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“A Golden Opportunity on a Silver Platter”: The Infectious Enthusiasm of DLSPH’s Digital Evangelist

June 17/2021

Asst. Prof. Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco is DLSPH’s online engagement guru – a surprising new role for the long time AIDS activist and community based researcher.

At 58, the Chilean-born former Vancouverite was asked to join the faculty to help professors – who are often much younger – learn how to teach online.

A year into his tenure as an assistant professor of learning innovation, Ibáñez-Carrasco has heard all the reasons why online education isn’t as good as in-person – and he has a solution for seemingly everything. The most common complaint is that virtual experiences can’t replicate the intimacy of in-person. To which he points out that if people can have sex online, they can engage with each other online to learn.

Francisco head shot, foliage in background, dark polo shirt

Prof. Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to stir a culture from the inside,” says Ibáñez-Carrasco. “Faculty members are embracing a new way of doing things, but the main change has been ‘grappling’ [with unexpected realities.] From technical issues to worrying about privacy issues around lectures to reconsidering payment of TAs in this new world, faculty members – no matter how established – feel very vulnerable.”

And a little uncertainty can be a very good thing, he insists. It’s something he knows very well.

Ibáñez-Carrasco was a 22-year old high school teacher when he fled the fascistic dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1985, landing in Vancouver where he was handed an HIV diagnosis – a death sentence at the time.

“The physician said, ‘Well pal, you’re HIV-positive — another immigrant coming here to die of AIDS. Here’s your list of opportunistic illnesses. One of them will kill you.”

The diagnosis was terrible, but it freed Ibáñez-Carrasco to think fearlessly about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He’d always loved studying, teaching and books, so eventually Ibáñez-Carrasco went back to school, earning a PhD in education from Simon Fraser University. And he wrote books.

His diagnosis also kicked off a lifelong interest in public health. Straddling the worlds of education and advocating for the sexual health of marginalized communities, his work still aims  to bridge the communication gap between provider and patient.

Ibáñez-Carrasco has lived in Toronto since 2012, when he became Director of Education and Training at the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. There, he trained 70 emerging Canadian HIV researchers and community leaders from 2009 to 2017, earning a Red Ribbon award from the Canadian Association for HIV Research in 2017. He then served as a senior research associate at the Centre for Urban Solutions at Unity Health. Days after learning the university would pivot to online, Prof. Dionne Gesink, DLSPH’s associate dean of academic affairs, asked him to join DLSPH at the recommendation of Prof. Carol Strike, who knew about his longtime leadership in online education.

“Francisco has been a ray of sunshine piercing through the storm clouds,” says Gesink, herself a sexual health researcher. “He has supported faculty and student learning, remote delivery, gamifying learning activities, alternative methods of evaluating student learning. He has coached faculty in pedagogy, and the list goes on. Francisco is warm and approachable, makes people feel comfortable and confident, somehow makes work playful and really helps foster a sense of community.”

Although not a traditional expert in technology, Ibáñez-Carrasco is passionate about teaching – and engaging people despite barriers, whether they be technological, cultural or psychological.

He finds sudden change invigorating, loving the “messiness,” and the freedom to create something new. That applies not just to online teaching but also the current upheaval around traditional gender and sexual identities and anti-oppressive teaching practices.

“I love the complexity of queer communities,” he says. “Emerging communities of transgender, nonbinary folks have something to teach me. Understanding diversity was something we preached in the 80s and 90s. And now they’re in my face – good!”

His love of “messiness” is rooted in childhood. Ibáñez-Carrasco was 10 when Pinochet seized power, and he remembers the fascist oppression to conform or die that descended on Chilean society.

“You had to toe the line. Everything was redacted: television, textbooks, and your conversations had to be edited as such,” he recalls. “There were curfews for many years. People whispered for two reasons: when someone had cancer and when someone was involved in politics.”

Informed by that history, he has fought stigma and secrecy of all things that bring shame, including sexualities, medical conditions such as HIV, and the use of drugs.  “Patients understand everything if they are given the right opportunity – including patients we see as complex,” he says. “They understand very well because many are living multiple pandemics – HIV, the opioid crisis and COVID.”

Looking forward, Ibáñez-Carrasco sees huge opportunity for the field of public health – if practitioners can face the messiness.

“For public health schools, it’s a golden opportunity on a silver platter,” he says. “You can reimagine everything. In fact we must reimagine everything: learning, research, clinical practice and policymaking,. All of it has been thrown into a blender. What a magnificent opportunity!”