Leadership Conversations: Brock University

by in CustomerCase Study, Industry, People

Headshot of Jon Winterbottom
Jon Winterbottom, Video Conferencing Technologist for Brock University

Asked about the difference between school and life, American author Tom Bodett once remarked, “in school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Needless to say, COVID-19 has resulted in plenty of lessons and considerably learning for educators, students and parents alike.

Given the scale and global impact, it’s difficult to overstate the challenges introduced by the coronavirus across the world of higher education. In 2017, a research study (pdf) published by UNESCO found that the number of students globally enrolled in a public or private university or college had doubled since 2000 to more than 200 million. A subsequent study published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2019, found that nearly 20 million students were expected to attend colleges and universities across North America in the Fall 2019 semester with another 3.7 million students expected to graduate from high school during the 2019 – 2020 firm.

As the entire world wrestles with how to best translate traditional classroom experiences to remote learning environments. hundreds of universities and colleges are racing to rapidly evolve curriculum to provide students a variety of virtual classes and access to professors, who, in turn, are now conducting lectures and office hours remotely to students spread around the world.

To get a firsthand account of this transition, we spoke with Jon Winterbottom, video conferencing technologist for Brock University. Located in Canada just a few miles from Niagara Falls, Brock University boasts some of the region’s most iconic scenery. With a student population of nearly 20,000 and a faculty of more than 600 educators and staff, the university’s typically bustling campus has been closed to the general public since early March, and usual spring activities — including spring term course work and campus tours — have been moved online using video collaboration services like Microsoft Teams and Lifesize.

Mr. Winterbottom shared with us how these changes have impacted Brock’s staff and how cloud technologies have made it possible for universities to continue offering educational services during the health crisis.

 

Transcript  

Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity

John Yarbrough: 
Hi everybody, it’s John from Lifesize. I’m here again for another Leadership Conversation, and with me today I have a very special guest, Jon Winterbottom from Brock University. John, how you doing? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Good. How are you doing? 

John Yarbrough: 
I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. I’ve got to start by asking you — where is this lovely scenery that I am finding you in today? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
I don’t know if you’re talking about the painting behind me, but that was Dominican Republic, but I’m just in my house in St. Catherine’s, Ontario hoping my kids won’t jump through the door from the basement. 

John Yarbrough: 
I may have a five-year-old join us some point this conversation as well. How are things in Ontario these days? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Pretty good. We’re managing, considering the circumstances, but we’re dealing with what we’re dealing with, right? 

John Yarbrough: 

Right. I think that’s true for many people right now. In preparation for our conversation, I did a little digging on your background, and the first thing that caught my eye is that you have been with Brock University for nearly 19 years. It looked like 19 years as of July this summer sometime. What is it that’s so compelling about Brock University that’s kept you there for so long? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Well, it’s a real community. Some of the people that I’ve worked with, I’ve been with for almost half my life. So, obviously, if I didn’t enjoy where I am, I wouldn’t be there, right? I started in high school. I was doing a co-op in high school at Brock, and I managed to get a position there not too long after high school and I love working there. 

John Yarbrough: 
As someone who is still living in the town where they went to college, I definitely understand the pull of staying close to a university that you love. Tell me a little bit more about your role. What is it that you do specifically at Brock University? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
My title at Brock is the Video Conferencing Technologist. I work in the Information Technology services department; part of the infrastructure is audio/visual — setting up classroom technology. Specifically, I take care of video collaboration, all the different tools that people use, and I’m the administrator for our Lifesize accounts at Brock.
 
John Yarbrough: 
Going back a little bit, can you tell me about what a day in your life would have looked like maybe in the fall of last year? What would some of your day-to-day responsibilities have been? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
My job requires a lot of face-to-face interaction — doing physical setups in rooms, in our conference rooms and things like that. I interact with a lot of people on a daily basis, setting up events for people. So, obviously it’s quite a drastic change from doing that to being at home. I can’t just run to somebody’s office to go and fix something. [It requires] more remote collaboration.
 
John Yarbrough: 
And were you using video in any type of scalable way at the university, either for educators to speak to students or for internal communication? What did that look like six months ago? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Yeah, I mean we use it for a mixture of things. Primarily we use Lifesize for masters and PhD defenses where we have to bring in external members to thesis defenses, experts in different fields. We do use it for classes and things of that nature — like virtual office hours, a lot of faculty use it for that. It was being used heavily back then, and, of course, that’s changed quite a bit now. 

John Yarbrough: 
I skipped over this at the top of the call; tell me a little more about the university itself. How large is the student body? How many educators are you and your team supporting? What should we know about Brock University at large? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
I support the entire faculty and staff. We have a shared resource with our Lifesize account where everybody at the university can use it. We have just under 20,000 students at Brock. We’re located in the Niagara region, so I usually say we’re about 15 minutes away from Niagara Falls and just under an hour and a half drive from Toronto. 

John Yarbrough: 
And it’s still cold this time of year, I imagine. 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Well the past few days it’s been cold, but it’s been hit and miss; sometimes it’s been actually pretty nice. The other thing that’s unique about Brock is we’re one of the few universities that’s located at UNESCO biosphere reserve, right on the escarpment in between St. Catherine’s, [Ontario] and Thorold. The escarpment goes all the way from Niagara Falls up North to Georgian Bay. It’s a pretty unique ecosystem that we’re in.
 
John Yarbrough: 
It sounds like a very beautiful part of Canada. Part of the reason for today’s conversation is to talk about how the coronavirus is impacting universities. There’s obviously been a tremendous amount of media coverage of the significant changes that have been made both with K-12 primary schools and virtually every higher education university as well. Tell us about what that looked like at Brock University. When was the decision made to stop in-person classes and to shift the way that the university operates? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Somewhere around March 12th or 13th we announced we were ending face-to-face classes. Really quickly after that, we started developing a plan to resume the [school] term by pushing everything to an online component. 

We had just over a week — maybe eight or nine days — for faculty to move their classes in some way, shape or form to an online environment, whether that was video-based or just text-based with slides in a learning management system, also communication with students, whether that’d be with chat or video. It was a tall order. I had some concerns about it, making sure everything was going to go well, but I’ve been actually quite happy with the way things have gone. It’s been pretty smooth, to be honest with you. 

John Yarbrough: 
Tell me about that morning when you get the call. Did you expect that something was going to happen? Were you already aware that this change was going to be made, or did you get a phone call and realize that your day to day, your work was going to be a very urgent all of the sudden? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
There was an email sent out to all of us saying that the university had ended face-to-face classes. And then, like I said, not too long after that they announced it was going to be online. They gave us a week to offer some tools for different faculty to use. I want to say that I was cool as a cucumber, but I wasn’t. It was pretty stressful. We have a few tools that people can use but managing that on a large scale was a little worrisome. But as I mentioned, it’s actually gone relatively smoothly. 

John Yarbrough: 
One thing you mentioned to me before we started recording today’s call is that you have a relatively small team and it’s represented in your title, you’re the video conferencing technologist. You are the guy that I would imagine most of your colleagues look to as the subject matter expert. 

When all in person communication now becomes what we’re doing today, it’s video-based communication, how do you accommodate now getting inbound requests from dozens if not hundreds of more people than you would have otherwise been speaking to about these technologies? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Yeah, it’s a lot of emails in my inbox, I’ll give you that. In our A/V department, there’s about six of us. As part of IT, we’re a larger organization, but specifically with Lifesize, I’m the go-to person. We do have an email that can filter down to all of us in our A/V department, but just because I had been dealing with all different faculty, they know that I’m the person that they need to contact. I was getting a lot of direct emails on how to use Lifesize, how to start using it, things like that. You have to help where you can. 

John Yarbrough: 
That’s a great attitude. I’m curious if you can speak about what the conversations have been like with educators. Did you get the sense that people were comfortable with these technologies and had an idea for how they were going to translate coursework, or translate their jobs, to remote communication? What has that interaction been like for you? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
I mean the attitude has been pretty good. I kind of expected there to be some frustration, not knowing what to do. A lot of people here have been pretty good about it and wanting to learn how they can continue on with their classes. I mean, you can’t just end the term, right? Students have to either graduate or finish off their course. I’m sure all felt a responsibility to try and make do with what we had. 

John Yarbrough: 
Taking a step back from video, as part of the leadership team that’s making these decisions for an entire organization serving a student body population of 20,000 — a very large number of people — what have been some of the guiding principles and goals for the university itself about how to continue providing services? How does the university think about fulfilling its promise to the student body population? What are some of the things that have been guiding your decisions and how you’ve approached solving some of these technology challenges? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Our key has been, it’s all about the student and making sure the students have a satisfactory rest of the term. So that’s where we start with all our goals. We need to make the experience something positive, even though we’re dealing with some issues. 

John Yarbrough: 
If I remember correctly, you’re just finishing your fall term, and you’re now just starting your spring term. What happens after that? What is the go-forward plans based on current expectations? What is the assumption about what changes, and what do you think returns to normal later this year? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
Just after finishing the term, it has died down a little bit. I can actually go through some of the emails that I’ve missed. Now we’re ramping up for the spring term. It’s already been committed to going online, the summer term as well. Fall is up in the air. We don’t know how fall’s going to work out right now. But we’ve got a pretty good leap ahead of us being able to finish off the term using Lifesize and different tools. We’re hoping there’ll be some familiarity at this point now with the different services that we offer. It’ll be a little bit less of a learning curve for people. But I’m trying to clear out my inbox for more emails to come in. 

John Yarbrough: 
I bet. It’s the calm before the storm. What can you share about the usage of Lifesize, specifically comparing the fall semester to current usage?

Jon Winterbottom: 
Usage is always growing year over year. We’re in the 15-30 percent growth range year over year. We’re always increasing video traffic. 

When the university shut down face-to-face classes, we went from maybe a hundred calls a day to easily a thousand calls a day. On several days throughout March we had about 2000 [video] calls a day. We sort of skyrocketed. I looked at some of the charts, and it was just a straight line up. It was really surprising the few calls that I got from people having issues; it was actually really impressive that we’re able to do what we did. 

I’m thinking, a few years back when we had on-premise [video] solutions, we’d never be able to do what we’ve done this semester, with servers on campus being overloaded and things like that, having a limited amount of capacity. I’m really glad we switched to a cloud-based infrastructure with the tools that we have because we would have been in trouble. 

John Yarbrough: 
I’m glad you made that change as well. Before I get you out of here, a couple of final questions. What lessons have you learned over the last several weeks going through this unprecedented change that’s impacting all of us? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
People are pretty resilient. I’ve seen that with some of the faculty and staff that I dealt with. You go from having everyone on campus to everyone dealing with their own network connections, the hardware that they have at home, things like that. It’s not always perfect, but people are willing to make it work or do their best to try and get things working. I’m committed to making things successful. That’s what I learned. It’s been going pretty smoothly, and people are pretty accommodating with the circumstances. 

John Yarbrough: 
For other universities or other organizations that are going through similar challenges right now, or perhaps trying to make longer term plans for the summer term or into the fall, what advice would you offer to them based on your experience? 

Jon Winterbottom: 
To take a deep breath. That’s all I can say. Do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt. 

John Yarbrough: 
Well John, thank you so much for the time today. We really appreciate it, and best of luck to you and your entire team, both through your spring semester and as you get into the summer.

Jon Winterbottom: 
Thank you. Thanks for having me.