July 24, 2014

Synergies between online learning, on-campus teaching and flexible learning

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Kiczcales, G. (2014) Online to improve on-campus Digital Learning Blog, UBC, Vancouver BC, April 14.

UBC’s flexible learning strategy

Nearly two weeks ago, Eric Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT, and I spent a day at the University of British Columbia consulting on the university’s strategy for flexible learning. I’ve been somewhat constrained by a confidentiality agreement, as UBC’s flexible learning strategy is still at the development stage and has yet to be formally approved, but one of the Provost’s team responsible for developing its strategy, Gregor Kiczales, has an interesting blog that he describes as a conversation about digitization of the channel between educators and learners, and what that means for university education. 

The impact of online learning on the campus

In his most recent post, Gregor discusses ‘one of the most important themes they [Eric and I] both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience.’ Certainly it was one of the points I made, that a combination of online learning and campus teaching will offer benefits to many students, by increasing flexibility and also by enabling instructors to focus on what the campus experience does best. However, it is not in my view the main reason for online learning.

I was arguing for more analysis to be made of what the campus can offer that cannot be provided more conveniently or more effectively online, with the implication that much of what we currently do on campus would actually be better replaced by online learning. What I would challenge in particular is that discussion is best done face-to-face. My experience is that very high levels of academic discussion are equally possible online as in class.

This brings me back to my law of equal substitution, which basically states that almost all teaching and learning outcomes can be just as effectively accomplished on campus or online, given good course design, although there will always be exceptions. In general, though, what determines the appropriateness of either mode are non-pedagogical factors, such as comparative costs, the differing needs of different types of students, the training of instructors, and the resources available.

I certainly believe that for young students straight out of high school, the social, sporting and cultural aspects of a campus are very important. Again, though, I question whether there is sufficient focus on these aspects today, especially in commuter universities, where a majority of the students travel in for lectures then go home. If the campus experience is so important for learning, then universities such as UBC need to really change the first and second year experience, with a move away from very large, impersonal lectures to more small group learning and more direct contact with senior research faculty. In other words, the current model, which keeps classes small for post-graduate students and large for first and second year undergraduates, should be inverted.

UBC is attempting to break up the large lecture classes, but the the cost of doing this, and the willingness or otherwise of faculty to spend more time with undergraduate students, are real challenges. It may be more realistic to focus on related academic and cultural activities that lie outside of formal courses or programs, and on those things, such as hands-on access to equipment, that cannot be done online.

Horses for courses (or rather, different courses for different horses)

The other point that really needs to be made is that public institutions such as UBC now face a much more diverse student population, with very different needs. Thus UBC has both young residential and young commuting students, local, national and international students, pre-university, undergraduate, graduate and lifelong learners, students with different levels of English language ability, gregarious and shy learners, and on and on. Every one of these groups probably needs a different range of options regarding the campus experience and the delivery of learning.

Thus I would argue that UBC also needs to focus just as much on fully online learning, or distance education, as on blended learning, or on improving the campus, as important as that is. In particular the lifelong learning market is growing rapidly, and is increasingly important economically in a highly competitive knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, lifelong learners are able and willing to pay the direct costs of for instance professional masters programs or more specific short courses or modules leading to badges or certificates. Such lifelong learners have already been through the campus experience, already have the fundamental lab or studio skills from hands-on learning, and can therefore handle more indirect forms of teaching, such as simulations or remote labs. It is for such learners that online learning is particularly appropriate.

Yes, much more flexibility

Thus UBC is absolutely right to focus on providing learning flexibly, i.e. in a wide variety of ways, to meet the diverse needs of students. In the end, students should be able to choose from a variety of ways of studying, while meeting the same teaching and learning objectives. This will require various mixes of online and classroom teaching within the same course or program. The technology to some extent does allow this ‘personalized’ learning, but it also needs to be accompanied by a major re-thinking of course design and how students can access learning, within a realistic cost framework.

Doing it right

Lastly, I have to say that in my view, UBC is way ahead of most universities in considering the impact of technology, not just on the campus, but on the whole learning experience and in particular the likely impact of changing markets on the university. I admire the way it is addressing these challenges. Thus my one day at UBC after an eleven year absence was a particularly appropriate way to conclude my career as a consultant.

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