Executive Director’s Report – October 31, 2021

Updated: Mar 24

As we build relationships between and across professional and disciplinary spaces, we have engaged in strategic visioning exercises that will help guide the next phase of the inter-institutional collaboration in the longer term. Striking a balance between boldness and sustainability, the challenges will be to remain nimble while also building in the governance and infrastructure necessary to scale up, across, and deep.

In the last several months the 16 Maple League communities of practice have strengthened relationships; in many cases they have identified answers to the guiding questions of the consortium, which are “what can we do together that we cannot do on our own” and “how does working together help improve what we are doing on our own campuses.” Several collaborative tables have been engaged in strategic visioning where they’ve identified interventions that would help them achieve the objectives of the individual institutions. You will see evidence of many of these projects, proposals, and conversations in the following pages.

What this has illuminated for me is the importance of communicating the fundamental difference between Maple League Signature Initiatives and Maple League-supported projects.

Maple League Signature Initiatives:

  • Maple League Courses

  • Online Learning and Technology Consultants (OLTC)

  • The Virtual Maple League Teaching and Learning Centre (VMLTLC) which oversees programming & professional development (Better together series, the book club, the micro-certificate, and innovative educational leadership spotlights

  • 3M Mentorship Network and Resources for faculty and students

  • Communication and Branding (website, social media, thought pieces, reports, public facing communications, etc. )

ML Supported Projects:

  • Three dedicated committees

  • 16 Communities of Practice

  • Racial Justice Symposium

  • International Offices Grant from Universities Canada

  • Student Affairs joint grant proposal on supporting mental health

  • The Path, a social enterprise and student entrepreneurship incubator

These are important distinctions because the consortium itself is small, animated by a cluster of consultants working on short term contracts and either partially or fully funded through external grants: these consultants include my role as the Executive Director, Lauren Boutlbee as the Communications and Advancement Lead, Neil Silcox in the role of Faculty Excellence Lead, and Matthew Dunleavy as OLTC Project Manager. Each one is responsible for a particular portfolio tied to the strategic vision of the Maple League, and have one-year contracts tied to clear deliverables. The communities of practice work together to find convergences, and the ML supports these with some administrative and logistics help, as well as networking and connecting people across and beyond the institutions.

I wrote a chapter for a forthcoming publication with Dr. David Graham; in this piece we explore how our respective experiences taught us some hard lessons about the difficulty of constructing and maintaining successful large-scale collaborative initiatives in today’s Canadian university context. We write, “As Tom Fletcher has recently written, “the lockdowns exposed a greater truth . . . that had already been introducing itself pre-Covid: namely, that an industrial education model created in the 19th Century and updated for the mass market of the 20th Century is no longer delivering in the 21st” (Fletcher 2021). The problems we face are systemic and cultural as much as they are technological and pedagogical: seldom spoken and deeply hidden, they rest on a bedrock of traditional assumptions about the purpose, value, and meaning of higher learning in today’s society. They are thus powerfully resistant to change, and play a disproportionate role in the success or failure of projects that aim to operate on a large scale. We continue to believe that they can be identified, diagnosed, and remedied: to do so, however, will require universities to take collaborative learning design far more seriously and consciously than they have done, and to create and implement incentives that will foster rather than hinder truly collaborative technologically-mediated teaching and learning work.”

This work encouraged me to identify foundational design principles informing the Maple League as an inter-institutional collaboration: these include a focus on building communities of practice, leveraging pre-existing and embedded relationships, building in multiple delivery points in programming, facilitating opportunities for co-design and internal community engagement, and securing support at all levels from grassroots through senior leadership.

Communities of Practice (CoP): “Communities of practice often focus on sharing best practices and creating new knowledge to advance a domain of professional practice” (Gabriela & Gray, 2018: 114). Participant incentives included the fact that “CoPs support co-productive research and practice in pursuing social goals through communities of practice” (ibid.: 114). Furthermore, CoPs are a useful frame for understanding and interrogating equitable access to community supported collaborative learning (ibid.:115).

Embedded relationships: Lynn Taylor and her colleagues (2021) have explored the cultivation of integrated networks of practice, and in particular, the important role of hubs within networks. They define these as “individuals or groups that energize cross-connections, improve knowledge, enhance learning across small clusters of expertise, and play critical roles in building and sustaining robust integrated networks” (1).

Multi-pronged approach: Despite sharing similar institutional sizes and profiles, the faculty, staff, and students working and learning in these four universities differ based on position, discipline, age and stage, intersectionality, and a host of other factors. Offering a combination of pedagogical triage, individualized attention, and disciplinary-focussed support reached faculty who did not engage regularly in pre-pandemic professional development related to pedagogy and technology.

Consultation and Co-design: In this approach, consultation and co-design have been fundamental to the process of ongoing program assessment and adaptation. Ameijde, Nelson, Billsberry, and van Meurs (2009) suggest that distributed leadership, characterized as “mechanisms through which diverse individuals contribute to the process of leadership in shaping collective action” (765), is the most effective for engaging in meaningful and high impact culture change. As well, they emphasize that “knowledge work is becoming increasingly team-based and requires the coordination and integration of the expertise of diverse professionals from dispersed fields” (Ameijde et al, 2009. P. 767).

Convergence of the grassroots and senior leadership: Kezar (2012) frames the interaction between bottom-up leadership and top down leadership as “convergence”, which she defines as joining efforts between grassroots and individuals in positions of authority. Convergence can flow in either direction; it usually leads to more complex solutions and ideas, more buy-in, more energy and enthusiasm, more consensus, breadth and depth of expertise, etc (726). Kezar concludes that the dynamics of convergence leads to the most successful institutional culture change in higher education organizations and that grassroots movements can also have the potential outcome of deeper and more transformational change within a shorter timeframe and can build the leadership capacity of the organization (cf. Seymour, 1996; Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2003). Due to shifts in administrative roles, personnel changes, and different institutional mandates and strategic visions, these relationships are always evolving as individuals move in and out of the institutions. Ongoing challenges include navigating four governance structures, on-boarding new and interim senior administrators, and ensuring that communication moves across silos.

Timelines and Sustainability: Finally, the most effective factor in building sustainable systems is transformation over time. The Maple League was conceived as part of a longer-term initiative designed to grow over time in order to support institutional resilience and high quality, purposeful education. Deep culture change takes time. Jeffrey Hennessy (2020) outlines deep culture as “the collective unconscious of the organization that has been transmitted throughout its history – essentially its operating system.” It takes time to chart and navigate even one institution’s deep culture: this in turn greatly increases the challenge of inter-institutional collaborations, in which many deep cultures interact and collide. Indeed, Cox argues that “the length of time needed for an institution to show a cultural change as a result of the community approach is at least 5 years. Other obstacles include cost, participants’ time commitment, changes in administration, and the isolated nature of faculty life of the group structure of the community experience is not for everyone (Cox, 2001: 73)

This is not for the faint of heart. However, in managing the design and delivery of an academic consortium, we remain curious and creative. This bold intervention is – at its heart –a fascinating research question that has yielded rich insights into how institutional cultures are organized, how value circulates, and where change is implemented. As a learner-leader I am focussed on getting it right rather than being right. We model daring leadership (cf. Brené Brown in Daring to Lead) – which is courageous because it is vulnerable, strong because it is messy, and values a wide range of thought partners, impact players, and innovators. In Brené Brown’s words, “here’s to being awkward, brave and kind” together.

~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities


ML October Report 2021
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