Lessons learned 2020: Opportunities discovered
Lessons learned 2020: Opportunities discovered
Lessons learned 2020: Opportunities discovered
Kate Taverner headshot


By Kate Taverner



The promise of an exciting new decade in 2020 was quickly defined by suddenly familiar terms (PPE, herd immunity, lockdown, etc.) as we altered our course, adapted to change, and found surprising new levels of resilience. And learning. We’ve all done a great deal of learning and working through the discomfort it inevitably brings.

We know that our progress can sometimes be hard to see, but as we reach plateaus, no matter how short they may be, we see that new opportunities have sprouted and grown roots. Some grew organically to serve an emerging need; others have taken a lot more effort, self-reflection, and the investment of time and people.

In this second post in a series of 2020 reflections, we look at the opportunities we’ve discovered as a result of the challenges thrust upon us in 2020.


Learning in a virtual world

Amidst the many professional and personal pressures that 2020 has wrought, it’s remarkable that so many people across our community of schools and universities still found the time and energy to invest in their professional development and to share their knowledge and guidance with others.

More than 4,000 CIS members worldwide embraced opportunities for virtual learning experiences with us from March to December. These opportunities included 30+ webinars, 9 workshops, 1 global forum, 8 international student fairs, and 2 accreditation evaluator training sessions. We covered topics as broad as staffing issues during COVID-19, tackling racism, continuing school improvement and accreditation, connecting students with universities, cybersecurity, mental health and well-being, and how to manage the facilities and operational side of re-opening of a school during the pandemic.

Moving our well-established and dependable in-person events to virtual models certainly required a steep learning curve and high level of commitment from the CIS team. It also required a great deal of trust from our members that we would deliver the same quality of learning they have come to expect. Certainly, it was both a challenge and opportunity of vital importance, one that we had to embrace and get right for our members.

Our challenge was two-fold. We had to ensure the continuation of learning for our community in essential training like child protection, and we had to design and curate new ways to support our members as they addressed the many emerging challenges around COVID and anti-racism.


Delivering sensitive content virtually

Moving something as sensitive as child protection training to a virtual model took careful adjustment.

Our Head of Safeguarding and Student Well-being, Katie Rigg said, "It's even more vital right now that we continue to learn from experts and from our members about how to embed a culture of child safeguarding throughout our school communities. In the virtual workshop, we covered all the essential areas of learning—from policy development, training, and education to record-keeping and reporting protocols, interventions and student voice—and added new COVID-related child protection support." 

The success of this virtual workshop has led to more dates for virtual workshops in 2021, with 220+ educators already registered for January sessions!

The online format of this CIS [Child Protection] workshop was an excellent way to bring together experts and educators from around the world. The sessions were distinct yet connected through the common conference theme. Good opportunities to connect, and share ideas, with others in the break-out sessions. A valuable three days that will directly impact my planning and thinking back at school.

Virtual Child Protection Foundation Workshop participant, November 2020


Uncertainty, hard work, success

Each year, our biggest annual event is our Global Forum on International Admission & Guidance which brought together more than 900 university admissions officers and school counsellors in 2019. Moving an event of this size to a virtual model took a lot of learning, testing, and trust in our chosen software. It was once again remarkable that more than 1,000 participants registered for this year’s virtual event.

Nico Evers, our Director of Higher Education Services, reflected: “There was certainly some uncertainty around delivering [the Annual Global Forum] virtually. But in the eight months that I have been in this role, I have quickly learned that all of you in our university guidance and counselling community, and my colleagues across CIS, give 100% to whatever you do with great verve, commitment, and dedication. We are delighted that participant feedback confirmed our own views that it had a great impact.”

It reminded me that education is a powerful tool for good but continues to represent many forms of inequality. This will stay with me as I advocate for practices and policies within my university. There were some great reminders as well as new information about the current state of students, as well as professionals. I appreciated the honest and open dialogue about the challenges and opportunities we are all facing.

Global Forum participant, November 2020

Receiving participant feedback like this which focuses on the content and not the mode of delivery, means we fulfilled our commitment to connect the university guidance community on their greatest priorities.


Tackling racism

As an organization whose school members are committed to the continual improvement of their practices, it came as no surprise that many asked for our help in 2020 to evaluate how to identify and address racism in their communities.

Our progress with tackling racism depends on strong foundational concepts grounded in being self-reflective, deliberate, and evaluative and on purposefully and intentionally doing the work required. Taking time to develop and strengthen our foundations—individually and institutionally—is essential, no matter how progressive or rudimentary we may be in our thinking and actions. We’ve been proud to help our members do the groundwork via three virtual Tackling Racism Workshops.


Experts and practitioners with deep experience in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices shared strategies and skills to help develop the foundational skills necessary to fully understand and address the bias and discrimination facing non-dominant racial and cultural groups across our global international education community. Tackling racism starts with our own learning at CIS, so each of these workshops was also offered to the CIS Global Team as we build our foundational understanding to strengthen and advance the work we each do.

The emphasis on "courageous conversations" and "being comfortable with being uncomfortable" is what a few BIPOC and I have been trying to pursue at our school. What my colleagues attending this workshop and I heard reaffirmed that we are heading in the right direction. The emphasis on communication—safe, equitable spaces and respectfully engage and not debate—is essential.

Tackling Racism Workshop participant, October 2020
CIS Tackling Racism Workshop Systems screenshot

Jane Larsson, CIS Executive Director said: “Tackling racism is hard. And if it’s hard for me, as a white woman who has a position of considerable responsibility and the authority/power that comes with it, I do not yet imagine how hard this is for people who have been living with discrimination their whole lives, who are tired of 'tackling' it and cannot wait for the day when it will be over. In a year of deep learning, nowhere has my own been more significant than in our work to examine systemic racism. I learned about trust, or to be clear, I learned I am not trusted and why. My latest blog 2021: Instilling trust focuses on how we first need to earn it before we can instill it.”

You can explore our blog to find posts and guidance about tackling racism. Our members can visit the CIS Community portal to register for the second series of Tackling Racism Workshops starting in February. The visual above is a slide from the third workshop in the series that focuses on structures and systems.


New tools to go virtual

Of course, no progress with virtual learning is possible without appropriate and efficient technology. Several years ago, we evolved our infrastructure to enable remote cloud-based working for our global team, so we undertook a seamless transition to home-working in 2020. 

We were also afforded a smooth transition when we expanded our use of Zoom from standard meeting formats to webinars and workshops. We quickly learned the value of chat, voting, and break-out room features for small groups of participants, many of whom told us that they got a lot of value from the more intimate break-out room group sizes that are more difficult to emulate during in-person events.

Across the CIS Global Team, we learned the new technologies to build and deliver international student fairs, workshops and our Global Forum. Our own PD in this sense went through the roof, and we now have new skills that will serve us in the future.

Some things worked brilliantly, some things were far more challenging, and we strived to understand it all and take action simultaneously.


Online fatigue?

Many of us will have experienced the fatigue of staring at our screens for so much of 2020. Students have felt it too.

More than 10,000 students registered to participate in eight regional fairs we designed to connect them directly with university admission representatives worldwide. Many of those representatives worked anti-social hours, staring at their screens throughout the night to be available for students amidst time zone challenges.


We discovered that transitioning the tried-and-tested in-person model for connecting students with admission representatives during international university fairs was challenging to imitate in the virtual model. The experience of our university participants was extremely diverse, with some telling us they’d had their best student event yet and found the software easy to use, others finding that the event did not provide them with the results they expected.

We also discovered that student behaviour varied broadly, with many experiencing ‘online fatigue’ and preferring to use the international university fairs as a resource library for university materials rather ‘meet’ the representatives.

A big highlight of the virtual fair model was the inclusion of PD presentations for students led by university faculty and admissions staff, which were well attended.

Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. Some of my dreams have been revived!

Student participant of a virtual international university fair, September 2020

There’s more for us to learn as we plan ahead to connect and guide students on their university options in 2021.


Smooth operators

There has been a resounding spirit of ‘we’re in this together’ as we have watched inspiring keynote speakers presenting from their homes, smoothly operating and managing their own lighting and sound. By now, we are all used to a more casual delivery of inspiring presentations and motivational speeches from within the comfort of our homes.

The facilitator was so clear and concise in her explanations and instructions that it made the use of technology seamless (the use of interactive zoom presentations tools was excellent.

Implicit Bias Workshop participant, October 2020

Global Forum participants embraced new opportunities to meet and exchange perspectives on priority topics during virtual hang-outs, and they continue to log in to the virtual platform to watch recordings of the 30 breakout sessions and 4 keynotes recorded over three days in November.

The platform was awesome and probably one of the best ones that I have experienced for a conference.

Global Forum participant, November 2020


1) I loved the hangout sessions. Good chance to chat with folks from all over the world. I wonder if maybe I interacted with even more folks than I might have had we been in person?! They were most successful when someone proposed an interesting topic of discussion. 2) Virtual booths. At past forums I would never have had the opportunity gain so much info about universities and their reps. Thank you! 3) There is a bright side to technology, also: thanks for making the videos and slides available in the resources section to review later. I'm going to re-watch a few where I ran into "freezing screens," as well as a few I didn't get to see because I was in another workshop. 4) The people. What an amazing and inspiring group. Great CIS team, great uni reps, great college counselors!”

Global Forum participant, November 2020


A very big thank you to everyone in our community for going virtual with us in 2020.

How will our events look in 2021?

Visit our events page for updates


Related content:


Lessons learned 2020: Opportunities discovered
  • Diversity (I-DEA)
  • Networking & learning
  • School & university collaboration
  • University admission & guidance
Lessons learned 2020: Opportunities discovered