Cloud U – UBC ventures into the virtual university

The traditional university experience is in the midst of a major transformation, thanks of course to the Internet and other rapidly evolving information technologies.

Some experts go so far as to ring the death knell of the traditional classroom and campus life as we know it. Hugh Brock, UBC Vancouver Associate-Provost responsible for academic innovation, Pierre Ouillet, VP Finance, and Wes Pue, UBC Okanagan Provost, share with UBC Reports their thoughts about this rapidly approaching future.

UBC Reports: There’s a lot of talk about what universities are going to look like ten years from now: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are just one aspect of the rapid progress sweeping through online learning. Can you describe the options that a 2023 UBC applicant will face?

Hugh Brock, UBC Vancouver Associate-Provost responsible for academic innovation; Photo by Martin Dee

Hugh Brock: This kind of prediction is a lot harder to make these days because everything is changing so radically. Still, I would venture this far: before long, students will be able to obtain online degrees from all major universities in the world.  Most universities will offer fewer subjects, and do them better, in order to attract a global, select community.  In the same way that consumers expect free online news, music, and digital entertainment, we know that knowledge will be free, open-source, and customizable.  Students will be willing to pay university tuition if they get quality, intensity and a variety of interactive experiences.

Pierre Ouillet, VP Finance; Photo by Martin Dee

Pierre Ouillet:  First year will depend on where this student chooses to live.  If on campus, some of the learning could take place online, with further applications and explorations in a small class setting – what we call the ‘flipped classroom.’ Another student, living in Campbell River for example, could also receive instruction online, and join fellow students on campus during weekends or in the summer for capstone programs. A student living in Brazil could get acquainted with UBC profs through a MOOC and decide to make the jump to UBC. It’s no longer one size fits all – if it ever was.

Wes Pue, UBC Okanagan Provost; Photo by Martin Dee

Wes Pue: This future will be an intensely interconnected one – the planet will be much smaller for students who, through new learning technologies, will be able to access anyone, anywhere around the world in their areas of interest.UBC already has a global online presence through its students, faculty and researchers.  We can expect this to grow rapidly.

UBCR: What is driving UBC to explore some of these options? It would seem some of them could actually undermine the very fabric of the university.

Ouillet:  Two reasons. First, the way new generations of students learn is changing rapidly and we want the UBC experience to be exceptional for them. Secondly, every year UBC accepts 5,000 undergraduate students into first year, but has to turn down 30,000 others who are often very strong.  What we call ‘blended learning’ – the use of online delivery for parts of a course – will help us improve access. This is a big deal here in B.C. where the 57 per cent post-secondary graduation rate is behind the Canadian average.

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Courses in Metagenomics and Metatranscriptomics ?

I'll be graduating from a 4 - year Microbiology program at the University of Saskatchewan in May 2013 and notice that the U of S does not offer courses in Metagenomics and Metatranscriptomics, despite the fact that these skills cut a wide swath across Industrial Microbiology, Agriculture, and Biotechnology. I'm aware that a lot
of the mechanics of these capabilities gets outsourced from labs to private companies. Still, sample preparation and pretreatment are necessary for any analytical work in my experience, and of course some labs ( particularly university labs ) might want to do the work in - house. Will UBC offer online courses with 2 day-a-week in-person classes/labs in metagenomics and metatranscriptomics ?


2 Things: 

This past fall I returned to school for a diploma at UBC. I was very surprised to learn that UBC does not Podcast lectures, as this seems to now be common-place for a lot of other large universities. 

At the same time, I have to question what the consequences could be for a generation of students who are physically removed from the University atmosphere. Students are not just empty vessels to be filled with facts and figures, they have growing to do through decisions that they face while at University. We are already facing societal issues because of the anonymity of the internet. If our education goes too far down this path, what else can we expect to lose?