The University of Sydney in Australia was one of the institutions included in the study

Naffi, N. (2020) Disruption in and by Centres for Teaching and Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leading the Future of Higher Ed Québec City: L’Observatoire Internationale sur les Impacts Sociétaux de l’IA et du Numerique and the Government of Québec, 24 August

I’m continuing to collect studies done about the impact of emergency remote learning and other educational responses to Covid-19. I’m being a bit selective about this, as there are many studies, but if you think I’ve missed something particularly important for post-secondary education, please let me know.

In the meantime, this is a study published last week that ‘illuminates how Centres for Teaching and Learning, and equivalent entities addressed and plan to address trends and issues in digital learning in the context of educational disruption caused by COVID-19.’ 

Such centres are described in the report as ‘the first responders to support the pedagogical and digital transformation of all courses’.


Nineteen Centres for Teaching and Learning and equivalent teams from Canada, the USA, Lebanon, the UK and France were studied through in-depth interviews about the practices they have employed to support online delivery of courses in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, publicly shared resources from 78 CTLs in 68 universities and educational institutions located in 23 countries were also studied.

The study was sponsored by L’Observatoire Internationale sur les Impacts Sociétaux de l’IA et du Numerique and the Government of Québec.

Lead Researcher

Nadia Naffi PhD, Université Laval, Canada


Ann-Louise Davidson PhD, Concordia University, Canada

Roger Kaufman PhD, Florida State University, USA

Richard E (Dick) Clark PhD, University of Southern California, USA

Brian Beatty PhD, San Francisco State University, USA

Didier Paquelin PhD, Université Laval, Canada

I was also one of the 27 people interviewed for the survey.

Main findings/conclusions

Tech companies to the rescue

The report contains an interesting summary of the efforts of ‘tech companies that offer digital technologies geared towards education users, [who] spared no effort to offer services to help half of the planet’s students move to online learning during the COVID-19 shutdown.

However, the report also noted that ‘a quality and equitable online education requires more than a sprint by tech companies to make required digital technologies available.’

Inequity as never before

[Pre-existing] inequities were compounded by the traditional inequities have yet to be resolved: difficulty of access for low-income students, completion rate for first-generation students, non-completion for independent students, ableism, and expectations of students performance’.

‘Many of the accommodations and challenges faced by students were addressed in the moment by faculty and support staff, but educational institutions are still largely unaware of the full array of challenges their student body faced and how to best plan for them in the post-pandemic era.’

Centres of Teaching and Learning as First Responders

‘In over a thousand years of history, higher education has not gone through disruption of this magnitude. This strained Centres for Teaching and Learning and equivalent services but also highlighted their essential role and the role of their teams of instructional designers, teaching and learning experts and multimedia developers … who, overnight, were dubbed the “sherpas of online learning teams” (Decherney & Levander, 2020).’

COVID-19 As Accelerator of Higher Ed Transformation

COVID-19 provoked a long-awaited disruption to higher education, pivotal to ensuring students are well equipped for the future of work in a digital and artificial intelligence era. The wide scale transition from high-cost, degree-based focus, and one-size-fits-all education to a more affordable and personalized educational experience has started. The established presumptions that face-to-face instructions are superior in quality to online learning have been reckoned and many institutions are re-evaluating whether the traditional physical co-presence was worth the cost. Moving forward, incremental changes towards more hybrid and online learning are expected. Chatbots and predictive analytics are on the menu, too‘.

Going Forward in The Digital Transformation of Courses

CTLs affirmed that online learning and flexible modalities of teaching are here to stay. This is a transformational moment for many educational institutions worldwide.

Many CTLs have discovered that there were some surprisingly good results when they empowered faculty members to accomplish the design and development of their courses more independently. Going forward, they are shifting from taking significant responsibility and doing things for faculty to partnering with them, empowering them to understand and effect good practice.

CTLs report a shift in faculty attitude; faculty pay more attention to their recommendations now than in the past. While they used to ignore the CTLs’ emails and invitations, now they appreciate them.

In the past, many teaching and learning centres tended to be reactionary. Moving forward, they must adopt a proactive leadership role, bringing the best practices in the scholarship of teaching and learning to faculty.

Challenges identified by CTLs and examples of concrete actions 

This section is of particular interest to those working in Centres for Teaching and Learning, but some of the challenges identified are:

  • quantity vs quality: in March, there was so little time to move online that the emphasis was on getting as many courses online as quickly as possible; inevitably quality suffered
  • scaling up: it became evident for many teams that they simply did not have enough staff to accomplish such a colossal task. They therefore began recruiting and hiring new staff members, which presented another set of challenges.
  • The CTLs reported globally that the information they were receiving from governments and upper administration was often inconsistent, which required them to make decisions based on their best judgment.
  • Most CTLs identified four primary requirements that called for action in order to finish the Winter semester successfully: moving courses online, end-of-term assessment, practical labs and internship completion, and ensuring equal access to all students. Each of these is discussed in some detail in the report.

My comments

This is just a taste of the findings from the report, which runs to 182 pages. It is required reading for those in Centres of Teaching and Learning, but there is also a great deal of thought-provoking information for Provosts and other senior administrators in higher education, and also for governments and other funding agencies.

In particular, the report indicates how important a good Centre for Teaching and Learning is for quality teaching and learning, but it also raises a series of important questions:

  • if instructors were initially taught to teach well, why would we need a Centre for Teaching and Learning other than to teach faculty to teach? And wouldn’t this be better done centrally, say on a state-wide basis, rather than every individual institution running its own training program?
  • how big should such Centres be? After all, their funds comes from the general teaching and learning budget; the bigger the Centre for Teaching and Learning, the less funds there are for hiring instructors.

I am not arguing that Centres for Teaching and Learning are unimportant. It is obvious not only from this report that they were crucial in enabling the Spring semester to be completed. Without them, the chaos and lack of quality would have been much greater.

But as we shift to more digital learning, and as digital learning becomes an integral part of future quality teaching, should we not be looking for better ways to prepare instructors for this future? Too much is ad hoc and based on instructors volunteering to learn how to teach. We need a much more systematic and a more fundamental approach to faculty training and development. If CTLs are first responders, we should be looking at harm prevention measures as well.


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