How instructional design was the key to Centennial College’s education continuity during the pandemic

Centennial College in Toronto, Ontario, is one of North America’s leading providers of hospitality training. It boasts a world-class Culinary Arts Learning Lab, including a restaurant, hotel rooms, event centre and industrial kitchens. It even mills its own flour. Suffice to say, its hands-on career training is second to none.

But when last year’s COVID-19 lockdown hit, the College, which until then offered limited online options, found itself with just weeks to translate its famously practical learning experiences into a digital medium before the start of semester.

“Our student population up to that point consisted largely of direct entrants, attending in person,” explains Michelle DeCoste, the Dean of Centennial College’s Centre for Part-time and Online Learning, whose popular program areas also include Engineering, Community Health Services, Communication, Media and Arts, as well as Business. What’s more, half of the College’s students originate from overseas, and it was looking increasingly likely that they wouldn’t be able to travel back and forth any longer. “As lockdown loomed, we knew we needed to find ways to operationalise online. And fast.”

The situation set in motion a wave of digital innovation for the College. At its heart, a digital curriculum created through tightly coordinated instructional design and visual development in partnership with Janison and others.

The Brief

The College’s Executive moved quickly to provide funding to create a bank of high quality, interactive online programs. A total of 23 to be precise; a number that would rapidly grow to 44 as the College found its digital feet. These 44 programs involved the development of approximately 400 courses. Jo Booth, Senior Manager, Part Time & Online Learning, took up a driving role in turning a typical industry-focused curriculum into a schedule of online experiences that would offer students flexibility, and the College assured revenue streams.

The Challenge

Lockdown arrived on 16 March 2020 during the last four weeks of term time, giving Centennial College six weeks to migrate to distance teaching across seven facilities in time for the new term. “The lift was massive,” Jo says.

Despite the time crunch and the enormity of such a shift, the College was adamant no corners would be cut. Every course should deliver high quality and educational value in each learning experience.

A feat of such magnitude needed to be incredibly well coordinated. Centennial set down three rules to govern what was to come:

  • Faculty subject matter experts (SMEs) were to be drivers of their own courses, consulted and trained in the use of education technology tools
  • Content must be easily adaptable to the needs of each individual faculty (there were seven involved in the Janison project)
  • With no available internal human resources to bring to bear, every project was to be full service, including multi-media instructional design, course building, and integration with the College’s learning management system (LMS), D2L Brightspace, a Janison partner.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t advocate for anyone to attempt what we undertook at such short notice; there were more than a few sleepless nights” says Jo. “However, it’s a testimony to our partnership with Janison in designing, developing and operationalising content that together we were able to achieve the seemingly impossible.”

Our Solution

Fewer than three weeks after lockdown, on 5 April, Centennial College formally engaged Janison’s instructional design team in a lightning-fast collaboration intended to outpace course delivery dates for the upcoming semester.

In cementing the partnership, Jo had trawled through and assessed a great number of instructional design options before settling on a collaboration with Janison as one of the project partners, owing to Janison’s deep understanding of the online education space. Its Australia-based location was not a factor under the circumstances. Central to the partnership’s success would be the Janison team’s ability to operate as a true extension of the Centennial team, quickly assimilating college culture, objectives and knowledge.

Winning teachers’ confidence

The fact is that a face-to-face teaching experience doesn’t translate literally into an online classroom. So, there needed to be a huge effort up front to understand how students learn online, and to imagine new ways for them to interact with their peers as though in a physical classroom. The same applied to professors, many of whom were anxious about an entirely different teaching experience.

The Centennial project team placed a significant emphasis on change management, facilitating regular Zoom calls between SMEs and Janison instructional designers to ensure a high level of ownership and comfort. Michelle says: “One of our SMEs who initially struggled with the thought of being on video, received great student feedback on the very thing he feared: his videos. They loved them!”

“The relationship between Janison and our SMEs, in particular instructional designers’ in-depth understanding of their anxiety and stress levels associated with an unexpected change to the status quo, was a huge factor in our ability to keep things moving forward,” adds Jo.

Navigating the hands-on challenge

Representing hands-on experiences in a remote format was a sizeable obstacle. Cooking and baking skills fell into that category. The Janison team worked with Culinary Arts professors to come up with digital experiences that provided equivalent value to attending the learning lab. To meet the deadlines of the first round, the team sourced existing videos, on knife usage for example, to incorporate into courses.

Come the summer months, pandemic restrictions had eased partially so that SMEs were able to go into the campus to record their own videos. “This is where we saw real creativity, in Master Chef-quality, highly engaging productions featuring well-known chefs,” says Jo.

Math for Hospitality presented another challenge in an online space, due to the complex symbols typically taught. Centennial worked with Janison to produce bespoke simulations for demonstrating mathematical principles supporting cooking processes. The partnership introduced a whiteboarding technology.

Technology also came into play for enhancing student assessments. Professors increased providing feedback via video annotation. As the Centennial team has increased in proficiency, so too have the experiential components of courses. The college has also integrated apps such as StoryWorks and makerspaces into content across Arts, Design and Engineering programs, providing hands-on, creative ways for students to design, experiment and build while they’re engaging in learning.

The Result

Undoubtedly the big win was turnaround time. Both Michelle and Jo can still hardly believe that they were able to go from zero to fully online in six weeks with the first round of courses. “Some courses were not finished before we had to publish them, so that we were adding in new content even as students were progressing,” says Jo, who said she has learned a lot during the project’s initial weeks.

“The Janison team was exemplary in coming to the table with a willingness to deeply understand the various learning elements and a dedication to delivering timely solutions. There was never any question that they were 100 per cent there for our SMEs throughout the process,” she adds.

It’s down to the strength of this working relationship, which Jo describes as “open, honest and respectful on both sides” that 44 fourteen-week programs were delivered in a year of lockdown; sixteen of them during the first six weeks!

It’s a stark truth that educational institutions have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis in loss of enrolments. However, Centennial College was able to maintain continuity throughout by introducing new online programs accessible to a global student community. Moreover, it achieved 24% ROI right out of the gate and is on track to achieve 100% over the next four years.

Even more exciting is the trajectory of domestic enrolment growth, which is steadily inclining with the availability of online course options. “We expected our international student base to increase. The growth of domestic enrolments has been a pleasant surprise,” says Michelle.

Looking back, I wouldn’t advocate for anyone to attempt what we undertook at such short notice; there were more than a few sleepless nights. However, it’s a testimony to our partnership with Janison in designing, developing and operationalising content that together we were able to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Jo Booth, Centennial College Senior Manager, Part Time & Online Learning

The Roadmap

With new learning paths defined, a world of opportunities and additional revenue streams has opened. Centennial College is excited about the future of education, in which it imagines a hybrid of digital and physical learning experiences co-existing. A new development in immigration guidelines from the Immigration, Refugee & Citizenship Canada (IRCC) now enables international students to qualify for a post graduate work permit on the basis of education completed online versus on the ground. This throws the College’s doors wide open to a broader international student community.

“These are exciting times,” says Michelle. “And we couldn’t imagine being in the fortunate position we find ourselves in today without Janison’s partnership.”

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Statistics and Key Milestones

600

hours of course material transitioned to a virtual learning environment

16

fourteen-week courses delivered in six weeks

24%

ROI upon launch

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