Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Griffith University Vice Chancellor, Professor Carolyn Evans, invited all Griffith staff (over 4000 people) into her home. But she didn’t break any social distancing rules.
Instead of using Microsoft Teams, Professor Evans (a lawyer by background rather than a technologist) was able to use Microsoft Teams Live Events and invite Griffith staff to attend the meeting. And this was the first ever Team live event at Griffith.
Instead of the couple of hundred people that might typically gather in a physical lecture theatre to listen to an address by the VC, the Teams live event was attended by 2,300. Likewise, instead of the half a dozen to a dozen questions she might typically tackle in a physical event the Teams meeting attracted hundreds of comments and questions.
The production quality was not Hollywood standard, but this was a connection with impact. It drove home to Griffith personnel that everyone, including their VC, can use the tools the digital team had provisioned. Here was technology that had real purpose allowing Griffith to function well despite the COVID-19 crisis and mass disruption.
Griffith, like other universities around the world, has had to pivot from face to face learning for the moment, towards online learning, and quickly!
Griffith was earlier than most to make some of the required changes, as a significant cohort of its international students hail from China, including some from the early locked down regions greatly affected at the outset of the pandemic. Griffith needed a way to ensure those students could continue their studies online until they could safely return to Australia.
Having deployed Office 365 in 2018 the university was in the throes of implementing integration between its Microsoft Teams and Blackboard learning management system in order to support communications and collaboration and to create a platform to enable contemporary education delivery into the future. Components of this technology already formed the foundation for University’s Griffith Online offering. Online course offerings at the University are significant, equating to its third largest – albeit virtual – campus.
The integration between Teams and Blackboard means that whenever a course site was built in Blackboard, Griffith offers the academic the option to automatically build a matching Teams presence.
At the turn of the year about 490 people were using Teams to actively participate in Teams meetings; by March 2020 that had increased almost tenfold to more than 4,600. In January, Teams was handling 304,000 private chat and channel conversations a month, in March that was up to 571,000. Staff were embracing Teams with both hands. Stephen Bishop, Director of Enterprise Information Systems said,
“Griffith’s been able to capitalise on the earlier efforts from Griffith Online to make new technology available at a large scale to the rest of academia.
Better still, Griffith has also used Office 365 and Teams as the glue to allow its staff to work remotely – but remain connected and productive.”
Bishop also stressed the importance of having access to digital tools.
“We knew it had worked in China because there’s plenty of them that did not. We were rapidly spinning up VPN solutions to try and make sure that we could deliver service continuity for our Chinese students.
“Now of course what eventuated is a lot of that work that we did to assist our Chinese students, we were able to piggyback off that and continued to accelerate it across the university when the lockdown broadened.”
Striving for the best online experience
At the start of 2020, when the term ‘coronavirus’ was still a whisper rather than a roar, Griffith was preparing to roll out its digital adoption process, and had formed a team led by Gabrielle Ingram, Manager of Productivity and Information Management, with the remit to design, educate and train university staff on how to best use the Microsoft tool sets for online business.
When COVID-19 struck, the university went into overdrive – including preparing staff to run whole–of–organisation meetings and presentations via Teams, Yammer or Stream.
Ingram said her team spent a Friday learning how to use the tools to run Live Events, Monday writing a training document, and then tested that with the Chief Operating Officer and their Corporate Services division on the Tuesday.
“I think we ran the live event on the Wednesday. In that first session there were 786 views of the event.”
By the time the VC hosted her Live Event, attendance was measured in the thousands.
“From an engagement perspective, she’s been able to reach a much larger audience, regardless of whether they’re on campus or not. For those two events, she had about 630 comments or questions posted into the virtual town hall,” Ingram said
“If she was running that in person, she might be able to take 10 questions from each event. It means now that her team has been able to come back in and answer those people individually – a much more engaged approach than you would get even with an in–person event.”
Bishop said staff are already switching between Live Events and Teams meetings depending on the number of people involved and he expects this more fluid and flexible approach will persist when the COVID crisis abates.
“We’re seeing that human side of our executive as well. On occasion, we might see them err with some of the tools and technology, only small issues like muting and un-muting. And in a way that’s actually reassuring for staff, because they’re all being asked to pick up and use these new tools and technologies that they were unfamiliar with.
“To see their own leaders doing just that, picking them up, using them themselves, mostly unsupported… I think it gives everyone a sense that, ‘I can do this’. They’re genuinely leading by example.“
In terms of learning and teaching, Griffith Online has been the torchbearer for the university’s pivot to remote learning. While many of Griffith Online courses are for master’s degrees and post-bachelor education, it does provide a useful learning template for the rest of the university.
Griffith has been preparing for Trimester Two to be offered in a fully online mode if necessary, as well as exploring opportunities for new and revised approaches to online assessment. Teams can be used to connect with and assist students directly undertaking online assessment.
Nurturing culture and connection
There are of course some elements of learning that can’t be delivered in a virtual setting. Trainee nurses for example can’t learn how to deliver an injection online – but technology could be used to allow that to happen safely in a physical setting.
“We’re investigating where we might offer a truly blended learning environment, perhaps in a lab environment with social distancing measures in place, with an additional cohort attending via Teams meeting”, Bishop said.
“We are already carrying out our day to day activities in this manner, and it makes sense to apply it to Learning and Teaching where appropriate as well.”
Griffith is also leveraging Microsoft templates developed to support organisations navigate the crisis communications associated with managing the enterprise disruption prompted by COVID-19.
Led by Griffith’s business communications team this encompasses everything from providing administrative updates to mental health initiatives and promoting the use of technology to foster Griffith’s community and culture.
Ingram explains; “Things like tips on how to have the Friday morning coffee date virtually – where people would have congregated in a social setting at work for lunch or morning tea once a week with their team. How do you do that in an online environment?”
Bishop stresses the importance of maintaining human connections even when engaging digitally.
“I always encourage people to turn their camera on! If you’ve got the bandwidth, use your camera. It’s so much more engaging and fun to boot such as; ‘Oh Steve, I see you had a home haircut, Or, you’re going to let that beard get a bit crazy,’ and so on. It helps to replicate the personal banter we may have in the office. Now this digital interaction is helping people feel like they still remain connected.”
That’s particularly important says Ingram because we are a hybrid community.
“While the bulk of us are at home, there’s still a few essential services staff that are working on campus”.
Griffith is looking to pilot a Power App that will allow people to tell one another where they are working on a particular day, which campus, or if they are at home – but still available to colleagues, just like the Vice Chancellor.
In closing, Bishop notes;
“As a dynamic institution, we’re enjoying working collaboratively with Microsoft, seeing the product grow and adapt based on our feedback and that of the broader user-base. Keeping up with Microsoft, keeps us on our toes, but also keeps our solutions and services relevant in a changing environment. If ever there was a need to be dynamic, it’s now.”