Reflecting on a decade

This week I’m wrapping up almost a decade at JIBC (9 years and 7 months to be exact). This is almost 3x longer than any other stay with an employer and it feels important to pause and reflect on this formative time.

I started at JIBC as an Educational Technology Specialist. It was a brand new position, with no rules and few expectations other than “we need you to harness the online learning activity that is happening here”. It came with a 40k budget and an office of one, but this office of one had a door, a huge window, and a view of the pond. I had spent the previous 2 years in a basement level, no window, beige cubicle, soul sucking hellscape, so office with a window was one of the things I negotiated.

There were a couple of things that jumped out at me in those first few months at JIBC. First of all, there was so much energy, enthusiasm and devotion to the work that people did. And very little turnover. In my rounds of getting to know people I was struck at how long people stayed…10 years was pretty average, and at 5 years you were still considered kind of new. I took that as a good sign.

The other thing that was remarkable was how into ed tech and online learning everybody was. In my previous workplaces I had gotten pretty good at the ‘sell job’ of ed tech an online learning – conversations around why it was important for students to have access, how ed tech could make the life of a faculty person easier, etc. JIBC was bursting with people who were chomping at the bit to do innovative things, get programs online, and make it all happen. It was GSD on steroids, and as a result there were both exciting and questionable decisions and activities happening all over the place. My personal favourite was the program area that had hired a contractor to run some of their online exams, except he was doing it on his home server, which he brought with him when he relocated to the Philippines. A close second was the innovative software being created by a program area using a buddy of a buddy contractor who had retired to a trailer park in Arizona. But stuff was getting done and it was exciting, albeit it definitely put a new spin on harnessing.

It became clear that the challenging part of all this harnessing would be the fact that JIBC was the most decentralized, operationally silo-ed place I’d ever encountered. This comes with some advantages, but for online learning and ed tech it’s a bloody nightmare, and not one that a cross-institutional committee is going to fix. But most of JIBC loved its decentralization, so I tried to be open minded and find the economies of scale. With my Director, we set out and gathered information from all the programs. How many people in your area do instructional design? How much of their time is going to it? Who builds your courses? How much are you spending on contractors? Who provides student support in your area? How much time? Etc.

What came back was astonishing. I can’t remember the exact number, but around 600-800k $3.2 million of time annually was being spent on online learning activity, and most of it was being done lone ranger style – a person here and there, on their own, doing ALL the jobs. (JIBC’s entire institutional budget was about 40 million, so there wasn’t a lot of dollars to go around.) It wasn’t efficient, it was risky to the institution, and quite frankly, there was a dog’s breakfast of e-learning happening. Importantly, the reliance on contractors wasn’t helping to build JIBC capacity in the area, at a time when they had clearly expressed that they wanted to be leaders in online learning.

My next step was to create an e-learning strategy and plan. Since I really had nothing to lose, I laid it all out. I suggested a 5 pillar strategy, centred around emerging technologies, applied and experiential learning, faculty development, student support, and research. Emerging tech included simulations and mobile learning. I proposed 3 options for getting there: the deluxe apartment in the sky option; middle of the road option, and status quo with a twist option. The deluxe option was to centralize some of the talent in the building and start a teaching and learning centre that would set the standard for quality, innovation, coordination, and capacity building. Status quo with a twist was have me being a broker for contractors and silos. To my surprise, senior management committed to the deluxe version.

So how did an institution with a desire to preserve decentralization decide to go with a teaching and learning centre? I proposed that the centre would be more like a cooperative – it would be centrally funded, and programs would have no-cost access to the capacity in the centre. The programs, represented by the Deans and Directors, would collaboratively select and prioritize the work of the centre on a quarterly schedule. This forced both a prioritization and planning process and allowed different program areas to know what was going on in other areas and avoid duplication. Finally, given the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, project-just-landed nature of JIBC work, the centre would reserve 20% of its capacity for drop-in/last minute projects. This is how we ended up with TELT, or Technology-Enabled Learning and Teaching, which deliberately left Centre out of its name. (Of course, we are now the Centre for Teaching, Learning & Innovation, but that’s another story).

At this point, I had no expectation of having the job of leading a centre. I did what I needed to do, and made the recommendations based on what I thought was the right thing for the institution given their aspirations. I reminded them that they didn’t hire me for my managerial skills, and they would need someone to lead and manage the centre, which was to start with 3 people in Year 1, and grow to 5 people by Year 2. But they did, and I’m grateful to have been coached and supported by so many mentors, as well as the fantastic CTLI team that we have today, which has grown to 10. The original three hires – Dennis Yip, Melanie Meyers, and Naz Maghsoudi – are still with the centre, as are the subsequent hires, which makes me really proud because it suggests to me that people see value in being part of the team. They converted a classroom into an office space that we got to design and it’s served us well.

Importantly, in partnership with JIBC programs there has been so much great work that this team has led, produced, and/or supported. There’s a lot to mention, and some of it is on our website but here are some of my favourites:

  1. The time when, circa 2012, we redesigned a paid, hosted-in-LMS course into a free app and ebook with an optional paid exam, and revenues in the program area increased.
  2. The innovative software that began in a trailer park in Arizona got re-engineered into a synchronous scenario-based learning tool being used by some notable companies.
  3. Our very first attempt – in 2012 – at creating a mobile friendly, open, video-based course that used WordPress and not the LMS resulted in the ABC of AD, which has aged quite well. We’ve gone on to create dozens of WordPress courses since then.
  4. Our work in mobile learning caught the attention of the University of Guadalajara, which led to the co-development and delivery of Agora and Mural certificate programs over a period of 3 years. I’m immensely proud that Agora won an OE Global award in 2017 for open faculty development.
  5. More recently, with a lot of customized WordPress we created a micro-learning blended learning model for Indigenous communities around Emergency Medical Responder training. The video on this page explains it really well.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I leave the talented people at CTLI, but I’m excited to see where it goes next with a fresh Director, fresh ideas, and endless possibilities.

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