Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

September 14, 2014 Tony Bates
UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting’: want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

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