Giving People Time to Deal with Change

Our team has spent over a year preparing for the conversion from Blackboard to Sakai (something I haven’t talked about here too much because we hadn’t told Blackboard we were leaving until recently). We’ve seen a significant amount of resistance to the conversion from several of our long-time facilitators, and it’s been a struggle to figure out how to ease them through this transition. Some of our facilitators have been extremely stressed out about the change; one person described a conversation as “talking [the instructor] down from her ledge of terror.”

It’s really hard for me to understand that level of stress with technology. It’s hard for me to fathom being so terrified of changing software that I was driven to making death threats. Honestly, I’m not quite sure how to deal with that intensity of emotional resistance to change. Fortunately, I’ve seen most of this stress from a distance. I lurked in the forums to see what questions were raised and how the discussions went, but I had only limited direct interaction with the facilitators. The woman who did facilitate the most emotionally intense field test is an excellent instructor with a lot of experience, who thankfully handled the distress much more expertly than I would have.

In spite of the stress and resistance, by the end of the field tests attitudes were much more positive towards Sakai. Even some of the most recalcitrant participants acknowledged that some things will be easier for them now than in Blackboard and that Sakai opens up some new possibilities. While I’d love to say that this change of heart is because I designed such a fabulous course, I think a lot of it has to do with simply allowing people enough time to get comfortable on their own terms. For a few individuals, it took almost no time at all; I remember one person in the usability testing who had never used any LMS before but was able to complete all the tasks in Sakai quickly and without any instruction. For others, it took several weeks and a lot of time in practice courses trying things out with coaches available to help before their confidence improved. I expect some people still aren’t completely comfortable yet, and probably won’t be until they’ve completed their first course.

Our facilitator training included multiple stages spread out over several weeks.

  • Self-paced tutorials and self-assessments focusing on the technical skills (built in Captivate)
  • A 2-hour webinar with the vendor that hosts our LMS, providing an overview of how everything fits together and allowing people a chance to ask questions about procedures and policies
  • Live practice courses with a list of common facilitator tasks to complete, including grading assignments from dummy student accounts
  • Mentors available for support during and after the practice courses
  • Mentors received separate training, and many participated in the field test of the training that will be used for new instructors in the future

When we built this, we really were aiming for giving people multiple opportunities to practice the skills and to learn in different ways. We weren’t thinking about the change management benefit of spreading out the training over several weeks to give people that time to accept and adapt to the new environment. It has ended up giving us that advantage though. If I were planning something like this again, I would definitely work to space out the training, both for the learning benefits and for the change management ones.

If you’ve done a major project like this, how much resistance to change did you encounter? How did you address it? Did it get easier with time, or has the resistance just continued?

8 thoughts on “Giving People Time to Deal with Change

  1. Happily, this will already be in place. We’re switching our technical support to a vendor with experience supporting Sakai. I haven’t interacted with them directly myself, but everything I’ve heard sounds promising. Students (and facilitators) will have a 24/7 number to call for help.

    Advertising that as clearly as possible (and in multiple places) so the number is easy to find is a good plan though. We can probably do more to make it easy to find the number and support website. That’s an easy fix, and an excellent idea.

  2. Christy, one thing to think about is what you can do NOW, as the system is implemented in terms of support for your facilitators and students as they learn the new system. By this I mean, what is the system for troubleshooting student problems and how has this been conveyed to the facilitators.

    A real cause for concern I found was that my ability as a facilitator was perceived as inferior because of my lack of ability to help troubleshoot technical problems. As the front line person, whenever students had technical problems, they contacted me first. As our system did not have a “person” we could contact (just a “help desk” initially), all frustration seemed to be heeped on me and the other instructors. I think, had there been a better structure to trouble shoot student problems (with more interaction between the help desk and the instructor–i.e. help desk contacts instructor when student has a problem to help communicate the problem and collect data from the instructor) and instructors kept in the loop, instructors might have fared better. Also, students needed to know (through the help desk) that the help desk would handle the problem, not the facilitator.

  3. How folk think about/(even theorise) change is important. Most change theory is … well… not worth extinguishing if it was on fire.

  4. Fear is a big part of it, and that fear of lack of control is a big issue.

    We actually did at least some of that preemptive communication, starting about 6 months ago. We probably could have done more of that, but there’s a lot of resistance to doing any sort of formal change management work. We were also hampered by the fact that we had to keep things quiet enough that Blackboard didn’t know we were leaving at the end of the contract. That shouldn’t have affected our ability to talk to the facilitators, but it did. At least people can get some of the communication now; we’re spending 2 months doing weekly posts on our team blog walking people through the whole process.

  5. In my view, the level of stress you refer to is attributable to fear. As human adults, it is very important to us to feel that we have some measure of control over our circumstances. Any time we are not, all our instincts kick in. We hate to feel helpless. Remember the need to feel safe is very primal! A change of systems or processes often leaves people feeling ‘done to’.

    Think of the times you have seen parents re-united with kids who have gotten lost in shopping malls – something I saw countless times during one of my contracts. Most times, the parents exhibit anger – shouting at the poor kid who has (you would think) experienced enough trauma for one day. This, too, is a fear response.

    Because you are involved in the change, you are not threatened by it.

    As you say, it is important to give people time to deal with the change. But I would suggest that pre-emptive measures need to be taken, too (too late in your situation, of course). A transparent, proactive comms programme is a huge help here – with people being kept in the loop as to what is being planned, what the milestones are, what the implications are for them, what progress is being made, what hiccups have been encountered, how these have impacted the rollout, how they have been/will be overcome.

    It also helps if there is a safety net of superusers and clear instructions as to how to get hold of them. If necessary, a day or two’s floorwalking by the superusers goes a long way. In the past, I have used my UAT team to play this role.

  6. That’s a good point about change versus new; it is much more complex when everyone starts from a different place. We have the advantage of facilitators not needing to create their own courses in the LMS though, so they don’t have to learn all the tools and how we develop is more standardized. They need to know how to grade and interact with students in the forums and other tools, but they don’t have to know how to create tests or add content.

    We do separate the new facilitators from the existing ones; new facilitators will get a 5-week training course that teaches the technical aspects of the LMS from scratch plus lots of focus on communication and community in online learning. We’ve done the field test for that in the new LMS, but haven’t taught it with a new group yet. Those participants won’t go through all the change training our existing facilitators are completing now.

    Facilitators have about 2 months to learn the new system before courses go live in January. Right now they have a couple of weeks with their practice courses and mentors while we’re finishing up conversions. Mentors started about a month earlier than the other facilitators so they had a “head start,” plus many got extra reinforcement in the pilot for the new facilitator training. Hopefully 2 months will be enough for all the rest of the facilitators.

  7. I have been involved in two changes at different universities: one successful, the other one not. First, I think the main reason for success was the mentor relationship. The most recent change I went through, there was very little tailored training for the individual need.

    Changing the software is different than implementing a new system. A new system requires that everyone needs training from ground zero. As such, there can be standard training for all because most are novices. Changing systems (software) is much more complex as instructors have developed their own style which may differ from other “advanced” instructors and novices to the system/elearning. The unsuccessful change I had to go through started with a basic training course which was totally useless, as I did not use many of the features they were showing us (i.e. testing and quiz making). Also, the training assumed I did not know anything about elearning when in fact, I just didn’t know anything about the system.

    I am curious though. How much time was given the facilitators to work on testing out the different features of the software before a course was converted and went live? I was given a month (along with other teaching duties I had to keep up) in the unsuccessful model, but 3 months (3 workshops spread out to one a month). You are right, the extra time does make a difference.

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