Taking Stock

It’s been something like 8 months since I started my new role as Deputy Provost here at Athabasca University and I had my annual performance review in late July, which was as it turns out a welcome opportunity to take a moment to reflect on what has happened and why I feel so tired.

The performance assessment framework that we use has a pretty loose format, so I structured my work into three main areas of activity. I’m going to pull a chunk of what I wrote out of the form and post it here because I didn’t manage to do an end of 2019 blog post, and it seems important to try keep a track of what happened in 2020. I think by the end of the year I’ll be too tired to remember.

Response to COVID19

Although I moved to one of the few fully online Universities in the world just before the pandemic hit, my institution still has a substantial place based admin component, and place based student facing services. Over the last 6 months the teams in my area have:

  • Transitioned to home working, including learning to use new technology and processes. Through that time we’ve kept all our services to learners available except for phone lines. This includes the services we provide to international learners, incarcerated learners, and learners with disabilities.
  • Devised a process for digitising inbound mail so that it can be distributed to team members working from home.
  • Worked in collaboration with University Relations on a joined up approach to COVID communications and FAQs.
  • Provided mental health expertise to the institutional COVID communications effort to ensure that learners are well supported.
  • Implemented a course restart process to support learners who are working on the frontline of the response to COVID allowing them to pause their studies.
  • Fast-tracked graduation processes to ensure Nursing graduates could join the workforce immediately, including switching to an electronic graduation letter process.
  • Processed over 11,000 free course extensions for learners.
  • Processed thousands of exam accommodations, switching learners to digital exams where one exists.
  • Supported the Maths to transition to online exams for Math215 using their MapleTA system.
  • Redeployed and retrained team members from LSS to support increased digital exam activities.
  • Worked with Faculties to develop guidance on alternative assessments and established Faculty coordinators.
  • Developed a process for tracking alternative assessments where they’ve been used.
  • Piloted an Office365 based fully-digital solution for exam delivery for learners with disabilities, replacing previous USB key / post based system.
  • Re-started our exam digitisation work. An additional 5,000 learners can now take an online exam compared to a few months ago.
  • Switched from paper to electronic processes for receiving and issuing transcripts.
  • Refreshed and revised self-help web resources in Counselling, to help manage demand for appointments.
  • Devised an entirely digital workflow for PLAR candidates, including a digital only method for letters of attestation into learner files.
  • Devised alternative methods for supporting PLAR learners through their work.

After instigation from the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the President of AUGSA we established Athabasca’s first ever Emergency Bursary Scheme. Working with Development and Alumni we launched our first ever AU online giving campaign to support this, repurposed savings made through travel budgets within various parts of the University, and worked with AUGSA and AUSU as major donors and supporters to the scheme. 134 bursaries of $1000 each were distributed, serving about 25% of expressed student need.

We developed a specific Business Continuity Plan in the event of a full shutdown being required. I have good general experience with Business Continuity from previous roles, but was having to learn about Athabasca as I went along as part of this work, which was quite the unique induction programme.

AU established an institutional COVID operational response team coordinating our student support efforts in the first few months and now working to support remote working and re-opening activities. As part of work on this group we suggested a Gift Day off for all staff (which happened at Easter 2020).

We created a standing meeting with IT to prioritise changes required to support remote working. This has been welcomed by IT and my teams as it has provided a clear process for bringing forward changes, estimating them, prioritising them and tracking progress. It has also helped to instill some good service management working practices such as use of our IT helpdesk ticketing system for all requests.

We’ve supported Faculties with adoption of new technologies in response to COVID requirements, including supporting Health Disciplines in the use of Teams for Masters in Counselling and Science and Technology for Maths assessments using MapleTA. In all cases this work is about listening to colleagues concerns and brokering conversations either across Faculties, or with IT colleagues. I believe that ongoing AU has missing roles in this space (learning technologists!).

Represented AU at a Globe and Mail webinar event, and fielded several press enquiries about our use of remote proctoring tools (which I think are hot garbage).

Operational Responsibilities

The first 6 months of my time at AU were spent learning more about my areas of operational responsibility and hopefully providing the supports and leadership that my team need to move work forwards. During this time I have been able to start identifying areas for improvement and start laying some foundations and setting expectations ahead of the next Integrated Resource Planning process, the Integrated Learning Environment implementation and various OneAU change initiatives. Achievements include:

  • Working with UR and AVP Integrated Planning to establish a successful pilot with Motimatic, nudging learners to complete their course enrollments via social media.
  • Improving recruitment processes in my office with more visibility of the process, more accountability, and working with Directors to develop 5 year staffing plans. Recruitment is a standing item at our monthly management team meetings and our HR Client Partner now attends regularly.
  • Taken over responsibility for Provincial Mental Health Grant and moved our Mental Health Coordinator role into an ongoing post. As well as providing stability in resourcing this role, this recognizes that the impact of COVID19 will likely be long-lasting.
  • Successful launch of the TalkCampus peer support application – working our Privacy Office and supplier to check compliance and resolve areas of concern.
  • Learned about our PLAR processes to the extent that I’m able to represent AU in conversations with other institutions about our process.
  • Supported Access for Students with Disabilities colleagues in negotiating assessment accommodations for students which has been enlightening as to our practices and awareness of disability.
  • Established good working relationships with AUGSA and AUSU. Brought them into the ILE Discovery work and keen to continue to involve them closely in the ongoing work.

Beyond my immediate operational responsibilities I have been able to contribute my thinking and ideas to a number of other areas of AU work:

  • Input to new International Strategy
  • Provided input to Tuition and Fees working group including identification of potential external resource to support the work.
  • Input to Nukskahtowin Strategy
  • Engaged with Cultural Teachings, led by our Elder, aiming to improve my understanding of Indigeneity and intersections with our work
  • Provided significant input to new intranet requirements gathering.
  • Represented AU within provincial / Western Canadian organisations including SSSO, ACOSOA, WestSSAS and CARU Provosts meetings.
  • Brokered an introduction between the Banff Centre and PowerEd to help them understand how they might offer courses online during COVID.

I have also been able to achieve a significant piece of policy development work:

  • Chaired a GFC ad-hoc sub-committee that successfully delivered a set of Ethical Principles for the Use of Personalised Student Data, including consideration of Indigenous perspectives. Was able to bring experience from elsewhere to this work, and AU is now in a leadership position in having a visible policy in this area. I made specific recommendations around how to operationalize the policy including that it should be part of our Digital Governance Policy Suite.

Advancing our new Integrated Learning Environment

This is a cornerstone of our Imagine Learning Framework and our RISE Digital Transformation Strategy. The Integrated Learning Environment program is a large-scale transformation of people, process, and technology. It will replace a number of our legacy systems with newer and more highly integrated technologies, combined with change in our processes and culture.

  • Input to RFP selection process for new ILE, bringing to bear previous experience in procurement, including of SIS and LMS solutions.
  • Forged strong working relationship with IT colleagues. This will be integral to the successful implementation of the ILE. I’ve written before about the importance of getting to know these people….
  • Led a Discovery exercise with our preferred suppliers and AU subject matter experts, to develop a more detailed implementation plan. This involved identifying experts from around the institution and leading and directing input at various sessions to ensure that suppliers got the information they needed, or that our colleagues were clear on the direction of travel with the Integrated Learning Environment. This work involved over 50 participants from AU, spread across 20+ sessions over 5 weeks. It was a steep but highly effective learning curve for me as much as it was for anyone else.
  • Built upon the internal network of AU participants to the Discovery Phase to begin stakeholder analysis for a communications strategy.

What have I learned?

The start of my employment at Athabasca University has been somewhat different to what I had anticipated or planned for! The impact of COVID19 combined with being new in an institution, sector, and country have presented considerable challenges and I have been without some of the normal social support systems one would normally have to call upon.

Across all of these areas I think I have also demonstrated an ability to take on new knowledge quickly, to reflect upon it, and to think critically. Whilst I draw heavily on prior experience I think I also am flexible, adaptable and a creative thinker, so previous experience doesn’t box my thinking in.

Where I am still learning is in understanding better the new culture and HE sector I have moved into. There are times where my approach can be a little more direct than colleagues are used to. Whilst not always a bad thing, it’s something to continue to be mindful of in terms of taking people with me and continuing to build trust. I try to counter some of this by being open and transparent, and also with a little humour and grace!

I am particularly pleased that Staff Engagement Survey results in my area were significantly improved over the previous year, and with a higher than AU level of participation. It is reassuring as a new leader in a new institution, during a period of unprecedented change to have this kind of feedback that we are moving in the right direction.

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