November 1, 2014

Developing intellectual and practical skills in a digital age

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Skills 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In this post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. The following posts will do the same for learner support, resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Scenario: Developing historical thinking

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

Ralph Goodyear is a professor of history in a public Tier 1 research university in the central United States. He has a class of 120 undergraduate students taking HIST 305, ‘Historiography’.

For the first three weeks of the course, Goodyear had recorded a series of short 15 minute video lectures that covered the following topics/content:

  • the various sources used by historians (e.g. earlier writings, empirical records including registries of birth, marriage and death, eye witness accounts, artifacts such as paintings, photographs, and physical evidence such as ruins.)
  • the themes around which historical analysis tend to be written,
  • some of the techniques used by historians, such as narrative, analysis and interpretation
  • three different positions or theories about history (objectivist, marxist, post modernist).

Students downloaded the videos according to a schedule suggested by Goodyear. Students attended two one hour classes a week, where specific topics covered in the videos were discussed. Students also had an online discussion forum in the course space on the university’s learning management system, where Goodyear had posted similar topics for discussion. Students were expected to make at least one substantive contribution to each online topic for which they received a grade that went towards their final grade.

Students also had to read a major textbook on historiography over this three week period.

In the fourth week, he divided the class into twelve groups of six, and asked each group to research the history of any city outside the United States over the last 50 years or so. They could use whatever sources they could find, including online sources such as newspaper reports, images, research publications, and so on, as well as the university’s own library collection. In writing their report, they had to do the following:

  • pick a particular theme that covered the 50 years and write a narrative based around the theme
  • identify the sources they finally used in their report, and discuss why they selected some sources and dismissed others
  • compare their approach to the three positions covered in the lectures
  • post their report in the form of an online e-portfolio in the course space on the university’s learning management system

They had five weeks to do this.

The last three weeks of the course were devoted to presentations by each of the groups, with comments, discussion and questions, both in class and online (the in class presentations were recorded and made available online). At the end of the course, students assigned grades to each of the other groups’ work. Goodyear took these student gradings into consideration, but reserved the right to adjust the grades, with an explanation of why he did the adjustment. Goodyear also gave each student an individual grade, based on both their group’s grade, and their personal contribution to the online and class discussions.

Goodyear commented that he was surprised and delighted at the quality of the students’ work. He said: ‘What I liked was that the students weren’t learning about history; they were doing it.’

Based on an actual case, but with some embellishments.

Skills in a digital age

In Chapter 1, Section 1.4, I listed some of the skills that graduates need in a digital age, and argued that this requires a greater focus on developing such skills, at all levels of education, but particularly at a post-secondary level, where the focus is often on specialised content. Although skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creative thinking have always been valued in higher education, the identification and development of such skills is often implicit and almost accidental, as if students will somehow pick up these skills from observing faculty themselves demonstrating such skills or through some form of osmosis resulting from the study of content. I also pointed out in the same section, though, that there is substantial research on skills development but the knowledge deriving from such research is at best applied haphazardly, if at all, to the development of intellectual skills.

Furthermore the skills required in a digital age are broader and more wide ranging than the abstract academic skills traditionally developed in higher education. For instance, they need to be grounded just as much in digital communications media as in traditional writing or lecturing, and include the development of digital competence and expertise within a subject domain, as well as skills such as independent learning and knowledge management. These are not so much new skills as a different emphasis, focus or direction.

It is somewhat artificial to separate content from skills, because content is the fuel that drives the development of intellectual skills. At the same time, in more traditionally vocational training, we see the reverse trend in a digital age, with much more focus on developing high level conceptual thinking as well as manual skills development. My aim here is not to downplay the importance of content, but to ensure that skills development receives as much focus and attention from instructors, and that we approach intellectual skills development in the same rigorous and explicit way as apprentices are trained in manual skills.

Setting goals for skills development

Thus a critical step is to be explicit about what skills a particular course or program is trying to develop, and to define these goals in such a way that they can be implemented and assessed. In other words it is not enough to say that a course aims to develop critical thinking, but to state clearly what this would look like in the context of the particular course or content area, in ways that are clear to students. In particular the ‘skills’ goals should be capable of assessment and students should be aware of the criteria or rubrics that will be used for assessment.

Thinking activities

A skill is not binary, in the sense that you either have it or you don’t. There is a tendency to talk about skills and competencies in terms of novice, intermediate, expert, and master, but in reality skills require constant practice and application and there is, at least with regard to intellectual skills, no final destination. So it is critically important when designing a course or program to design activities that require students to develop, practice and apply thinking skills on a continuous basis, preferably in a way that starts with small steps and leads eventually to larger ones. There are many ways in which this can be done, such as written assignments, project work, and focused discussion, but these thinking activities need to be thought about, planned and implemented on a consistent basis by the instructor.

Practical activities

It is a given in vocational programs that students need lots of practical activities to develop their manual skills. This though is equally true for intellectual skills. Students need to be able to demonstrate where they are along the road to mastery, get feedback on it, and retry as a result. This means doing work that enables them to practice specific skills.

In the scenario above, students had to cover and understand the essential content in the first three weeks, do research in a group, develop an agreed project report, in the form of an e-portfolio, share it with other students and the instructor for comments, feedback and assessment, and present their report orally and online. Ideally, they will have the opportunity to carry over many of these skills into other courses where the skills can be further refined and developed. Thus, with skills development, a longer term horizon than a single course will be necessary, so integrated program as well as course planning is important.

Discussion as a tool for developing intellectual skills

Discussion is a very important tool for developing thinking skills. However, not any kind of discussion. It was argued in Chapter 2 that academic knowledge requires a different kind of thinking to everyday thinking. It usually requires students to see the world differently, in terms of underlying principles, abstractions and ideas. Thus discussion needs to be carefully managed by the instructor, so that it focuses on the development of skills in thinking that are integral to the area of study. This requires the instructor to plan, structure and support discussion within the class, keeping the discussions in focus, and providing opportunities to demonstrate how experts in the field approach topics under discussion, and comparing students’ efforts.

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

In conclusion

There are many opportunities in even the most academic courses to develop intellectual and practical skills that will carry over into work and life activities in a digital age, without corrupting the values or standards of academia. Even in vocational courses, students need opportunities to practice intellectual or conceptual skills such as problem-solving, communication skills, and collaborative learning. However, this won’t happen merely through the delivery of content. Instructors need to:

  • think carefully about exactly what skills their students need,
  • how this fits with the nature of the subject matter,
  • the kind of activities that will allow students to develop and improve their intellectual skills, and
  • how to give feedback and to assess those skills, within the time and resources available.

This is a very brief discussion of how and why skills development should be an integral part of any learning environment. We will be discussing skills and skill development in more depth in later chapters.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • how does the history scenario work for you? Does it demonstrate adequately the points I’m making about skills development?
  • are the skills being developed by students in the history scenario relevant to a digital age?
  • is this post likely to change the way you think about teaching your subject, or do you already cover skills development adequately? If you feel you do cover skills development well, does your approach differ from mine?

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Learner support in a digital age

 

Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

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The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to: http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to tony.bates@ubc.ca .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.

Are universities teaching the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy?

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Knowledge worker 2

I’ve been on holiday the last two and a half weeks, but also doing some writing for my open textbook on teaching in a digital age.

Are universities teaching the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy?

This is one of the questions I have been asking myself, and there of course a couple of ways to respond to this:

1. Of course – we teach critical thinking, problem solving, research skills, and encourage original thinking: just the skills needed in today’s work force.

2. That’s not our job. Our job is the pure exploration of new knowledge and ideas and to pass that love of knowledge on to the next generation. If some of that rubs off in the commercial world, well and good, but that’s not our purpose.

I have a little bit of sympathy for the second answer. Universities provide society with a safe way of gambling on the future, by encouraging innovative research and development that may have no immediate apparent short-term benefits, or may lead to nowhere, without incurring major commercial or social loss. Another critical role is the ability to challenge the assumptions or positions of powerful agencies outside the university, such as government or industry, when these seem to be in conflict with evidence or ethical principles or the general good of society. There is a real danger in tying university and college programs too closely to immediate labour market needs. Labour market demand can shift very rapidly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to judge what kinds of work, business or trades will emerge in the future.

However the rapid expansion in higher education and the very large sums invested in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a work-force that is employable, competitive and if possible affluent. Indeed, this has always been one role for universities, which started as preparation and training for the church, law and much later, government administration.

So it’s the first response I want to examine more closely. Are the skills that universities claim to be developing (a) actually being done and (b) if they are being done, are they really the skills needed in a knowledge-based economy.

The characteristics of knowledge-based workers

To answer that question let’s attempt to identify the characteristics of knowledge-based workers. Here’s my view on this (somewhat supported by bodies such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the OECD – I’m searching for the actual references.)

  • they usually work in small companies (less than 10 people)
  • they sometimes own their own business, or are their own boss; sometimes they have created their own job, which didn’t exist until they worked out there was a need and they could meet that need
  • they often work on contract, so they move around from one job to another fairly frequently
  • the nature of their work tends to change over time, in response to market and technological developments and thus the knowledge base of their work tends to change rapidly
  • they are digitally smart or at least competent digitally; digital technology is often a key component of their work
  • because they often work for themselves or in small companies, they play many roles: marketer, designer, salesperson, accountant/business manager, technical support, for example
  • they depend heavily on informal social networks to bring in business and to keep up to date with current trends in their area of work
  • they need to keep on learning to stay on top in their work, and they need to manage that learning for themselves
  • above all, they need to be flexible, to adapt to rapidly changing conditions around them.

It can be seen then that it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what many graduates will actually be doing ten or so years after graduation, except in very broad terms. Even in areas where there are clear professional tracks, such as medicine, nursing or engineering, the knowledge base and even the working conditions are likely to undergo rapid change and transformation over that period of time. However, we shall see that it is possible to predict the skills they will need to survive and prosper in such an environment.

Content and skills

Knowledge involves two strongly inter-linked but different components: content and skills. Content includes facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures.

The skills required in a knowledge society include the following (Conference Board of Canada, 1992):

  • communications skills: as well as the traditional communication skills of reading, speaking and writing coherently and clearly, we need to add social media communication skills. These might include the ability to create a short YouTube video to capture the demonstration of a process or to make a sales pitch, the ability to reach out through the Internet to a wide community of people with one’s ideas, to receive and incorporate feedback, to share information appropriately, and to identify trends and ideas from elsewhere;
  • the ability to learn independently: this means taking responsibility for working out what you need to know, and where to find that knowledge. This is an ongoing process in knowledge-based work, because the knowledge base is constantly changing. Incidentally I am not talking here necessarily of academic knowledge, although that too is changing; it could be learning about new equipment, new ways of doing things, or learning who are the people you need to know to get the job done;
  • ethics and responsibility: this is required to build trust (particularly important in informal social networks), but also because generally it is good business in a world where there are many different players, and a greater degree of reliance on others to accomplish one’s own goals;
  • teamwork and flexibility: although many knowledge workers work independently or in very small companies, they depend heavily on collaboration and the sharing of knowledge with others in related but independent organizations. In small companies, it is essential that all employees work closely together, share the same vision for a company and help each other out. The ‘pooling’ of collective knowledge, problem-solving and implementation requires good teamwork and flexibility in taking on tasks or solving problems that may be outside a narrow job definition but necessary for success;
  • thinking skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, originality, strategizing): of all the skills needed in a knowledge-based society, these are some of  the most important. Businesses increasingly depend on the creation of new products, new services and new processes to keep down costs and increase competitiveness. Universities in particular have always prided themselves on teaching such intellectual skills, but we have seen that the increased move to larger classes and more information transmission, especially at the undergraduate level, challenges this assumption. Also, it is not just in the higher management positions that these skills are required. Trades people in particular are increasingly having to be problem-solvers rather than following standard processes, which tend to become automated. Anyone dealing with the public needs to be able to identify needs and find appropriate solutions;
  • digital skills: most knowledge-based activities depend heavily on the use of technology. However the key issue is that these skills need to be embedded within the knowledge domain in which the activity takes place. This means for instance real estate agents knowing how to use geographical information systems to identify sales trends and prices in different geographical locations, welders knowing how to use computers to control robots examining and repairing pipes, radiologists knowing how to use new technologies that ‘read’ and analyze MRI scans. Thus the use of digital technology needs to be integrated with and evaluated through the knowledge-base of the subject area;
  • knowledge management: this is perhaps the most over-arching of all the skills. Knowledge is not only rapidly changing with new research, new developments, and rapid dissemination of ideas and practices over the Internet, but the sources of information are increasing, with a great deal of variability in the reliability or validity of the information. Thus the knowledge that an engineer learns at university can quickly become obsolete. There is so much information now in the health area that it is impossible for a medical student to master all drug treatments, medical procedures and emerging science such a genetic engineering, even within an eight year program. The key skill in a knowledge-based society is knowledge management: how to find, evaluate, analyze, apply and disseminate information, within a particular context. This is a skill that graduates will need to employ long after graduation.

Most faculty, at least in universities, are well trained in content and have a deep understanding of the subject areas in which they are teaching. Expertise in skills development though is another matter. The issue here is not so much that faculty do not help students develop skills – they do – but whether these intellectual skills match the needs of knowledge-based workers, and whether enough emphasis is given to skills development within the curriculum.

Embedding skills in the curriculum

We know a lot from research about skills and skill development (again, references to come):

  • skills development is relatively context-specific. In other words, these skills need to be embedded within a knowledge domain. For example, problem solving in medicine is different from problem-solving in business. Different processes and approaches are used to solve problems in these domains (for instance, medicine tends to be more deductive, business more intuitive; medicine is more risk averse, business is more likely to accept a solution that will contain a higher element of risk or uncertainty);
  • learners need practice – often a good deal of practice – to reach mastery and consistency in a particular skill;
  • skills are often best learned in relatively small steps, with steps increasing as mastery is approached;
  • learners need feedback on a regular basis to learn skills quickly and effectively; immediate feedback is usually better than late feedback;
  • although skills can be learned by trial and error without the intervention of a teacher, coach, or technology, skills development can be greatly enhanced with appropriate interventions, which means adopting appropriate teaching methods and technologies  for skills development.
  • although content can be transmitted equally effectively through a wide range of media, skills development is much more tied to specific teaching approaches and technologies.

What should we do?

So here are some questions to discuss at the next departmental meeting discussing curriculum:

  • what are the skills we are trying to develop in this program? Are they explicitly stated and communicated to students?
  • how well do they match the skills required by knowledge-based workers? Do we need to add or adapt  existing skills to make them more relevant? If so, would this have a negative or a positive effect on the academic integrity of the program and particularly on the choice of content?
  • what teaching methods are most likely to lead the development of such skills?
  • what opportunities should we provide for practice and feedback on the development of the skills we have chosen?
  • how do we assess such skills?

Your feedback requested

1. Have I covered the main skills needed in a knowledge-based society? What have I missed?

2. Do you agree that these are important skills? If so, should universities explicitly try to develop them?

3. What are you or your university doing (if anything) to ensure such skills are taught, and taught well?

4. What roles if any do you think technology, and in particular online learning, can play in helping to develop such skills?

5. Any other comments on this topic

What do Boards of Governors need to know about online learning?

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The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference

The Right Honourable Paul Martin addressing the conference

CUBA

I was in Ottawa on Friday, attending the Canadian Universities Boards of Governors Association annual conference (CUBA). Boards of Governors at universities, at least in Canada, play an important role in ensuring that universities are run in a responsible and accountable manner. They consist mainly of external people, with strong connections outside the university in business, government and community work. They are usually unpaid volunteers who bring with them valuable experience of the wider world and a strong commitment to public higher education.

The conference

The conference participants consisted mainly of Chairs and Secretaries of Boards of Governors. The conference theme, appropriately, was: Universities – Partners in Canada’s Future. I was speaking on a sub-theme: new trends in learning, but first I want to report on some broader issues about Canadian public higher education that were raised by some of the speakers, because they are important of course in their own right, but also because they provide the context to the question in the title of this post.

Paul Martin

The former federal prime minister and finance minister is probably best known for his prudent management of the Canadian economy, helping to reduce Canada’s large financial deficits in the 1990s and leaving Canada better prepared than most countries to weather the financial crisis of 2008. However, he also was a strong supporter of higher education, helping create the Canada Research Chairs program and in particular increasing federal funding for the research councils.

His speech at the conference about the role of universities , although short, is probably the best I have ever heard from a politician – or indeed from anyone else. I can’t hope to capture in a few words all the points he made, but here are the main points I took from his speech.

1. Universities must continue to support and defend the humanities. He pointed out that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused as much by a failure of ethical behaviour as by technical or economic issues. The humanities are valuable in their own right, in helping prepare citizens for a diverse and rapidly changing world. Universities are not speaking out loud enough about the importance of the humanities.

2. He also spoke passionately about the need for Canada to reach out to its aboriginal peoples, through stronger and more equal partnerships. In particular, while recognizing that universities are doing a good job integrating and supporting aboriginal education at a higher education level, Canada as a whole is failing to support adequately aboriginal First Nations education in the k-12 sector. First Nations students are increasing at four times the rate of non-aboriginal students in Canadian schools, and in some provinces aboriginal students now constitute almost 40% of all new k-12 school enrollments, yet less than half graduate from high school. Greater efforts must be made to ensure that indigenous culture and identity are accepted and integrated within the Canadian educational system. Constitutionally k-12 education for aboriginal students on reserves is a joint Federal/First Nations responsibility. However, even the current proposed agreement between the federal Government and First Nations still leaves aboriginal k-12 education grossly underfunded compared to the rest of Canada. Massively improved aboriginal education is an economic as well as a moral necessity for Canada.

3. Universities must press for greater funding for basic research. Without basic research, we will not make the innovation breakthroughs that Canada needs for economic development. Funding basic research is a federal government responsibility, because there is no short-term benefits for industry in funding this.

The panel

A panel consisting of Jeffrey Simpson, the national affairs correspondent of the Globe and Mail newspaper, Perrin Beatty, the President of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and David Mitchell, President of the Canadian Policy Forum, discussed whether universities were ready to be partners. It was suggested that Chairs of Boards should spend at least 50% of their time on external relations, helping to forge stronger partnerships between university, business and community. David Mitchell spoke of the need for Boards to act as drivers of change and innovation within universities, to counter-balance the conservatism of faculty. Jeffrey Simpson pointed out that subject areas that are thought to be redundant or no longer valuable today can turn out to be really useful in the future. The example he gave was of Russian 19th and early 20th century history, which now tells us much about Russia’s current strategy regarding Ukraine.

David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty

David Mitchell, Jeffrey Simpson, Perrin Beatty

Chad Gaffield 

The President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada argued that there is a major paradigm shift occurring in university teaching, a gradual move away from knowledge transmission to student engagement and the development of competencies. This better supports the development of skill and expertise in research, through student-centred learning and inter-disciplinary, ‘topic’ focused teaching. Digital technologies also support and enhance these developments.

New trends in learning

The previous speakers helped set the context for what I wanted to talk about: why and how teaching and learning were changing, and what the role of governors might be in supporting such change. My presentation focused on the following:

  1. The demands of a digital economy
  2. The growth and development of new learning technologies
  3. New teaching approaches that result
  4. The impact on the campus
  5. Improving the productivity of teaching

After each section I posed a set of questions for the Board governors, which included:

  • are changing labour markets and changing student demographics built in to your institutional planning?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for learning technologies and methods of delivery?
  • does your institution have a plan or strategy for open textbooks or open education?
  • how can the institution professionalize university teaching – or should it?
  • how is excellence in teaching rewarded in your institution? Is it enough?
  • what are the markets and the enrollment plan for your institution? Does the programming match this?
  • can we make university teaching more productive and if so how, without sacrificing quality?
  • what kind of campuses do we need when most learning is open and online?

If you want a copy of the slides send me an e-mail and I will send you an invitation to download the slides.

Are these the right questions?

I’m a little bit nervous about these questions. My view is that Boards of Governors should help steer the ship in the right direction but shouldn’t get into the engine room. I’d be interested in your reaction to these questions. Would they push governors too deep into areas that are best left to administrators or faculty?

Also there is the issue as to how much governors posing such questions might impinge on academic freedom. However, that will be the topic of my next post.

 

 

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.