Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UBC Flexible Learning Strategy

The University of British Colombia (UBC) have released report detailing their Flexible Learning Strategy. This should be of value to universities in Australia, and elsewhere, facing similar challenges from online competition and a demand for professionally relevant education. UBC's short term strategy is to: 1. improve the learning technology used for blended coruses, 2. develop continuing and professional education programs and, 3. join the edX consortium.
On 22 August 2014 I attended a Flexible Learning Strategy Workshop at UBC's main campus in Vancouver. This workshop was intended for internal staff and so I could not report all the details at the time. The UBC Flexible Learning Implementation Team have now released "Flexible Learning Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC: Vancouver Campus", summarising this and other workshops. Apart from making public that UBC have joined edX (something which the implementation team asked me not to reveal previously, although everyone on the UBC campus seemed to already know), this document sets out the challenges for a large traditional university and some options for UBC to address these challenges.
The issues UBC is seeking to address are:
  1. Increasing focus on vocational education,
  2. Online competition,
  3. Demand for mid-career education.

While these are problems from the point of view of an established university, perhaps the issue should be "flipped" and looked at from the point of view of the view of the customer, that is the student. As a student, I don't want to have to go across town (or across the world) to a set place, at a set time to undertake a set course of study. What I first want is help identifying what education I need for my career (and life) goals, formal recognition for prior learning and recognition of my experience. Only after that do I want to undertake courses, and other forms of education, to fill in any gaps in my education. As much as possible I want to do this without having to attend a campus and at time of my choosing. Also I only want to pay for the education I need and get.

UBC's Executive Summary describes the problem as:
"Globalization, demography and the evolving careers market are changing the population of learners, while technological innovations and learning research are both empowering and challenging universities’ role in higher education.
To understand the impact of these forces, we analyze the extent to which they enable other institutions to unbundle the components of education traditionally delivered by universities, and to challenge the capacity of the university to cross-subsidize between activities. We conclude that in a world in which excellent content and delivery are increasingly available online (and often for free) ..."
Less clearly it goes on to propose a solution:
"... we must invest in delivering an outstanding education that is far more than content. These same forces may also unlock university access to new learner and program opportunities, and the potential for collaborations that strengthen a university’s position in the delivery of higher education. Indeed we are already seeing some evidence of this reshaping."
 It goes on to say:
"(1) strengthening performance in its traditional undergraduate programs through Place-based innovation in curriculum and student experience;  (2) addressing adjacent and growing areas of demand for higher education; and (3) building partnerships that allow us to offer our students the most effective learning experiences and widest array of opportunities."
By "Place-based" I assume that "on campus" is meant. Growing areas of demand are presumably non-campus based courses and "partnerships" edX and similar.

UBC segments students into four groups:
  1. Access-driven degree seekers: Traditional and younger students who want to attend a campus, but still want some of the learning online (a blended model).
  2. Convenience-driven degree-seekers: Adult students wanting an online program.
  3. Practitioners: Students seeking for prior learning assessment and credit transfer for professional qualifications (which may not be a degree).
  4. Growth learners: Those seeking education for less career specific goals.
The problem for the university is how to satisfy these diverse groups with limited resources. Also demand will fluctuate and the same people may seek different types of education at different times.

Such market segmentation may cause problems for the university in that it could end up competing with itself. A product offered by one group of students may be attractive for another group. As an example online courses may be offered for adult "convenience-driven" students, but could also be attractive to younger students who would otherwise have attended a traditional full time on campus program.

Also it is not clear why only practitioners would seek recognition of prior learning and credit transfer. Presumably any student will want credit for what they have already done elsewhere. I know I do and I am increasingly unwilling to sign up for educational programs where this option is not provided.

Three opportunities the UBC report identifies are:
  1. Continuing and professional education (CPE).
  2. Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), also known as Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL),
  3. Academic partnerships (including MOOC consortia).
As the report points out none of these are new concepts and none is without difficulties. However, the availably of on-line technology makes them easier to implement (as well as increasing the competition from non-traditional educational providers).

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