Friday, August 22, 2014

Future of University Education Being Discussed in Vancouver This Week

Greetings from the University of British Colombia (UBC) where I am attending a Flexible Learning Strategy Workshop. I got off the aircraft from Sydney two hours ago, so this posting may not make much sense. I am here to speak on "Chinese and Australian Students Learning to Work Together Online" at  the 2014 IEEE International Conference on Computer Science and Education (ICCSE 2014) which starts tomorrow. I am also speaking to UBC and Simon Fraser University (SFU) people about their e-learning plans next week, but I noticed this seminar was on for staff, but open to anyone, so I signed up.

UBC, like other universities, is under pressure to deliver more vocationally orientated programs which match the best in the world, while containing costs. Also full service universities have to compete with institutions offering specialised education.  These issues are very familiar from discussions in Australia. UBC is  addressing these issues under the term Flexible Learning.

UBC is formulating its Flexible Learning Strategy in consultation with the university community. Other universities have tended to either ignore the issues, or leap into signing up with some product or consortium. Some of the issues revolve around what the broad mission of a university is and how flexible learning can help this.

UBC has three goals for Flexible Learning:
  1.     enhance educational outcomes,
  2.     enable greater access to UBC learning,
  3.     improve  effectiveness with new learning models.

UBC had priorities for the Flexible Learning Initiative:

  1. Transformation of undergraduate courses to blended mode,
  2. Targeted growth in professional programs: Applied Master’s & certification,
  3. Flexible continuum between credit and non-credit sources,
  4. MOOCs
However, there does not appear to be a specific "strategy" as such, instead there are a collection of projects to address the priorities.  This is a similar approach to ANU, which does not have one single approach to education. I did notice that UBC has a draft policy "Use of Learning Materials in UBC Credit Courses", which encourages the use of Creative Commons licenses.

UBC is not new to flexible learning. One of their flexible learning projects which is of interest to me is "Engineering for Sustainable Development" and their UBC's online courses includes "Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations" (through Coursera).

It appears that although UBC already offers courses through Coursera, they UBC is considering joining the edX Consortium.  ANU is already a member and has run two free open online courses (I am supervising a post-graduate student who has surveyed the students on their experience). However, it should be noted that membership of such a consortium is not an education strategy in itself (just as installing learning management software is not). The real questions are what you are going to do with the technology, why you are going to do it, how it will help the students (the community and of course the university) and how thousands of staff (and students) are going to learn new skills to implement the strategy.

I took part in the group discussion, the details of which I agreed not to reveal, however the themes were familiar from Australian universities. On a less serious note, transport metaphors seemed to feature in the discussion. One person commented that being asked to envision flexible learning was like asking a bus driver about the future of transport: they may think of a flying bus, but it would still be a bus. Another commented that they felt like they were tied to the bow of a ship and were wondering where it was being steered and by whom.

I will be talking about what I found in Canada, at the ACS e-learning SIG Meeting at the Australian National University in Canberra, 3 September (all welcome).

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