Education evolution moves faculty to new levels

Paul Mayne // Western News file photoIn less than a decade, Dean Vicki Schwean and her colleagues have transformed the Faculty of Education, overseeing its evolution from a “teacher’s college” into a fully formed, financially autonomous research faculty that offers innovative academic and professional training in Canada and beyond.

Vicki Schwean is comfortable outside the box and more than comfortable with change – two qualities the Faculty of Education Dean sees as integral to leadership, particularly in uncertain times. They are also two qualities she has needed to rely on since being appointed in 2011.

In less than a decade, Schwean and her colleagues have transformed the Faculty of Education, overseeing its evolution from a “teacher’s college” into a fully formed, financially autonomous research faculty that offers innovative academic and professional training in Canada and beyond.

Just this week, the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children announced it has received $2.088 million to develop training for federally regulated workers to recognize and respond to domestic violence in the workplace. The funding is provided by the Government of Canada’s Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Fund.

The training is in response to the government amendments to the Canada Labour Code Bill C-65, which recognizes domestic violence as a workplace hazard and requires employer and employee training concerning domestic violence.

For Schwean and her colleagues, the announcement is just the latest example of a truth they have known for some time: “We’re not the same place anymore.”

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In her previous role as vice-dean at the University of Calgary, Schwean was in charge of finances and saw the institution through “tough times and good times and figured out how to get through.” Once she landed at Western, her financial astuteness and conceptual thinking kicked into high gear.

“When I came here, the graduate and research office was one little room; the teacher education program was the fundamental foundation for the faculty. The faculty did not have substantive reserves; it lived from year to year,” she said. “Major cuts were coming to the teacher education program. So, I started to run, realizing if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

“As a psychologist, I wanted to see us celebrate all aspects of study and how they apply to children. And we’ve expanded quite marketably.”

The first thing Schwean did was introduce online programs unavailable elsewhere in Canada. To do that, she built a new technology unit to support delivery of online education. The move wasn’t universally popular among her colleagues, she said. But the expansion grew and funding trickled in.

The faculty’s graduate program enrollment has increased from 200 to roughly 2,000 students, “a massive growth” that allowed Schwean to do what is important for any faculty on campus – establish a strong research enterprise.

“We started to put considerable emphasis on research. We are the top SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) faculty in terms of funding, and that has come from all directions because we provide great support. We have six approved research centres; we are being named a signature area because of our work in child and youth,” she said.

“I pushed the agenda really hard to be something different. We opened a Child and Youth Development Clinic and it’s just buzzing in there. We offer internships and practicums for students from five different faculties. We opened the The Mary J. Wright Research and Education Centre at Merrymount and that offers training to students, too, but more importantly, services to disenfranchised children and families in our community. We have a Centre for School Mental Health and it is hugely funded and providing services and knowledge to children across Canada – particularly Indigenous children.”

Through it all, Schwean felt it was fundamentally important the faculty has social justice at the groundwork of its offerings so that students and faculty work with those who are least able to access the things their families need. The faculty will soon be opening a new Science of Learning Centre that Schwean hopes to see located in high-poverty schools. The provincial government recently announced $5 million in funding for Education to establish a centre for early childhood education.

“We are probably the strongest unit in the country in terms of the emphasis we have placed on children and youth. I don’t know where to stop and start anymore. We’ve evolved and we aren’t stopping.”

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FACULTY OF EDUCATION RESEARCH CENTRES

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The faculty has built upon its academic programs, offering an EdD as well as a PhD. The former has seen high enrollment, despite being delivered online. It is recognized by the Carnegie Foundation and continues to grow.

Education has likewise turned its attention to international programming. The Office of Global Initiatives will formally open in spring. What started as the Western English Language Centre, offering English as a second language instruction to international students, continues to grow, she explained.

“Now we need to enter the international market with our academic programs; we are not meeting demand. We have one international program in house; we are developing another one for teacher education and launching three programs internationally in the next year,” Schwean said.

Programming in applied behavioural analysis is also increasingly in demand and in need of growth, designed to support children with conditions like autism.

The faculty is committed to much more, including Indigenous education, and hopes to take part in strategic hiring that will help establish a new cluster dedicated to just that. The Indigenous community has indicated education has played a significant role in destroying Indigenous visibility and culture and the faculty hopes to provide programing, and perhaps even house a Canada Research Chair, that will help to establish and rebuild connections with Indigenous communities and use education as a means of reconciliation in society.

In 2015, Schwean was re-appointed to a second term as Dean, through Aug. 31, 2022.

At the time, Janice Deakin, Western’s Provost & Vice-President (Academic), applauded the role Schwean played in leading the faculty’s through “an extraordinary series of policy directives initiated by the province early in her first term that resulted in significant programmatic and fiscal challenges for the faculty, which, in turn, necessitated a period of rapid and transformative change.”

Deakin continued, “The Faculty of Education today finds itself in a strong position bolstered by the creation of several new and innovative graduate education programs and an impressive record of success in attracting research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.”

More than three years later, the faculty is continuing to evolve.

“We’ve done a lot – not because everybody loved everything but because they were the right things to do,” Schwean said. “What drives the agenda for most of our faculty is the notion of social justice and equity – not just saying it, but doing it. Teacher education is only one part of who we are. It’s an important part but only one part. We’re doing good things and I’m proud of us.”

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Juan-Luis Suarez, Associate Vice-President (Research), applauds the evolution of the faculty, noting it shows a forward-thinking path for the university.

“They’ve done very well. They gained financial autonomy for the faculty which was key. They have a focus on research and model of something that is working very well on the national and international level – Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children. Showing how that model can work has been very useful for them in developing other centres and institutes,” he said.

Education’s evolution means Western is that much closer to fulfilling the mission of becoming a top-tier, research-intensive university, he added. In order to do that, the institution needs to have sustained efforts across all faculties with researchers becoming leaders in their fields. Education has been able to accomplish both – increasing funding input in tandem with research output.

Since 2009, the Faculty of Education has seen its research awards grow from slightly more than $500,000 to a high of more than $11 million last year. The faculty has garnered more than $32 million in a decade, with most of that coming in the last five years, according to data provided by Research Western.

Since 2015, in particular, Education has seen an increase in the number of publications, number of regions of the world that have taken up the research produced in Education and average citation impact (which is now 1.46, almost one and a half times the world average). According to Google Scholar, the overall impact of some researchers, like Peter Jaffe (11,058 citations) and Wayne Martino (7,942 citations), is considerable.

Suarez said he expects “a continuous increase in academic production as the impact of the hires of the last few years is fully felt.”

In addition, faculty members do a tremendous amount of work through policy reports and direct community-based research. That is data not directly reflected in journal publications. “Nevertheless, real impact comes from those partnerships and, in a sense, they are more impactful than many publication,” Suarez said.

“It’s becoming a super-strong research faculty. The impact they have is amazing; they work with the board, schools, legislation, and Canadian labour. They are maximizing impact and gaining efficiency in partnerships with different groups and organizations; that is key to developing research based on collaboration.”

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All of these changes and developments have not come without faculty and institutional pushbacks, she added. But that hasn’t tampered Schwean’s vison.

“You don’t always get everybody on board. That’s a great piece of advice for anyone in a leadership role. What you look for are individuals who embrace what it is you are proposing, or they are proposing, because it isn’t always me who proposes something. Sometimes it’s other individuals and I support them in their quest. You take those champions and you go from there,” she said.

“When I introduced online programs, for instance, there was opposition. No question about it. It was a radical change for Western and I had as much pushback from Western as I did from my own faculty. There were many sleepless nights; there were lost tempers.

“We have this vision that a great leader never has to fight for things, but, by god, you do, you really do, and it wears you out. And I’m still not finished fighting. We still have things in mind that are radically different from things offered at Western; it won’t be easy getting them through. But when people start to see the benefits that accrue, you get support. I don’t pay a lot of attention to criticism – we work to succeed.”