Cynthia Golden is the Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director, University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Beyond these roles, Cynthia is well known to the higher education technology world through her previous leadership positions, and continued involvement, in EDUCAUSE and other professional organizations. Cynthia graciously agreed to answer my questions about how her university has been navigating the pandemic, her career, and her thoughts about the challenges facing higher education.
Q1: What role is your University Center for Teaching & Learning playing at your institution during the pandemic? What is the biggest difference when compared to before COVID-19? And how do you expect the role of the Center to look once the pandemic has passed?
What role is your University Center for Teaching & Learning playing at your institution during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, our Center has played a pretty pivotal role for the university. We had one week to get faculty ready to teach online, and essentially dropped everything we were doing to provide some web-based resources plus online workshops and consulting support to faculty. We rapidly launched an instructional continuity web site and made that our home page, so people could get right to what they needed. At the same time, we worked on developing numerous resources to support remote teaching and created a “playbook” for faculty. As we built it we were thinking about what to do with large enrollment courses, how to conduct assessments, what do you do if your remote students span multiple time zones, what are some tips for recording effective video, and so on — trying to quickly get best practices into the hands of the faculty.
One of the things we also did right away in March was to offer virtual workshops and office hours, focused on teaching strategies and technologies for remote learning. Thousands of faculty took advantage of these, and more viewed the recordings of them.
By the way, when this all started, we were in the middle of moving from Blackboard to Canvas, so we had to support 5,500 courses in both environments. We are fully transitioned now with no major issues. Our faculty and students adapted really easily.
We knew good communication would be critical, so we implemented a robust daily communication plan through our normal channels and established Remote Teaching Contacts in schools and regional campuses. This was especially important for getting information to faculty and for hearing from them.
It was really a fine example of a “team effort” all across the Center. Plus, collaboration with our partners in our central Pitt IT group was critical. We worked with them to get a campus Zoom license, for example, and to get technology and network access to students and some faculty who needed it at home.
What is the biggest difference when compared to before COVID-19?
Well, for the most part, we’re not on campus. Most of our staff who provide educational technology consulting, pedagogy consulting and the online course developers are working from home. Some of the staff who do technology installations are on campus, and some media producers are in the studio, but most of the Center is still working from home. From what they tell me, people are really missing the human connection. That is a big difference from the pre-COVID days, and I think when we’ll appreciate each other more in the future.
We have also been laser-focused on supporting teaching, so some research projects or explorations have slowed down so that we can provide more direct support to faculty and students.
We also have a lot more people cross-trained. So for example, because our Testing Center has been closed since March, the staff there were trained to provide front-line support for the Canvas conversion. This kind of cross-training is happening in a number of areas, and consequently, we are building a pretty agile and flexible team.
And how do you expect the role of the Center to look once the pandemic has passed?
Well, I think it will only get bigger. Because we played such a central role in supporting the move to remote teaching, more people know about us now and the services that we provide than ever before, and the demand for our services continues to grow.
Q2: You came to Pitt in 2009 after serving as a Vice President EDUCAUSE for 8 years. Before that, you served in various leadership roles in academic IT organizations at Duquesne, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon. As you think about your academic career path, can you pull out any overarching themes or insights? What advice might you give to others following a non-traditional academic path?
I have had a really fantastic career so far, and have been very fortunate with the opportunities that came along for me. One of the things that helped me a lot was working in different IT domains – I started in enterprise/administrative systems, I did some work in IT architecture and data administration, I worked in teaching/learning/technology, and then I eventually had the opportunity to lead an entire IT organization. That helped me with the big picture stuff and to really understand the strategic role that IT can play. At the same time, I started paying close attention to higher education in general, and developing an awareness of what the key issues were for presidents and provosts. All this prepared me really well for my EDUCAUSE role and for what I do at Pitt.
Building a professional network has been fundamental to any success I’ve had, has led to great jobs for me, and has simply enriched my life. I love our higher ed community. If I were giving advice to people about cultivating careers, I’d say be deliberate about developing your professional network.
But the most important thing for me has been having terrific mentors. In every stage of my career, there were people helping me and teaching me – bosses, peers, faculty, and colleagues I met through EDUCAUSE and other professional organizations. I’d advise others to be open to and to actually seek out mentoring opportunities. Your professional associations have some great resources to help you. Then when you are further along in your career, make sure you are doing some mentoring, too.
Q3: When you think about higher education as a whole, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for our industry? Where are you most excited about the future of colleges and universities, and what is keeping you up at night?
There have been a lot of dire predictions about the future of higher education — and that was before the pandemic. Declining enrollments and serious financial difficulties, especially for smaller tuition-driven institutions, were a problem already. The pandemic has driven up deficits and changed the way we think about learning opportunities. So there will be a lot of problems to solve, but also, a lot of opportunities to embrace. While I think we’ll have a greater appreciation for face-to-face learning and engagement, the expectations about how technology is used to support the learning experience will only grow. This is a good thing. We’ve leapfrogged over years of skepticism and hesitancy about technology. Faculty have tried new things because they’ve had to, and they are willing to try more. On our campus, for example, we’ve been working in immersive technologies for some time, and now we are seeing the interest really grow. I think we’ll see some of the digital transformation that we’ve been waiting for for 20 years. That to me is very exciting.
Honestly, Josh, what keeps me up at night these days is people. I have a terrific staff. Again, I am so fortunate. They work really hard and they have been carrying a big workload during this pandemic. But also they are dealing with challenges of the pandemic — their own illness, family illness, homeschooling children, family members losing jobs, and the general strain that living under stress brings. Then we add the events of January 6, which have us reeling! For some of our staff, I hear the strain in their voices and I see it on their Zoom faces. They are our most important asset, and we need to remain focused on creating an environment where they can be successful under these difficult conditions. Pitt has been an incredibly supportive institution through all of this, offering a lot of resources to faculty, staff and students. But while our people continue to surprise and amaze me, I still worry a lot about them, too, and will do everything I can to help them succeed.