The University of New Brunswick

This has been a busy week for me, which accounts for the low number of postings. Earlier in the week, I was conducting a consultancy for the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton and Saint John. (For readers outside Canada, Fredericton and Saint John are more than 4,000 kilometres from Vancouver. It takes about 8 hours to fly commercially – and yes, I’m still in Canada).

Why I was in New Brunswick

The University of New Brunswick is in the middle of a strategic planning process. As part of that process, I was invited to the university for two days, May 10-11, 2010, where I met with faculty and senior administrators, and made three presentations on e-learning and economic development.

In such a short visit, it is not possible to get an in-depth understanding of an institution’s strengths and weaknesses, or the context in which it works. Nevertheless, it is important to embed e-learning and the use of technology for teaching within the context in which it will operate.

I have therefore drawn together my thoughts from a very brief visit and tried to summarise them, so that they can be considered within UNB’s overall strategic planning process.

I really enjoyed my visit to UNB, where I was extremely well looked after, and in particular I wish to thank Lloyd Henderson for his detailed planning of my trip and good hospitality. I am also very grateful that the university has agreed to let me share my report to them with all my readers, as I believe many of your institutions will be facing similar challenges to those at UNB.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick is one of Canada’s smallest provinces – about the same size as Ireland or Scotland or the Czech Republic – located on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada. Its total population is just under 1 million. About 80 percent of the land is covered with woodland inhabited by moose, bears and other wildlife. (Stephen Downes also lives there!) Workers in New Brunswick are paid about 15 percent less than the Canadian average, but house prices are also very cheap in comparison (average price $114,000 – compared to $450,000 in Vancouver). The three main cities are Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John. The province is fully bi-lingual (French and English).

New Brunswick has historically been heavily dependent on natural resources, such as forestry, fisheries, and mining, for economic development and jobs. However, even before the recent recession, these industries were in decline. In particular, Saint John has faced difficulties as its older industries – such as ship building – have been unable to compete in the world economy and have been closing. Current industries include brewing, electricity generation, transport/distribution, call centres and the largest oil-refinery in Canada.

In the 1990s, under the leadership of the premier, Frank McKenna, New Brunswick developed a small but internationally recognised high-tech industry, mainly in the Fredericton area. The Information and Communications Technology sector is now the second-largest business sector in the province with more than 700 new economy companies employing over 30,000 people and generating revenues of over $2.1 billion annually. The key sub-sectors are call centres, e-learning and games technology, e-business solutions, information and communications technologies and engineering solutions. The provincial government claims that New Brunswick is a leader in e-learning development and implementation. More than two million people around the world have taken online courses and advanced training offered by New Brunswick ‘s public and private e-learning providers.

A major concern is that the overall population in New Brunswick is declining in numbers and getting older (immigration to New Brunswick is low by Canadian standards, with about 3% of the population foreign immigrants, compared with 15% nationally). In particular, many young people are leaving the province to find work elsewhere.

The University of New Brunswick

The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is one of the oldest universities in Canada, founded 225 years ago. UNB has about 11,400 undergraduate and graduate students on its campuses. UNB claims to have the best student-to-faculty ratio of Canada’s comprehensive universities.  It has two campuses, one in Fredericton, and one in Saint John. In a bilingual province, UNB is the main university for English speakers.

The University of New Brunswick has had a long history of distance education, and has about 4,000 course enrollments (about 400 FTEs) in fully online courses. About half of these are in non-credit programs through UNB Online, and the Certificate in Health, Safety and Environmental Processes has over 1,300 enrollments each year from all across Canada. UNB also offers a full Masters in Education online, with a large cohort of students in Trinidad and Tobago. Most of these fully online courses are facilitated through the College of Extended Learning, working in close collaboration with the faculties. These online courses are treated as extra load, with faculty receiving a stipend for the development and delivery of these courses.

In addition to the fully online courses, many courses on campus use Blackboard and other technologies to support conventional classroom teaching, although in general faculty are reluctant to offer credit courses fully online, as they fear this will cause face-to-face class sizes to drop below sustainable levels.

The university has a relatively new President, and he has taken the initiative to develop a new strategic plan for the university. I was invited to talk to faculty and senior administrators about e-learning and online learning as part of this strategic planning process.

e-Learning and economic development

Although UNB has a long history of distance education and some valuable online learning programs, e-learning has not been seen to date as a ‘core’ activity in a university that prides itself on personal contact with students and an intimate campus learning environment. UNB is atypical of many universities in North America, in that enrollments are declining, especially from high schools. There also are many other universities in the region competing for New Brunswick students.

However, the fastest growing part of the economy is the information and communications technology sector. Although ‘core’ computer science is an important part of that, corporate and commercial e-learning and electronic games are also important business sectors. Furthermore, if the university can develop more students with the skills and competencies needed in a knowledge-based economy, there is an opportunity for even greater economic growth in this sector, as graduates establish new, small companies in niche areas.

Furthermore, it may be a mistake to think that a move to e-learning might reduce on-campus enrolments, especially if the university focuses on hybrid courses, with a reduced face-to-face component, perhaps in the later years of undergraduate programs, as well as distance courses for students in New Brunswick who cannot easily get to the Fredericton or Saint John campuses on a regular 9 to 5, five days a week basis. In particular, with an already dynamic technology business sector, and an aging population, more flexible delivery focused on embedding ICT skills in a wide range of subject areas will attract more lifelong learners to compensate for the reduction in high school leavers.

Some suggestions for UNB

In order to foster further development of knowledge-based industries in the province, I suggested the following steps:

1. Greater incorporation of ICT and other 21st century skills (e.g. independent learning, problem solving) in a wider range of programs and subject disciplines.

2. A gradual move from almost entirely face-to-face courses in first year programs to hybrid or fully distance programs in the fourth year undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as develop more online non-credit certificate or diploma programs focused on the lifelong learning market.

3. Start gradually to redesign courses in this way on a program by program basis. Make sure the new programs are properly resourced (time for development + learning technology support).

4. Stop treating distance education courses as extra load, but integrate them into regular credit programming as part of a normal teaching load for instructors, perhaps supplemented with revenues from full cost recovery courses aimed at lifelong learners.

5. Look to partnership and consortia to leverage the development of online programs on an international basis.

6. Provide systematic and comprehensive training in pedagogy and educational technology for instructors scheduled to work on online programs.

7. Provide instructional and web designers to work in teams with instructors for the redesign of courses.


The development of a new strategic plan provides an excellent opportunity for UNB to leverage its advantages as an old, well established university with an excellent student/faculty ratio, into the development of programs closely aligned with the economic development of the province. E-learning could and probably should be an essential component of that plan.


  1. Very insightful description of the local economy and the e-learning trends. There are parallels to be drawn with Ontario.

    What puzzles me is the definition of “21st century skills” (not explicitly addressed in this article). Following the lead given by the two examples, these “21st century” skills look more like the skills you’d likely have aimed for in any century.

    1. independent learning
    Isn’t it the very purpose of learning to guide the student to the point where she becomes able to think and to learn by herself? Furthermore, in old-style theory-oriented learning systems, the consequential natural selection was precisely leaving out all those who were not able to manage learning by themselves (e.g. “magic maths” where some get it while other have no clue and how).

    2. problem solving
    I am just glad people were solving problem long before I was born. Long before the first writings, thousands of years ago, people were solving problems to eat, to stay healthy and to communicate their knowledge. Some will argue that computers bring all sorts of problems to our society, if that’s true we’ll have to develop this ability further, for sure.

    In conclusion, I am still very suspicious of these “new” skills that nobody had before our time. It sounds like marketing sugar-coating to sell us more computers (and possibly more problems altogether).

    “Older” (ie. less computer-educated) people seem to buy easily that ICT skills are hard to acquire, but the evidence shows that it is not the case, since kids learn lots of these by their own, starting in their early age. I just don’t see what these “21st century skills” could be and what would make them so different than other centuries’. In any case, I will argue they are not obvious and they would deserve a proper definition.

  2. Hi, Marc

    Good comments. I should have linked my comments on 21st century skills to an earlier posting on this topic <> and an article by Stephen Downes: <>

    Yes, these skills have always been taught in the past, especially with small classes, but in recent years the teaching method has changed in many universities to a more transmissive model of education, based on large lecture classes.

    Technology provides an opportunity to redesign the teaching so that even in large classes these skills can be taught.

    The other point that I make is that these skills are not generic, but need to be embedded within a particular learning domain: problem solving in science is not done the same way as problem-solving in business – there is not a direct transference of skills between these two knowledge domains.

    I hope that meets your criticism.

  3. Hi Tony,

    No arguments on your article about 21st century skills and competences. Thank you for the reference.

    I belong to the school of thought arguing that ICT skills should be acquired throughout the primary and secondary-level curriculum, as we also learn to develop the skills to use paper and pen. I see ICT as a tool rather than a subject matter for basic education purposes.

    That being said, we should expect university students to be more reflexive. This is where I would go further to say that skills and competences are not enough, in my opinion. Students need to grasp the particular “culture” that goes with each body of knowledge.

    Every subject matter has a cultural element to it. Literature is the obvious example, but mathematics (a less obvious pick) is highly cultural as well. One of my best memories from university is actually this course on historical mathematics, in which we went through proofs in the authors’ words (translated). Amazing how people think differently across ages and locations. They struggle with the same delicate questions. There is also a knowledge of “the domain” that needs to be duly acquired to avoid re-inventing the wheel. As you said, each domain has its own ways, in terms of problem-solving, and thinking patterns.

    Sadly, skills-focused curricula may tend to mold students into generic tools for corporations to easily use and dispose of. In the area of ICT, a person able only to use XYZ software tool without understanding the theoretical ins and outs will convert easily into i) a strong advocate for XYZ software, and ii) a substitutable HR piece. This goes against i) good supply chain practices (ie vendor-independence and open procurement), and ii) job security for the individual (or any hope of finding a niche as an entrepreneur).

    In a globalized digital economy, whereas North America compete as a high-value service provider, the country and its students’ competitive advantage reside in innovation and management capabilities. Research shows that innovation produces more sizable benefits than process improvement. I won’t go into the Resource-based view of management to claim that core competencies are key to develop a sustainable competitive advantage. However, I doubt that pure skills acquisition (although a necessary step) can unleash the same creative potential that will lead to innovations.

    Technology and skills are quickly copied, compared to innovation capabilities fonded on a deep understanding of the “domain”, management skills to “get things done”, and 21st century skills. I believe this is where Canada shines, to help creative and entrepreneurial minds mature and flourish.


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