Published on 2020/04/14

The EvoLLLution | Managing Operations in a Time of Crisis
Shifting to the remote learning and working environment is essential, but there are infrastructural and security considerations that need to be taken into account—especially if this will be a months-long change.

As institutions respond quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s critical for them to have a plan set in place. But no one could have anticipated the extent of change needed to adapt to a pandemic of this scale. Responding to the novel coronavirus has challenged leaders, staff, faculty and learners to adjust quickly. In this interview, Robert Wensveen reflects on how the 2013 Alberta Floods helped the University of Calgary prepare for this crisis and shares some insights into how they’re adapting to the challenges of transitioning to a remote working and learning environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s been the University of Calgary’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Robert Wensveen (RW): Our response has been similar to that of other institutions: we shifted to a remote learning and working environment following the advice of Health Canada and the provincial government. Shutting down face-to-face classes was a bit of a challenge for all institutions, especially since it had to coincide with directives from the provincial government.  As public institutions, it was important to ensure messaging to citizens was uniform across the province. So, the University of Calgary really had to align the timing of its communications with those of the province, which affected when announcements could be made and actions could be taken. Ultimately, no one could operate and make their own decisions independently; it had to be in concert with the provincial strategy.

And it’s important to remember that these decisions have huge impacts. International students and students living in residence are significantly affected, for example. Shutting things down or canceling face-to-face classes are not easy decisions to make.

In continuing education, not all of our courses are easily convertible to online. Not all of our instructors were comfortable making that transition, but their resiliency and creativity came through when we were forced to shift. Many of our program managers were genuinely surprised at the creativity the instructors displayed once they had to adjust to this new reality.

The university stepped up and purchased additional software licensing, including campus-wide licensing for Zoom, and rolled that out very quickly. Bandwidth is a challenge, not just for those on campus but for everyone everywhere because so many people are working from home and trying to communicate with each other.

Evo: What role is continuing ed taking on in helping the university-wide transition to a remote learning model?

RW: We have a small teaching and learning team within continuing education, and our director has offered her team’s skills to help the greater institution. Whether that’s troubleshooting or supporting, they can provide faculty with help in learning new technologies and transitioning their courses to an online format.

Taking care of things in-house was our first priority. As things progress, we’ll be able to support the institution more and more. It’s the same with our information systems team. I have a small team, and if we can support the institution once we get our own staff set up, we’re happy to do what we can.

Evo: What did it take to facilitate that transition from an operational perspective?

RW: Our greatest challenge early on was maintaining consistent and relevant communications. Most of the communications sent out early were targeting the credit community. The problem there is that we’re non-credit, so those critical messages were delayed. Some messages would come out on a Sunday evening or Saturday afternoon and then we would scramble to communicate them to our students. Early on, we had to work with the group in charge of central messaging. We had to respond quickly and create mailing lists for all CE students that the senior admin team could readily access. At the same time, those lists change rapidly. There are additions, drop-outs, transfers and registrations made across a range of courses that start on different dates. The flexibility and fluidity of our lists of students is much more dynamic.  We had to adapt quickly and ensure that we updated them on a regular basis, so they were always current and accessible when communications needed to be sent out.

Our second challenge was preparing staff to work from home. Our university didn’t have a formal work-from-home policy, and there is such a diverse group of employee at the University of Calgary, all with different unions and associations.  Very quickly, though, we realized we needed to make changes for our staff to work remotely.  Some were bringing in laptops from home onto which we could configure remote access software and a general VPN.

The other huge challenge was having our student services teams process credit card transactions from home. With very strict PCI compliance rules, I had to spend considerable time getting special permissions to allow for this to happen.  We’re dealing with a huge amount of rescheduled courses and a significant number of freaked-out students, for lack of a better word.  And that “freak out” can translate to an immediate desire to drop out of everything.  So, the financial impact is going to be huge across the board, not just for CE units but for the entire university. We’re going to feel the effects of this for a long time.

Evo: How are folks adapting to this change and adapting to the new normal that they’re now working and learning inside of?

RW: Everyone’s doing okay. We were successful in moving all of our student services staff off campus and setting them up to work from home, which required training people who aren’t used to setting up hardware at home. This is particularly important for this group because of the significant security risks their job poses. It’s essential that they’re set up in a secured environment that doesn’t jeopardize our clients’ or students’ credit cards, for example. We have very strict guidelines for hardened terminals.

Having everyone work remotely was my biggest concern. We had to help build the infrastructure and train them. There are always questions around whether they are going to be successful in this kind of environment. After all, not everybody has a home office or high-speed Internet in their home in order for this to work.

Evo: Are there any concerns that people new to a remote learning environment are going to equate the quality of this experience with what’s capable in a truly well-designed online learning format?

RW: I’m sure that’s going to happen. In fact, some of the early feedback from the student services teams has reflected that. People have said it’s not what they signed up for and doesn’t offer the same quality. If you think about high-quality online delivery, it’s about building a course well-suited for the modality, with engagement tactics designed for the online space.

However, with this shift to remote learning, most of what we’ve done is attempt to mimic the classroom setting in an online format. We’ve focused on allowing for breakout sessions, voiceover IP, and sharing of desktops, presentations and documents. Because we’re using technological tools that attempt to recreate the face-to-face environment, the response from some students is that quality has diminished because the interactions they’re having online don’t stand up to the quality of a face-to-face interaction.

Evo: What are a few lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience?

RW: As a result of the 2013 floods that hit Calgary, we had created disaster plans and business continuity plans that we could use and reference. We just needed to update and adjust them quickly, but  the decisions were coming so fast that we were still operating in a reactionary mode.  Nonetheless, we were able to resurrect and update the plans since the templates were there, and I think that was an advantage.  Being able to rely on existing plans will help us through the pandemic, but what wasn’t planned was the massive scale of the crisis and length of time it will affect us for. Nobody could’ve realized how long this would last, and no one can predict how long it will continue to go on for. Going forward, we’ll all be better equipped to respond to crises…chalk it all up to experience gained.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 25, 2020.

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Key Takeaways

  • Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic will help universities better prepare for future disasters.
  • Remote learning is a quick solution, but since the offerings try to mimic the experience of face-to-face courses in an online format, they are perceived to be of lower quality.
  • It’s essential to be conscious of security realities when setting up staff to work from home—especially when they’re handling private information, like credit card numbers and sensitive data.