The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (home of OLT)

It’s now seven years since I resigned as Director of Distance Education and Technology at UBC, and my motto has always been ‘Never look back.’ However, two things came together to bring me back to UBC last week with a ‘formal’ invitation for the first time since I left (I have of course been in informal, regular contact with former colleagues still working at UBC).

Teaching business studies

I had been invited to give a lunch-time presentation to about 50 faculty in the Sauder School of Business, entitled ‘Rising to the Top: Why Business Teaching Must Change’. (I was going to call it: ‘If university teaching was a business, it would have gone bankrupt long ago’, but I thought that might be too provocative.)

Instead I concentrated on changes in the demographics of Canadian post-secondary education students, in technology, and in desired learning outcomes (more emphasis on business skills and competencies), how the teaching of these skills needed to be embedded within the teaching of content, and how courses could be designed using web 2.0 technology to teach such skills, encourage learner-generated content, and provide greater flexibility for the changing market of learners. There were excellent questions from and discussion with the faculty. A copy of the presentation can be downloaded as a pdf file from here.

The UBC e-learning Open House 2010

Visitors to the Open House

On the same afternoon, about an hour later, the UBC e-learning Open House 2010 began, to which I had also been invited. This is a ‘fair’ of posters on different e-learning projects that have been started or have been active during 2009. There was a total of 25 different exhibits. I didn’t have time to visit them all, but here are some of those of most interest to me:

Doing research online: Online Master in Rehabilitation Science. This was a project on which I had been working with the department to develop just before I left. I was delighted to learn that the whole master program is now fully online, has 57 students from all over North America, and is self-funded from tuition fees (following a business model I had suggested). I was very pleased to meet again the two ‘champions’ of this program, Sue Stanton and Mary Clark, and to learn that they have developed a fully online way of supporting students conducting a research project online as a requirement of the master’s program, and how students defend their research online.

Using video in online teaching: Master of Social Work. This was another project I had been working on, but it was at a more tentative stage than Rehab Sciences when I left. The Master of Social Work is a mix of face-to-face courses and online courses. Professor Mary Russell and her colleagues, working with UBC’s Office of Learning Technologies, have developed a series of video clips on the dynamics of family violence which are incorporated into the lessons for online student discussions and assignments.

Using audio and video in online courses: Faculty of Education Some of you will be familiar with Natasha Boskic, who provides invaluable material for this web site on educational games and virtual worlds. She and colleagues in the Faculty of Education have developed a variety of ways to incorporate audio and video into their online courses. As Natasha pointed out, recent innovations in telecommunications technologies have lowered equipment and transmission costs, enabling audio and video to be easily integrated into the curriculum.

Open content:Faculty of Land and Wood Systems Dr. Les Lavkulich  and colleagues from the faculty, with Chris Crowley from the Office of Learning Technologies, have developed a really neat online teaching tool on Land Use Impacts, that includes text, graphics and video clips. Although it is used as part of two courses on sustainable soil management, it is also available to the public at: This is an excellent example of well-designed open content that was also developed to support courses.

Designing effective learning in distance education: Office of Learning Technology. This year will be the 60th anniversary of distance education at UBC (more on this in a later blog). Several former colleagues, under the leadership of Jeff Miller, have worked with the faculties to develop over 125 fully online undergraduate and graduate courses. There are now almost 1,000 FTEs (about 10,000 course enrolments) in distance education courses, and this year enrolments grew by 20% compared with last year. OLT uses a variety of designs resulting in high quality, effective interactive online learning environments.

Open content: Preserving student scholarship: UBC Library This is another really interesting project led by Hilde Colenbrander and Julia Thompson. Using a Teaching and Learning Enhancement grant, they have employed a graduate student to track down non-thesis student online content and to educate students about copyright, scholarly publishing and open access. Students can showcase their work via UBC-authenticated e-portfolios, blogs, social networking sites and resumes and the content will be preserved by the Library in perpetuity.

Hilde Colenbrander (left) and colleagueHilde Colenbrander (left) and colleague

I did not have time (and there isn’t space) to go into the other 19 projects. However, there is likely to be a more comprehensive and official report later in the next UBC e-Strategy Newsletter.

Gossip and speculation

Now we come to the interesting bit. Here is some of the gossip I picked up.

1. UBC is likely to look at the re-design of large first year lecture classes, to improve the first year learning experience. (This is not really gossip, as it as highlighted in the last e-Strategy Newsletter). This project will be led by Ted Dodds, the Vice-Provost, Information Technology. As Ted Dodds himself put it:

How do we use technology more effectively to take over and perform some of the more mundane aspects of the teaching and learning process by using technology in creative ways, to free up people’s time for both the student and the instructor for more direct engagement? We don’t do that well right now….We’re saying that our first year experience in teaching and learning is broken at UBC, and we need to think creatively as to how we can make it better — and make it the best there is.

Brave words but also right on the money, from my perspective.

2. UBC is the home of WebCT. However, UBC is also a key partner in Kuali, an open source consortium developing administrative software. UBC’s licence renewal for WebCT Vista comes up shortly, and I would not be surprised if the university decides to move to an open source learning management system, such as Sakai, although I understand no decision has yet been made.

3. A new strategy for e-learning? UBC went through a comprehensive set of plans and reports around 2000 to encourage and strengthen the use of technology for teaching. Since then, it has created the central Office of Learning Technologies, which supports the LMS, provides instructional design and educational technology support for the faculties, and manages much of the distance education programs developed with faculties. Also the Faculty of Medicine has in partnership with the Universities of Victoria and Northern British Columbia developed a unique distributed learning undergraduate medical program that is doubling the number of doctors trained in BC. Several of the faculties have also set up their own learning technology support units. As we have seen, fully online distance education programs are expanding rapidly, and the university uses clickers, lecture capture and other classroom technologies. Being on the outside, there are many more e-learning developments within UBC that I don’t know about.

However, as with most universities, it has not moved away from either the traditional technology-enhanced classroom or fully online courses. There are problems at UBC with large lecture classes, overcrowding, students not being able to complete on time because courses are full, and often lack of interaction between undergraduate students and research professors. There is very little hybrid learning, where courses are designed with less face-to-face time and careful choice of what to do online and what to do face-to-face.

The move to re-design first year courses, and the growing confidence and expertise of the central and faculty learning technology groups, are signs that perhaps the university is ready for another way of innovation. However, this will still require leadership and a willingness from mainstream faculty to change.


I’ve never regretted my decision to leave UBC (I was coming up to mandatory retirement anyway) and to start a new career as a consultant. However, I left behind some very good colleagues and some interesting projects. It was good to re-connect with both, and I was a bit overwhelmed at the kind welcome I received.

UBC has been a leader in the use of technology in research universities. Faculty and staff created the .ca domain, WebCT, BCNet, and the distributed medical program. It has several fully online masters programs, a large number of online undergraduate courses, and has developed new business models for online programs aimed at lifelong learners.

It has over the last 10 years solidified its use of technology, though, rather than looking at institution-wide change in teaching and learning. With the right management, growing student numbers, a tight financial context, and experience and skill in using technology, we may see some really interesting developments at UBC over the next few years.



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