January 18, 2016

Brenda Lamb: Getting People Together and Taking Risks

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

For close to 10 years, I have had the good fortune to work with a number of talented individuals in the college network in Quebec. A handful of them have become something more to me than just people I see in the course of my work. Among these I include Brenda Lamb, the ICT Education Advisor at John Abbott College who has had an enduring impact on both my professional perceptions and my approach to services for the English community in Quebec.

In the Beginning

My first recollection of working with Brenda dates back to somewhere in the 2007-2008 academic year, when I was part of a timid group of English attendees at a Réseau des REPTICs meeting (ICT Education Advisors). Right from the beginning, Brenda helped to rally our efforts to work together as a team, ensuring that the developmental priorities of our colleges were clear enough to express to the larger group which included representatives from CEGEPs across the province. This early effort to find common ground amongst stakeholders with differing interests would become a recurring theme throughout the time that I have known Brenda. This esprit rassembleur combined with a penchant for taking risks seems to be the foundation of her core values and professional practice. Combined with her inner drive and a “take no guff” attitude, those in the know will tell you that Brenda is a veritable force to be reckoned with!

Brenda Lamb surrounded by fellow IT-Representatives from some of the English CEGEPs in 2013. From left to right: Lee Anne Johnston, Jennifer Mitchell, Brenda Lamb, Ryan W. Moon and Rafael Scapin (photo credit: Réseau des répondantes et des répondants TICs).

Like many of her fellow ICT Education Advisors, Brenda has a varied educational and professional background. She completed a Bachelor’s of Science degree at McGill and discovered when she had finished that that the job market was very tough. She decided to continue her studies in the area of Computer Science, which would prove to be an excellent preparation for the mandate and challenges that laid ahead.

When Brenda first began working at John Abbott College (JAC), she was involved in the Management of Information Systems team, working as a programmer/analyst. She worked with mission critical information systems, from academic systems to learning management systems and even purchasing applications. This experience would help her to develop a customer-oriented approach, as she would train and support various college stakeholders on the use of these systems. This, along with her extensive knowledge of computer science and IT, made her a stand-out candidate for the position of Education Advisor when it was posted in 2008 at the college. This opportunity would allow Brenda to work closely with faculty to integrate technology into their pedagogical practices.

Teaching and Technology

Brenda tells me that one of the biggest problems with adopting new technologies in teaching is that there simply aren’t enough people to help teachers out. And so, it is fortuitous that she would find herself in this position. Today she describes her primary role as someone who seeks common ground behind the scenes to ensure that the needs of JAC’s teachers are balanced with those of the IT department and the Academic Dean’s office. She also strives to ensure that people don’t work in silos. She puts it eloquently stating that “you never have the full picture until you have input from all the people.”

I had the pleasure of shadowing Brenda at John Abbott College recently to get a better sense of the projects she was working on, and to see what a typical day in her professional environment looked like. I believe that the close proximity of her office to a state-of-the art faculty/staff meeting and training room is not merely a coincidence, but that it attests to her strategic importance for the college. Brenda is solicited for her expertise in a variety of committees including the Blended Learning Community of Practice, the Pedagogical Use of New Technology (PUNT) committee, as well as the Harassment Awareness Committee, which is working on including a section on cyberbullying within the college’s policy. While seated in her office, I noticed a quote that is a sage reminder for anyone involved in the fast-paced world of technology:

Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. Unknown

In the morning, Brenda attends a meeting of the Blended Learning Community of Practice – a faculty driven initiative to share best practices for the implementation of this mode of training. Among other things, a discussion ensued on the merits of keeping the blended learning framework as a guideline versus a formal blended learning policy. Then, after a business lunch with yours truly, Brenda heads to the faculty training room to host a representative from an Interactive White Board manufacturer and members of the John Abbott faculty. Her role is to ensure that the needs of her faculty are adequately addressed by the visiting sales representative, and to ensure that the attendees are considering the important questions related to this technology. I learned a lot during my field trip to Brenda’s world, but I would soon learn that there were other facets to Brenda of which I was not aware.

Personal Pursuits

Once the professional obligations for the day are out of the way, who exactly is Brenda Lamb? It turns out that she happens to be an emerging artist, working with acrylics and multimedia, and will soon take on watercolour painting. She has already participated in several exhibitions, which she tells me “for an artist [it] brings you as close as you can get to risk taking.”  In February 2015, when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was in town for an evening of conversation at the behest of the Board of Trade, it was Brenda who had the idea to get a group of hard-core geeks together to attend the evening (including the author). She had her own lift home that night, which is just as well, as I learned that she has an “adorable” King Doberman named Layla keeping watch over her domain. Layla was adopted from a Montreal-based pet rescue organization, (which Brenda asked me to subtly promote in this article). I didn’t get a chance to ask Brenda if the dog’s name has anything to do with Eric Clapton’s hit, but if it does, this gives me a completely new take on that song!

Brenda (centre) hamming it up with Alexandre Enkerli (left) and Rafael Scapin (right) at the 2nd Annual Google Apps for Education Summit in 2014.

Brenda is also concerned with women’s causes and Aboriginal concerns. While speaking to her about a white ribbon that she and her colleague were wearing the day of my visit to JAC, Brenda lamented that it has taken her time to build credibility as a bona fide resource in a field that is largely male-dominated. Today, she encourages the women she works with to NEVER say they know nothing about technology. She tells them that you would never hear members of the opposite sex admit to something like that – even when it was the case! Brenda says that this usually brings a smile to their face, and they can then relax and begin to discover how much they already know about technology. These mentees are also more ready to build on their existing knowledge.

Meeting People Where They’re At

Another of the pillars of Brenda’s approach is her belief that one size does not fit all when it comes to education technology. Solutions should be flexible. As a proponent of just-in-time solutions for meetings (GoToMeeting) and software micro-skills training (Atomic Learning), it is clear that she not only talks the talk, but she walks the walk too! She informs me that part of her role is also to acknowledge the concerns of teachers, but to mitigate their fears in trying out new technologies. She does this by meeting people where they are at, without prejudices or expectations:

Don’t just talk about technology. Get to know the person in front of you. It’s not just about the technology, it’s also about what other things are going on. I feel like I missed out on a lot of opportunities, having learned this later in my career.

When Brenda starts working with a teacher for the first time, she begins by sharing much more about herself with others than she would have done back in 2008 when she began as an Education Advisor. She finds that it helps to forge a stronger connection.  She remembers hearing someone say that we are constantly asking our students to take risks and share information about themselves with the class and with the teacher, so as teachers we should model this and do the same with our students. This person convinced Brenda that it strengthens bonds, makes us more engaged with each other and makes the teaching and learning much more meaningful and fun.

Brenda has grown professionally over the last 10 years. She tells me that she no longer feels she has to know more than everyone in the room, especially since it seems that the software she uses with teachers changes every time she fires it up! She attributes part of her success to her efforts to become an active listener. Brenda has shifted her approach from providing turnkey solutions to the teachers that come to her for help. Instead she focuses on accompanying them on their journey, and wants to know what research they have done prior to coming to see her.

She is also pleased that she can count on the support of fellow IT-REPs from the Montreal CEGEPs and beyond when she needs it. “These exchanges are important for sharing ideas and solutions, since each of the IT-REPs brings something different to the table” she states. Brenda feels that she can call on any one of us at any time for any reason. I have also witnessed Brenda going well above and beyond the call of duty to help a colleague in need during a time of personal crisis, which makes Brenda that much more endearing to us.

My time in the college network has definitely been informed and enriched by the presence of Brenda Lamb. In conclusion to this Inspiring Portrait, my parting wish is that you have – or will one day have – the privilege of working with her too!

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