complex as a university can quickly change its entire way of doing things.



Leslie Reid (LR): It's hard for me to imagine that this all started with a conversation about pandemic planning and we might need to start teaching remotely. And it was really just very conceptual at the time for me. I kind of in the back of my mind thought, "it will never come to this."


Nuvyn Peters (NP): That was Leslie Reid, UCalgary's vice-provost of teaching and learning. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Nuvyn Peters.


Corey Hogan (CH): And I'm Corey Hogan. Thanks for joining us. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic people and organizations around the world have had to move their work online and fast. Here at the University of Calgary things are no different. We've moved all of our classes online, as many operations as we can. And like everybody else, video conferencing and online collaboration have quickly become the new normal.


NP: In this episode of COVIDcast, we're going to hear from two of our experts about learning and working online. We'll hear about some of the challenges people are facing, how to change our mindsets, and how an organization as large and complex as a university can quickly change its entire way of doing things. First we'll hear from Dr. Mohammad Keyhani who holds a PhD in strategic management. He's an associate professor in the Haskayne School of Business where he teaches entrepreneurship, innovation, strategy, and global management. He's also the author of "A Digital Survival Kit for Teaching Online Classes" and "Essential Gadgets for Working from Home."


CH: Then we'll be joined by Dr. Leslie Reid, who is our vice-provost of teaching and learning. Leslie's role is to expand and diversify teaching and learning networks across campus to enhance educational development more generally, and to increase experiential learning for students, and to advance quality teaching on our campus. She was a key part of switching our programs to online delivery.


NP: It certainly has been an interesting a couple of months as we've transitioned into what I would call our new normal.


CH: Yeah. Interesting may be a bit of an understatement. It has changed everything about how we do everything and there's just this whole school of thought that COVID has changed the way we're going to work forever. And it's certainly been a catalyst for many, many conversations.


NP: It's been interesting how these online video applications have made working from home seem ... it's very different. You get these insights into people's lives outside of the confines of their office life. And you kind of get glimpses into their day-to-day home life as well.


CH: Oh, I think it's a regular parlour game of looking at people's walls and trying to determine what it says about them, what books are on the bookshelf, what art is on the walls.


NP: But first up we connected with Mohammad about some of the advantages of going online and different tools and opportunities to make your online working experience more effective.


CH: So Mohammad, you wrote the "Digital Survival Toolkit for Teaching Online Classes" and in your preamble you said, "Many organizations around the world are now quickly transitioning to virtual collaboration." That, if anything, feels like an understatement to me.


MK: Yeah, it's not just us in academia either. I think we're seeing a major shift in lifestyle and work style around the world. It's a big shock to economy, to our social lives that's probably going to last even beyond this particular era of social distancing. I think as academics, we are actually pretty lucky to be in an industry that is able to transition to online pretty quickly, pretty hassle-free, and pretty much continue working, continue its revenue model, continue paying its employees. And we really have it lucky in that sense. So I think one of the reasons I wrote the article was to try and convey this sense that, "Hey, we have it pretty good here. We don't need to panic. We have the right tools." And just try to help out in case anybody has that technology part as their main hurdle or challenge in trying to get through this online transition.


CH: Yeah. And as you noted, we're all in the same boat, whether at a university or a Fortune 500. The number of memes I've seen now about Zoom meetings and people playing with the backgrounds and whatnot is just dialed up to 11. The internet is really at its best right now, in my opinion. But your kit also talked about the three aspects and you really focused on the technological one, but also the psychological and organizational things we've got to consider as we move online.


MK: Yes. I think many of us who aren't use to online classes will immediately have a sense of not being in control and that could cause a lot of problems psychologically. So I was trying to deal with that a little bit, make sure people are able to overcome this sense of not being in control because you are actually in control. Everything's going as normal. It's just gone online. And a lot of people prefer that these days, especially in the early days where there was still the option of coming to the university, but some people didn't want to. So this was actually better for a lot of people to be able to handle things online. So one of the benefits of going online is that you can also go asynchronous, meaning that you don't all have to be there at the same time for a lot of the projects, events, activities of a class. So it is possible if you think about how you organize your classes, you might realize that for certain activities not everybody really needs to be there at the same time. They can still work on a project or complete an activity at their own pace on their own time. And I encourage all the instructors and professors of the University of Calgary to go over their syllabi and see what elements there are there that they could transition from synchronous to asynchronous. That's the huge winner among students who may be struggling, maybe they have people at home that they need to take care of. That means they can't attend a class at a certain time. It would be great help to them to move as many things to asynchronous as possible.


CH: I think it's the embracing that asynchronous nature of it that is maybe causing some of that anxiety because you have to rethink basic concepts like participation marks. If everybody's in the room or not, it's pretty easy to at least on a baseline say attendance has been met. But how do you deal with a concept like participation asynchronously?


MK: Right. I encourage that you go over your course outline, review exactly what marks it is that you're basing on class presence and participation in class discussions, and find an alternative to that online. My number one recommendation is class forum or discussion board activity, because that's pretty easy to track. But you can also, for example, give a bunch of small micro assignments and tell students to choose between these to get additional participation marks. So just reviewing your course outline and seeing what grade items are there that used to depend on class activity and revising those in a way that students can do online and preferably asynchronously, that's something that's very useful to everyone.


CH: So you have to have the right mindset, you have to organize your content accordingly, and then there's the technology hurdle, which can be really scary for people. And your article does a good job of outlining the various options there. What I took away from that is there's about a hundred different ways to do this, if you so desire to do it.


MK: Yes. All universities usually have some sort of a learning management system. University of Calgary has desire to learn, others have different systems. Those systems usually provide a lot of the tools that you need. So if you're not used to working with those, this is a good opportunity to sit down and play around with the features, see what it can do. For example, I personally use D2L a lot for my courses, but I have rarely used the quiz option on D2L to give an online exam. But when I did start using it, I realized that it has actually a lot of good features. It lets you randomize the questions so that if two people are working on it with laptops next to each other in a way trying to cheat, if you randomize the questions that makes the possibility of cheating much less. And also time limiting the quiz, you have the option of whether or not to show the list of questions and answers to the students after the quizzes over. All of those features and toggles on D2L I didn't know about, but I learned about recently and it's really helped me realize how useful it can be as a tool for online course delivery.


CH: Well, this is one of those things where I think when people move online at first, they are just trying to replicate the offline experience as closely as possible. I mean, I've even heard, not necessarily at this institution, but of professors trying to proctor exams through webcams, just making sure everybody's eyes down.


MK: There are actually digital tools that help you do that. But yeah, so that's one reason why Zoom became such a popular thing because it immediately let you say, "Okay, classes being held online as a video conference." And everything else is almost exactly the same. You just have to attend the video conference instead of attend the class. So that's why these video conferencing tools, especially Zoom because of its capabilities to handle large numbers of people, and digital white board, and ability to put your hand up to speak, and many of these nice features that Zoom has, breakout rooms, it became really popular really quickly because it lets you sort of replicate that offline experience. So it's a good emergency tool to begin the transition really fast. But I think you can go beyond that and you can go ... Once you put in some time to see really how can you change your course structure, there's a lot of things you can change that eventually you may realize you don't need as many Zoom video conferences as you had classes to deliver a good online learning experience.


CH: Yeah. It makes me think of how the first iPhones did everything they could to look like their real world counterparts. So the address book looked almost leather-bound and there was felt in the games room and whatnot. But at a certain point you're holding onto something that is maybe holding back what you can do with these tools, right? And so over time, people drop all of these things. You mentioned randomized questions, you can't do that in person. That's a great advantage.


MK: It's true. I'm not saying that it's necessarily always better. I mean, I'm sure there are many professors have very cool things that they do with in-person classes, and the way they structure group exercises and activities, and just the charisma they display in class. But I'm just saying, once you get beyond that point of just trying to replicate that experience online, you liberate yourself in terms of trying to see what all these new tools that are available to you through online learning can do. So that's just a general point. Take a look at how you're handling this online transition. Are you just trying to replicate the offline experience online? Or are you allowing yourself to go a little bit beyond that and play around with tools and see what cool new things you could be doing?


CH: Well, and then you start to wonder, I mean, we're obviously not talking about all online, but once society has resolved itself and it's all back to normal and post COVID-19 world, it's hard to imagine we're ever going to go back to exactly where we were before once everybody's used to these tools.


MK: Yes. At the very least, I think we will become more efficient as academic institutions because online course delivery often makes things more efficient. You're able to handle larger numbers of students with less TA help, a lot of content that you produce online is reusable whereas usually what you say in class, you have to say again next time. So in a lot of sense, things become more efficient when you take them online. And I think maybe we will also get a better appreciation of the particular things we could do offline that we can't do online once we go back to offline mode.


CH: Oh, I think that's a really great point. There is no silver bullet I'd imagine in education.


MK: No. So one of the other things that I tried to cover in my blog posts about digital tools was trying to go beyond the regular tool, so everybody is using their own learning management systems and trying to get to a video conferencing. These two pretty much everybody is doing. But the additional things that many people haven't really explored yet, I've been encouraging the use of the variety of Google tools, everything from Google Sheets, Google Forms, docs drives, slides, groups, Hangouts. Many of these can be useful, although some of the features, if you have in your learning management system, better to use that rather than move to Google. But other things you can pretty much use with Google tools to create new learning experience. The possibility of co-editing documents between groups or the entire class could be used as an interesting learning tool. Assigning people into groups randomly, D2L actually does that, but if that's hard to figure out, you can do it really simply with Google Sheets. You can even design quizzes with Google Forms. And I think in addition to the Google tools, there's a bunch of other cool tools that people don't know about. But if they get started using them, they may realize that they can have a lot of fun with them and design a lot of interesting learning experiences. And again, I want to emphasize that most of these things when you do online, the work you put into it is cumulative. It's reusable and you can develop over time a really nice portfolio of content and tools that you've developed to deliver a learning experience. Yeah, so some of the interesting tools I mentioned in my blog posts, one was Kahoot, which is an interesting and fun way to design games and quizzes for your class online. Another one was Perusal, which is a way to collectively comment on text. I know in some departments close reading of texts, that's considered a very important learning tool. We don't do it that much in the business school. But, for example, I've heard that in philosophy, that's an important learning method. So if you want to collectively comment on texts, Perusal is actually a pretty good option. And I believe it's free. Voice Thread is an interesting tool. Doesn't have a free option, but it's not that expensive. I believe just $99 for one license for a professor and all their students. So Voice Thread, what it allows you to do is collectively a video or voice comment on other video or audio content. So you get that feeling of when someone is presenting something and other people want to comment on particular parts of that presentation, Voice Thread is a really nice tool to do that collectively. I also provided some recommendations for voice to text and then text to voice options that you could use for either transcribing your lecture. So people who have a hard time downloading video or audio, or just want to read the text can do that, or for just reading a text out loud, which is a useful way of being able to spend your time learning or studying at home when you can't be behind the computer and looking at a screen. So, yeah, this actually brings me to a nice theme that I've been thinking about in making all my recommendations, both for software and hardware, that sort of the gadgets recommendations that I'm trying to write up another blog post about, which is a theme about how to handle everything when you have kids at home, which is something I'm dealing with. I know a lot of people aren't dealing with it, but a lot of people are dealing with it. It also makes a difference how young your kids are and how you're handling the distribution of work with your spouse or partner in the home when you guys are both working. So it's become a really crucial thing for a lot of us. I find myself having to ... A specific technology needs for dealing with this situation. So, for example, when I say a tool for reading texts out loud to you, that can be used when you have to do house chores or look at the kids, but also want to quickly get some information on the side about some texts that you wanted to read. So in terms of hardware recommendations to deal with that, I'm looking at wireless headphones and headsets that you can put on, listen to an audio book or some text, a voice tool, and, again, do the chores or take care of the kids if you need to. Sometimes you're not on childcare duty, but you want to be able to be ready in case you're called. You need to be on-call, right? So sometimes I see that people are using these ... Like the Beats by Dre noise canceling headphones, which are great if you're on the subway and you need extreme focus, you need to cancel the noise outside. But if you're at home, you need to be on-call with childcare duty, you actually don't want that extreme noise canceling. You want to be able to hear. So I've recently learned that there are actually open back headphones that I didn't know about before. There are certain designed to some headphones like this one that I'm currently wearing. It's open back. It's actually the opposite of noise canceling. It's supposed to let some noise in to give the sound a more natural feeling. You get that focused listening experience, but you're also able to hear if there's a emergency situation in the home that you need to attend to. So that's something that I've recently started paying more attention to in terms of technology needs, considering those additional parenting requirements you would need.


CH: Yeah. And a lot of us are struggling with that. I have three under six myself, so I'll have to grab that recommendation from you.


MK: Yeah. So another thing, a lot of people who don't have kids may have a very specific workstation at home. They know they have good internet coverage in that particular room, WiFi works great. But again, when you have lots of kids around the home, you might find yourself sometimes needing to go attend a video conference from inside a closet. Right? And then you suddenly realize, "Oh, shoot, I don't have good WiFi coverage in this closet."


CH: I didn't consider this when I put the router where I put it.


MK: Yes. So that has actually prompted me recently to start thinking of installing a WiFi mesh network in my home instead of a regular router or router because with the WiFi mesh network, you can customize and get to those small spaces in the home that you otherwise don't have good internet coverage or WiFi coverage. And these mesh networks have only become popular and widely available in the past few years. So when I bought the router that I currently have, the mesh network technology wasn't really that available, but now it's everywhere and I've recently ordered one and hope to install it soon in the home.


CH: Well, there's no shortage of equipment and technology as long as you know where it is. It sounds like there'll be a follow-up medium post there that will give us some of the technology background. As you said, with the right tools, you got this. I think that was one of the lines that stuck with me from your posts. How can people follow you if they want to keep up with your work? Where should they go?


MK: Well, I'll post the articles on Medium, but I'm also active on LinkedIn and Twitter, and you can follow me there. If I write a new Medium article, I'll share it on my social media, and I love connecting to people on social media. So please do send me an invite on LinkedIn or Twitter and we can connect.


CH: And then they can also find the entrepreneurial tools website, which is your master repository of everything for startups and entrepreneurs.


MK: Yes, that's a good list of tools as well. Actually, there's a bunch of tools in there that are just not necessarily for entrepreneurs. They're personal productivity tools that can help you utilize a bunch of digital technologies just to make your personal workflow better. I encourage everyone to just go through those and see what they find useful.


CH: Mohammad, thank you very much. It was great talking to you.


MK: Thank you for doing this. I hope this creates a good resource for all the University of Calgary community.


CH: That was Mohammad Keyhani, an associate professor in our Haskayne School of Business. Now let's go to Leslie Reid, our vice-provost of teaching and learning. We talked with Leslie about the gigantic task of moving all our teaching and learning online.


NP: I have to say, when I did this interview, it was just as the university moved from in class to online teaching. I think we caught up with Leslie 24 hours after we had made this move. So it was a very interesting in the moment, we're dealing with all of this in real time discussion.


CH: Well, that's certainly true. It was one of the very first interviews we did for COVIDcast, but because of the way we wanted to stack things together, it's coming out now. Listening to it again, I'm struck by how prescient some of it was and how much things have changed since then.


NP: It's certainly a very rapidly moving landscape right now. I think that this foray into online learning, and teaching, and consuming content in a very different way when we can't be together in person will fundamentally change the way we deliver education moving forward.


CH: Well, let's go to the interview.


NP: So Leslie, can you share with us a bit about the creation of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning and some of the strategic priorities?


LR: Yeah, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning is both a building and a community of teaching and learning support folks who support everything from learning technologies, which is very germane to what we're experiencing now, to how to think about teaching and learning, to helping graduate students and academic staff, and students actually, in supporting their learning. So the building itself was opened almost five years ago through a very gracious donation from the Taylor family. And then the staff that fills that building has grown over the last five years to be the team we have today. They've really been showing the campus community what the Taylor Institute was always meant to be, which is a hub that connects teaching and learning experts across campus, and helps share all that expertise and learning and knowledge. Today, this week, we are so grateful to have had that community built.


NP: For sure. And certainly in light of this pandemic and where we find ourselves now, your team in the Taylor Institute has really been thrust into centre stage on how do we ensure that we are continuing to deliver our programs, and curriculum, and student experiences in what has now become a virtual classroom?


LR: Yes. Yes, it's hard for me to imagine that this all started with a conversation about pandemic planning and we might need to start teaching remotely. It was really just very conceptual at the time for me. I kind of in the back of my mind thought that it will never come to this. But we were given the cue to start planning what kinds of resources might the Taylor Institute be able to build if it were to ever come to this. And within about 24 hours a website was developed by the team there called the teaching continuity website, which just pulled together all these resources about sort of a what if, what if you were to start teaching remotely next week? And along with a checklist for things you need to think about and connection points. And that site now, I have to say, is being used across the country as a support and a resource because we are not alone in this time.


NP: And is it for faculty members so that they have the support that they need to help deliver some of these programs online? Or is it for students to support them in their academic journey as that continues?


LR: The first part of the website that was built about 10 days ago was for faculty members. It was exactly that, imagine a world where you are teaching in a really different way. And then we recognized the need for students to have some resources, because learning in a virtual, or a remote, or online environment is really quite different. And so again, the team recognized that need and partnered with our student experience experts and developed that website called the learning continuity website. And then just yesterday we released another part of that website for graduate student teaching assistants because we recognized they have other needs and resources they'll need to access. So it just keeps growing.


NP: So how has the community of Calgary or beyond been informed or made aware of some of these novel and innovative ways of managing through this crisis from an academic perspective?


LR: Yeah, I haven't had a moment to really take stock of how this is being utilized or communicated out to the broader community, but I think that's a really important piece next to think about.


NP: Yeah. So looking from the student perspective, what are you finding? How has this impacted their student experience? And what do you think this experience might teach us moving forward about ... And maybe it's too soon to reflect upon that, but upon the way our courses, and our design, and what we know from a research standpoint about the way people learn and consume content and how that might influence some of our developments moving forward?


LR: I have heard from students that they recognize everything going in to this transition and they recognize this effort. I've heard from colleagues that I have passed from a good social distance in the hallway over the last few days that what they thought last week would be really challenging was not so bad. That they sent their students in email. They're figuring out ways to communicate with them differently. They're using the learning technology platforms that they knew about or had thought about. And have finally tried them out of necessity and have found through the support as well that they have both their faculties and at the Taylor Institute that it's not been so bad. So, so far so good. Yeah.


NP: I often wonder whether this pandemic has forced us to examine the way that we teach and learn and the purpose, frankly, of post secondary institutions as a facilitator and promoter of intellectual thought and content and dialogue, and what that will look like now moving forward. Has this framework fundamentally changed?


LR: I can't see us going back to where we were. We were just starting as an institution conversations about getting into online learning and what that might look like. And we have a pilot project happening in our faculties of arts and science. I think, we'll still, even after this, need to think really carefully about what does deep, meaningful, online learning look like. But the concept of blended learning, which has been around for a while, which as the name implies, a blend of face to face learning experiences that students and academic staff have and graduate student teaching assistants have and online pieces. I think that we'll really think about blended learning and it will happen on a much more extensive scale on our campus after this.


NP: Do you see initiatives like MOOCs really taking off as a result of this or even more institutional, peer to peer collaboration on online learning either throughout the country or throughout the world? I mean, now people can avail themselves of all of these online resources for learning and knowledge.


LR: Yeah. Yeah, I think where the reflection will come from this experience, which I think will be terrific, is when does it make sense? What makes sense to be online? What kind of learning is good for a massive open online course, like a MOOC? And what's the audience there? Because that MOOC is really, really ... The audiences are community members. I think what all of this is going to help us think really deeply about is there is really good learning that can happen online and now everybody will have a chance to experiment with what did that learning look like? And what did we think maybe could happen online in a certain way that maybe didn't didn't kind of happen in as meaningful a way? And what do we need to do differently? And then have some time when we're through this to just really debrief what have we learned, what can we take moving forward around all these learning experiences.


NP: I want to ask you about the mindset that would be required for that type of reflective perspective, so to speak, on this journey. I mean, what do people need to bring to the table? I mean, when you talk about going from day to day to week to week, to then having that moment of pause and reflection on what have we learned, and what's working, and what isn't, and what makes sense to go online, and what makes sense that it stays in the classroom, what will people bring to that dialogue?


LR: Well, they're going to bring lived experience. I think folks who have not had a lot of experience doing much online with their students, it was theoretical what this might look like and the gift that this will give us all, it's hard to think of this as a gift right now, but it will be a gift in time, is this is real experience people will have. So that mindset, I hope what we can do is have some time when we're through this to pause, and think really thoughtfully, and not be worried about social distancing and washing our hands every five minutes, but really take these lived experiences and apply them to moving forward.


NP: Yeah. Well, I certainly know that from the creation of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, both from a physical standpoint and an academic standpoint, the University of Calgary has been well positioned to help lead this dialogue because we've been at the forefront of many of these experiments, and research, and examination. How has that influenced our responsiveness and our ability to pivot to this new era that we find ourselves in?


LR: I don't know how we would have done this without the Taylor Institute honestly. It's not because they hold all the expertise, expertise is all over campus. It is because the Taylor Institute is to me, a teaching and learning place like no other. It is strongly connected with academic leadership and it's strongly connected with academic staff, and also it's strongly connected with IT with continuing ed like all these relationships they've been working really hard to build. So when all of this kind of started really emerging, we didn't have to build relationships with IT, they were there. People could just assemble and get a platform like Zoom up and running in days. Without that kind of connection and relationships, I think that would have been more challenging. The website is another great example. Without really understanding and having good solid relationships with the academic units and the diversity of all the academic units, I'm not sure we could have created content that would have been so helpful because we wouldn't have known what was helpful. And for our associate deans teaching and learning, for all the academic leadership to have already points of contact in the Taylor Institute that they could go to, that just made this seemingly unbelievable challenge more believable that we can get through this and we are getting through.


NP: We are getting through it indeed. And it certainly seems that having those solid foundational relationships has been critical to navigate as this pandemic continues to unfold. Thank you very much for joining me today.


LR: You're welcome.


CH: Thanks to both our speakers, Mohammad Keyhani and Leslie Reid, for taking the time to chat with us today. And thanks to all of you for listening. You can subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple, Google, or Spotify. You can also find episodes and other community resources including webinars and expert advice at Ideas for future episodes can be emailed to COVIDcast is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.

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