The Epistle of Q — Chapter 117

Are we in the Academy really very innovative?

This spring/summer has been another interesting experience or perhaps series of experiences for me and not just because of COVID-19. Firstly, I have had little time to write – for one thing this editorialog has not progressed very far. Secondly, my teaching was a mixture of weird and outright cancellation. And thirdly, I was able to get a perspective on life from someone who remembers the Spanish Flu pandemic…

But let me concentrate on the original question and eventually, in additional chapters, I’m sure that I will manage to cover all the issues that seem to be floating around my world…

Are our academic institutions working dramatically outside the box? When I was young, I was told that my restlessness while a high school student would be assuaged once I got to university, because there I would be challenged to think. I would meet countless bright people who would push back the curtains of contemporary banality so that I could, with them, explore new roads, new vistas, new concepts. In fact, I would experience a real renaissance in my approach to life, living and experiencing…

Maybe I didn’t initially choose the correct university (U of Toronto vs McGill U) but when I transferred to the U of Alberta, other than not having my course in Greek accepted as an alternative for Latin (and not realizing I could have appealed that decision), I will say that my university experience was filled with many moments of innovative thinking, opportunistic planning and action, and pushing the envelope. Thinking outside the box was expected – even in British Medieval History we were not to accept well-established myths!! Moreover, we were encouraged to find life well beyond the classroom, and to challenge it frequently and with passion. And when I think back – we did. And it was fun, it was rewarding, it was developmental!

As I get older though I find that universities really have become too cautious, too afraid of ruffling feathers (as if anyone even uses a boa anymore). Perhaps it’s due to the over-population of students (there are far too many in college now that never should be there – some may not even qualify to be in trade schools let alone technical institutes, although they would make great entrepreneurs, wonderful workers, superb parents, excellent labourers). Maybe over-crowded classrooms require more donors and more donors require a complacent donee. I’m not sure, but I do know that universities should really tighten up on the use of the word innovation.

Certainly this has been most evident in this age of Covid-19. When did you last hear of a thoughtful new idea emenating from the halls of higher learning? Where did one of the true doctors (either a Ph.D. or Th.D. not the undergrads with an M.D.) expound on a really intriguing way to get us through let alone out of this pandemic? Oh I know health officials have been doing yeomen-service trying to help politicos manage the panic (caused by those same politicos who wouldn’t listen to their own military intelligence, let alone the government of Taiwan); but there’s been no leadership from those who are always telling us how smart they are and how, if we only took their advice, how much better off we would be. In fact the only advice we seem to get is to try to do more on-line teaching and shut down all the competitive athletics programs including inter-school teams.

During the month of June I came face-to-face (at an appropriate on-line distancing) with the paradox of my recognition of the recalcitrant academy.

But first a back story note. In January a university with which I’ve had a professional practice/consulting relationship for twenty [20] years, promised all its students, but particularly those it was recruiting, a semester of small classes, intense learning, face-to-face interactions with each other, with their profs, with even the administration. And they could do so because that is the nature of this institution – friendly, thoughtful, engaging, and innovative. It was a major selling feature as to why anyone should/would want to come to study therein.

In March that promise was up-ended and almost overnight, without a great deal of forethought the university went on-line and students were sent home (many had to because the residences were shut down as were the classrooms). Without getting into who was responsible for the national response, it was intriguing to see how quickly the university did succumb to the panic, (which in itself suggests there really wasn’t a true science-based analysis, let alone health-science based one – even my mother, 80 years out of Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto as an RN, thought people had gone mad and she had lived through the Spanish Flu).

By the end of April it was obvious no one, least of all the Academy, was seriously looking for a long-term solution. At the university of which I speak, they immediately shut down spring and summer terms – converting them to on-line delivery only. And this is where it gets personal. While another university outright terminated my contract as they cancelled the entire teaching program, my long-term U simply said it would be business as usual – just that usual would be on-line. The problem for me: not so much that I’m not that great on-line, but rather that applied ethics does not translate well solely to the computer screen. Learning good moral analysis of ethical dilemmas requires frequent face-to-face, in-person conversation. The more realistic the case, the more body language, collective deliberations, informal chats and accidental meetings are required to fully collaborate on potential solutions.

While the U did provide access to a on-line education guru, that experience was less than stellar – the first direct contact was hampered by technical glitches that prevented even a on-line face-to-face conversation and it became just a regular tele/conference. I was given several references to draw upon, but it was obvious he had not pre-read my curriculum guidebook which I had supplied so he would have an idea of the challenges I felt might be difficult to overcome. And when he told that role plays would be no problem as they could be video-taped, I asked him how he would suggest doing the one that I then described. The response: well that one couldn’t be done… And then when I described another exercise – my crossfire ethical dilemma collective resolution, he couldn’t even fathom the concept, let alone the value of the learning moment. While I am sure the guru is very good at on-line teaching, there was little he could do to help me create an on-line version of my reasonably effective learning moment.

But this experience did make me realize that I could not sit in my study and hope to even be moderately successful at delivering my course. During an orientation session I saw first hand how variable would be students’ access to technology. As a result, I felt there would need to be the best of technologies available to me to ensure the quality of broadcasting was such that no matter the student’s setting, each would get a good transmission from me. Luckily the techies at the U are not only good, they are very helpful. I arranged to teach from the campus and they agreed to give me whatever tutoring and backup help that I might turn out to need. They didn’t fail and the two modules in June were delivered in as reasonable a fashion as I could have hoped.

Nevertheless at the end of the second module I invited five [5] students residing in the Edmonton area to join me for dinner at the Faculty Club to discuss how we might make the course more like the course they were promised when they signed up for the program (which is professional, post-degree). We had a very thoughtful conversation and it was determined that perhaps the final module could be developed in a hybrid fashion. I was already going to give an extra learning moment in a series of coaching sessions to help the class prepare for the Final Debates which make up a significant portion of the Final Exam. It was deemed a good idea to try the idea out during this non-module period – those that could attend in-person would do so, the rest would come in on-line. The results could then be used to better design the Final Debates themselves.

The President was approached with the concept but directed me to follow protocols and bring the idea first to the Program Director who would then take it to the Dean. Since I have known all these people for some time, it was not hard to craft a proposal which I did. After a relatively quick review the Director, in counsel with the Dean, said No! The reason: We told the students in April there would only be on-line!

Then the President’s office at CUE announces with some fanfare a couple of INNOVATIONS which were adding to the list of accomplishments of the U. But the student-oriented and even somewhat endorsed innovative pilot that would bring students back to campus was not supported. Yes, I know about the April announcement, but in March the January promise was changed AND in the proposed hybrid pilot, any student not wanting to return to campus could remain at home and join in on-line. Moreover, I never was even given the opportunity to contact the airlines to see if they might be interested in helping out this experiment or perhaps receiving some encouragement if not sponsorship from Advanced Education. And what was most disappointing: these students are going to be Environmental Health Officers (EHO’s). If anyone could be counted on to work out the proper staging of groups coming together on a campus (distancing, masks, etc., etc.) wouldn’t this be the group to lead the process? But no! Innovation was not going to happen at this time, with this group, at this U, no matter how much the official mantra might suggest that this U is different, is innovative, is student-focused.

But then there developed a second level to this rejection. I decided to invite a number of students (within the provincial guidelines for groups gathering) to at least try out the concept at the coaching sessions. We would meet off-campus and see how they found the experience – basically an opportunity to see if it was as good as I think it is. And if so, perhaps we could appeal the decision. Several students were conducted and most of them indicated a real desire to try it out – they really felt that an in-person moment would enhance the learning experience of the course, even if at the end. So an extra practice session was scheduled.

About a week or so later, but before the coaching sessions started, I received an e-mail from one of the prospective attendees. The student indicated that there had been some discussion about the experimental practice but s/he felt it necessary to withdraw because of concern about how participation might negatively impact the chances for getting U references for obtaining a decent practicum placement (and these are critical to becoming certified as an EHO). It was something that had never occurred to me. I then wrote a note to everyone who had indicated an interest and pointed out this alternate perspective. In my memo I indicated that while I didn’t necessarily share the concern and it certainly wouldn’t impact me (other than possibly being dropped from a teaching role at the U), if there was any personal unease, I would understand should anyone wish to withdraw. In the end, every single student withdrew – each one worrying about the impact participation might have on their practicum placements!

Normally I would be angry at this turn of events. This time I am only sad. Sad not just that the pilot was not embraced, but that the idea of a practice session to bring some students together to experience a live learning moment in applied ethics – something they had originally signed up for – would be seen as detrimental to their careers. It made me realize that the Academy has a long way to go to reclaim its place as a true leader in innovation, as a truly ethical champion of the learning moment, as an instrument for dynamic outside the box student experiences. Stay tuned. Covid-19 may be killing more than some unfortunate patients.