Strengthening Connections In Times of Change

Celebrating Canada’s research and education community – especially now

In 2020, the global pandemic meant Canada’s research, education and innovation sector had to pivot quickly. From moving rapidly to remote education delivery at the outset of the pandemic, to focusing new efforts on COVID-19 research and ensuring the security of information across the ecosystem, Canadians stepped up. Looking back on the year, we knew we had much to celebrate.

To that end, ORION joined with its 13 partner organizations that comprise Canada’s National Research and Education Network (NREN) to hold an online summit from December 7-9.

The event brought together over 300 research and education decision makers and innovators from across the country. Our goal was to highlight how innovative Canadians have leveraged the country’s digital infrastructure ecosystem to support mission-critical activities. Speakers shared examples of how their research teams and institutions evolved and even thrived, with a laser focus on goals and a uniquely Canadian determination.

Key learnings from the Summit

Each day of the Summit had its own focus: COVID-19 research, online education, and cybersecurity. And although the featured speakers hailed from diverse regions across Canada, several themes clearly emerged.

1. Acceleration of digital transformation

Over the last few months, due to the pandemic, we have seen an acceleration of digital transformation. On Day 2, we heard from Katie Tuck, Director of IT and Chief Information Officer at Yukon College, about her experiences with bringing connectivity to off-campus students. She worked with Northwestel and other contractors to deploy parking lot wifi in three remote campuses, all within a week. Areas were chosen after instructors contacted students to find out if they had access to sufficient computing devices and Internet to finish their courses. They wanted to make sure as many students as possible had access to the course materials they would need to carry on their studies. Katie is now looking to expand the rapidly deployed parking lot wifi program to 15 more locations.

Meanwhile, on Day 3, Isaac Straley, Chief Information Security Officer at the University of Toronto, highlighted multiple technology decisions and implementations that he and his team rolled out more quickly than anyone previously thought possible. Projects and programs that were underway before the pandemic were swiftly advanced in order to pivot to the new way of learning, conducting research, ensuring privacy and security and life in general

2. Trust and partnerships

No matter what sector you are in, trust is an important part of any relationship. Without it, projects can’t advance. This is especially true in cybersecurity, as we strive to protect data and privacy. This message was brought home by Gayleen Gray, AVP and Chief Technology Officer for McMaster University, on Day 3 of the Summit. She said partnerships with vendors and other organizations also played a big part in moving to remote learning environments.

Providing students and staff with connectivity and devices was another huge task, but Dave Porter, Director at Aurora College, found that working with the right partners – partners his team could trust – made it possible. They worked with government agencies to get donations of computing devices (and even food) for students, Canada Post to distribute hardware to staff and students, and other Northern connections (as well as their own staff) for everything in between. He said the Northwest Territories is all about relationships and bringing people together, and it was these relationships that made the students’ transition to learning from home possible.

3. Collaboration and sharing

No matter the theme of the day, collaboration and sharing were continuously mentioned. None of the advancements made in the last year would have been possible without groups coming together to work on ideas and offer advice. Wency Lum, AVP of University Systems and CIO at the University of Victoria, talked about how cybersecurity collaboration this past year was, for her, like working with her ultimate Fantasy Football team – the best learnings from the smartest people across many institutions.

Sharing our challenges and progress with colleagues often helps us to reduce the time to learn, so we can focus more quickly on the task at hand. As Nizar Ladak, CEO of NDRIO, indicated, as a community we are resilient and strong and can accomplish so much more when we work together on digital research infrastructure.

The NREN and its research and education community achieved a lot in 2020. Those achievements were both partly due to – and in spite of – the challenges we faced due to COVID-19.

Closing and Call-to-Action

No one would ever suggest that this was a welcome disruption to our lives. But the pandemic has further highlighted the important work of research and education, and how much they depend on advanced digital tools. But more than that, Canada’s successes this year largely depended on people working more closely together to find solutions. And that is one characteristic that the NREN enables in spades. As we continue to share and collaborate, we know we will become ever more resilient together.