Cloud U – UBC ventures boldly into the virtual university

The traditional university experience is in the midst of a major transformation, thanks of course to the Internet and other rapidly evolving information technologies.  Some experts go so far as to ring the death knell of the traditional classroom and campus life as we know it.  Hugh Brock, UBC Vancouver Associate-Provost responsible for academic innovation, Pierre Ouillet, VP Finance, and Wes Pue, UBC Okanagan Provost, share with UBC Reports their thoughts about this rapidly approaching future.

UBC Reports: There’s a lot of talk about what universities are going to look like ten years from now: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are just one aspect of the rapid progress sweeping through online learning. Can you describe the options that a 2023 UBC applicant will face?

Hugh Brock: This kind of prediction is a lot harder to make these days because everything is changing so radically. Still, I would venture this far: before long, students will be able to obtain online degrees from all major universities in the world.  Most universities will offer fewer subjects, and do them better, in order to attract a global, select community.  In the same way that consumers expect free online news, music, and digital entertainment, we know that knowledge will be free, open-source, and customizable.  Students will be willing to pay university tuition if they get quality, intensity and a variety of interactive experiences.

Pierre Ouillet:  First year will depend on where this student chooses to live.  If on campus, some of the learning could take place online, with further applications and explorations in a small class setting – what we call the ‘flipped classroom.’ Another student, living in Campbell River for example, could also receive instruction online, and join fellow students on campus during weekends or in the summer for capstone programs. A student living in Brazil could get acquainted with UBC profs through a MOOC and decide to make the jump to UBC. It’s no longer one size fits all – if it ever was.

Wes Pue: This future will be an intensely interconnected one – the planet will be much smaller for students who, through new learning technologies, will be able to access anyone, anywhere around the world in their areas of interest. UBC already has a global online presence through its students, faculty and researchers.  We can expect this to grow rapidly.

UBCR: What is driving UBC to explore some of these options? It would seem some of them could actually undermine the very fabric of the university.

Ouillet:  Two reasons. First, the way new generations of students learn is changing rapidly and we want the UBC experience to be exceptional for them. Secondly, every year UBC accepts 5,000 undergraduate students into first year, but has to turn down 30,000 others who are often very strong.  What we call ‘blended learning’ – the use of online delivery for parts of a course – will help us improve access. This is a big deal here in B.C. where the 57 per cent post-secondary graduation rate is behind the Canadian average.

Brock: As one of the world’s best universities, UBC must invest in the most effective, stimulating, and creative teaching methods. We have to experiment, remain nimble, adapt and adopt what works best. If we can improve education for UBC students on campus, we can begin to design online courses to improve access. But it all starts with the actual UBC experience.

UBCR: What does that mean in terms of preparation and planning for the university? Are there concerns that this focus could divert resources that are needed elsewhere?

Brock:  UBC and its faculties are continuously investing in improving the educational experience – just look at the Carl Weiman initiative and the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology.  What we are talking about here differs only in terms of scope and pace of change involved. This is really an evolution, rather than a revolution for us.

Ouillet:  Initially, I have been asked to find ways to increase our investments in curriculum renewal and the use of technology. Only when this is done can we expand enrolment through these virtual portals in high demand programs.

UBCR:  How do we make sure these alternative UBC experiences don’t devalue the currency by seeming to offer cheaper versions of a UBC degree?

Pue: UBC will keep quality of education top and foremost. Providing new options to students will deliver the best possible education and strengthen our reputation for educational excellence.  Innovation will be based solely on solid evidence and constant evaluation so as to provide the best education possible for all of our students.

Brock:  Actually, the moment students worldwide decide that an online degree from a top university like UBC has more prestige than a degree at their local university, we are in a different world, and weaker universities will disappear. UBC’s real competition will be with the online degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Caltech. Many UBC Vancouver students have long commutes.  If they could take some courses online, some face-to-face, and come into campus twice a week instead of five times a week, I think this would be more appealing and sustainable for a lot of students. This could provide them with the best of both worlds.

Ouillet: UBC will continue to be very selective and I can assure you that online access will never be a back door to a second-class UBC degree. Rather, it will broaden the way talented students can engage with the university.

UBCR:  And for our prospective applicant in 2023 – should she/he decide to opt for the good old bricks and mortar, in-person experience of first year on campus, in Vancouver or Kelowna, will that still be an option?

Ouillet:  I think that the vast majority of students will still want to experience UBC first hand. They may simply choose to be there for part of their degree and not full time. The path we are taking is taking us toward personalized learning. This also will make University more affordable, with more options for taking classes without interrupting  a career.

Pue: There will always be a demand from learners to connect face to face with their peers and with faculty. That in person experience is impossible to replicate online – now and for the foreseeable future.

Brock: People go to universities for many reasons, including becoming independent, making new friends, having new experiences. That’s not going to change.  The biggest shift by 2023 is that universities will be tailoring their programs to fit as closely as possible what individual students want and need. This is what the 5,000 students and prospective students we have surveyed told us. And it goes much farther than what we provide today. If UBC does that really well, it will indeed be ready for this future generation of students, learning in advanced ways about the questions that have always intrigued humanity.

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UBC Reports | Vol. 59 | No. 1 | Dec. 18, 2012

Cloud U – UBC ventures boldly into the virtual university

Cloud U – UBC ventures boldly into the virtual university

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People go to universities for many reasons, including becoming independent, making new friends, having new experiences. That’s not going to change.

Pierre Ouillet, VP Finance. Martin Dee Photograph.

Pierre Ouillet, VP Finance.
Martin Dee Photograph.

Hugh Brock, UBC Vancouver Associate-Provost responsible for academic innovation. Martin Dee Photograph.

Hugh Brock, UBC Vancouver Associate-Provost responsible for academic innovation. 
Martin Dee Photograph.

Wes Pue, UBC Okanagan Provost. Martin Dee Photograph.

Wes Pue, UBC Okanagan Provost. 
Martin Dee Photograph.

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