Provost to Senate: OWL blame lands on me

University Senate heard from several Western administrators who accepted responsibility and apologized for an oversight that occurred this summer when past course content was removed from OWL, the university’s course-management system.

“We didn’t see it coming – no one in a leadership position did. Nobody was trying to do something awful. This was a pear-shaped affair; it went sideways,” Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), told members of Senate during its regular meeting last week.

“It was a mistake; I’ve apologized for the mistake and I’ve accepted responsibility. We’ve found a solution, which is students can go to the professors (for lost content). It’s not lost; it’s just down and you can’t get access to it.”

In August, students who were previously enrolled in classes at Western lost access to their past OWL course content with no warning from instructors or the university. Up until that point, students could access the content, such as lecture notes, essays and marks, after their courses wrapped up.

Students were quick to speak up and voice their concerns, noting they no longer had access to materials they could potentially need further in their studies.

Deakin issued a memo shortly after noting the university would be reverting back to its initial practice of removing content from OWL 60 days after final grades were issued for the course. OWL was never intended to be used as an archive for course materials, she explained.

Removal of OWL content was not due to the court outcome of Access Copyright vs. York University, the memo explained. In the past, Western’s practice of removing course material served to address matters related to copyright and teaching considerations.

“Before OWL, WebCT had the capacity to take down materials 60 days after grades were submitted. That’s the way it worked at Western,” Deakin told Senators. “It was practice. It was seen then as best practice with respect to copyright.

“We did away with WebCT and we got OWL, which did not have the provision to do an auto take-down the way WebCT had done. So, it became a manual process and, according to the people in WTS (Western Technology Services), a labour-intensive process that didn’t become regularized as an annual event because of the human resources involved,” she explained.

“When something (not taking down material) is in place for three years, it’s seen as the university’s practice – I absolutely get that. In the background, because this was a deficiency in the system, people were working on a solution. But that was the practice (to take content down). Our practice only changed because we didn’t have the technical capacity to continue it.”

The mass wipe in OWL was seen as a technical solution in the summer, Deakin added. It was a technical fix that WTS implemented, not anticipating a need for a communication strategy. It was simply a “flip of a switch” to address what was understood as a system deficiency by those working to address the issue.

“We didn’t have a communication strategy because it kind of came out of the blue. I apologized in the memo; I apologize to Senate,” Deakin continued.

“If we had to do this again, would we do it this way? Of course not. It wasn’t orchestrated. It was a mistake that rolled out the way it did, but it remains.”

Going forward, OWL will not store content for more than 60 days following the completion of a course. Students who wish to retrieve past materials can ask their professors for access.

“What we want to get rid of is the notion that (OWL) will be an archival system. It’s meant to be an active platform for teaching and learning; it’s not meant to be a replacement for your hard drive or the Cloud,” Deakin said.

“We will return to the best practice of taking information down 60 days after course grades have been submitted.”

Sergio Rodriguez, WTS Director of Client Services, echoed Deakin’s apology, noting his unit will keep this issue in mind going forward.

“The OWL team is part of my portfolio and I fully own and apologize for the oversight in communication. We are in the process of scheduling a review of the entire thing. We will do better in terms of communication in the future,” he said.

Administration will be working with the Teaching Support Centre, the Associate Deans (Academic) and Western Libraries going forward in looking at any further developments on OWL, added Ruban Chelladurai, Associate VP (Planning, Budgeting & IT).