Part of the team at the Centre for Educational Excellence. From left: Sheri Fabian, Nanda Dimitrov, Kiran Bisra, Grant Gregson and I-Chant Chiang.

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SFU springs into action in support of distance learning amid COVID-19 pandemic

April 24, 2020
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By Diane Luckow

When SFU President Andrew Petter announced on Friday, March 13th at 5:30 p.m. that the university would move to remote instruction, 55 staff members at SFU’s new Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE) sprang into action. Educational developers, instructional designers, educational media experts and administrative staff immediately began working through the weekend to prepare university faculty for the difficult transition to remote teaching.

By 10 a.m. the following Monday, the CEE team had created new workshops on how to teach in Canvas (an online learning management system) and how to record lectures in Blackboard Collaborate. The team also published online resources on remote teaching, and responded to more than 150 faculty requests through CEE’s online support portal. As the week progressed, instructional designers were available on-demand, 12 hours a day.

And by April 1, the centre’s team had helped instructors create 152 courses in Canvas.

I-Chant Chiang

Says I-Chant Chiang, director of curriculum and instruction, “We’re willing to work with anybody to transition any course to remote instruction—we don’t see a barrier to transitioning any course, even lab courses.”

But there was a lot more to think about than the challenging task of helping instructors as they moved to remote instruction for the first time. CEE staff had to also consider issues such as how remote instruction would affect students with disabilities or students with limited access to high-speed internet; how exams might be proctored, and what issues might arise regarding academic integrity.

By mid-April the CEE team had supported more than 350 faculty requesting assistance and had also created and delivered 34 instructional workshops for using online learning-management systems, video conferencing technologies, and designing and creating online exams.

Health sciences professor Nicole Berry says working amidst the COVID-19 chaos feels like walking through molasses, and praises the CEE’s adept response to the crisis.

“The CEE is doing an excellent job in responding to COVID-19 and teaching needs,” she says. “Quite frankly, the functionality of CEE right now is making it so that students will actually be able to learn.”

Nanda Dimitrov, CEE’s senior director, says the centre’s integrated support model is one of its unique strengths. For example, she says, an educational consultant, a multimedia technician and a learning technologist will all collaborate to help a faculty member trying to transform an in-class learning activity into an interactive online module.

With the spring semester now over, CEE’s staff members are turning their attention to the summer semester. They are holding new, intensive, three-day workshops to teach best practices in online course design and are also offering customized workshops for departments and faculties. In early May the CEE will roll out online resources and workshops for teaching assistants.

Says Dimitrov, “We have been amazed by the sense of community and by colleagues’ willingness to share their teaching approaches.”

Within a few days of moving online, for example, biology professor Kevin Lam had used his iPhone to create a tutorial on how to record lectures, and shared it with colleagues. Computing science professor Paul Hibbitts wrote a guide to moving exams online, while criminology lecturer Danielle Murdoch shared a guide to moving tutorials online.  All of these resources are available on the CEE Remote Teaching page.

“I am also really impressed by the faculty’s compassionate approach to students and their experiences,” says Dimitrov, “and how flexible and agile they have been in moving to remote instruction.”