Monday, December 22, 2014
Last updated: 3 days ago

Katic: UBC behind the times on digital education

Geoff Lister/The Ubyssey

We are living through a technological revolution in higher education, but UBC is falling behind the curve. While UBC struggles with the cumbersome WebCT Vista interface, under-utilizes services like iTunes U, and sluggishly adopts lecture-capture, other schools are forging ahead with innovative technologies that are fundamentally changing university teaching.

Sixteen leading universities (the only Canadian one being U of T) are partnering to create free massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Others are placing entire courses on iTunes U, which allows professors to upload audio and video of their lectures to the iTunes store for free. Others are digitizing their bookstores, encouraging online peer-to-peer tutoring, and developing advanced web-based learning modules.

The large impersonal lecture hall is clearly not suiting student needs, so they are seeking any outside help they can get.

Despite UBC’s sluggish adoption, you only need to sit in any class and you will see these technologies are already radically transforming the way UBC students learn.

Students are already trying just about every technology to help us better absorb “traditional” methods of teaching. We record our science lectures and review them outside of class. We introduce ourselves to course material by reading Wikipedia, and listen to podcasts like Philosophy Bites to review. You can now learn the fundamentals of mathematics by logging onto the Khan Academy, or computer science on Code Academy. And class lectures can be supplemented by downloading MIT, Berkley and Stanford lectures, and sometimes even taking free online courses during the summer.

It’s no surprise that universities are putting free material online (it advances their international prestige), but it might surprise you that busy UBC students have the time to consume it.

I think we can find some answers in the recent AMS Academic Experience Survey, which asked students about nearly every facet of student life. The most significant cause of stress at UBC, above anxiety around graduation and financial stress (second and third most stressful, respectively), was course workload. Students find their courses so difficult that, in some faculties, as much as 40 per cent of students think that some of their courses are “designed to fail large numbers of students.”

The large impersonal lecture hall is clearly not suiting student needs, so they are seeking any outside help they can get.

In an increasingly competitive environment, the professors that stand out will be those who see these new technologies as an opportunity to assist their students.

In the short term, I encourage UBC professors to use lecture capture (the technology is already being developed through the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology) for their students. In addition, they can help students brush up on fundamentals by integrating existing online resources into their course material, like Khan Academy videos (or, for the ambitious, original videos, tutorials or podcasts).

In the long term, I think we should press for advanced web-based learning modules. Some of these technologies already have the ability to track individual student progress, making it easy for teachers (informed by the statistics) to spend class time teaching to the unique needs of the class.

Additionally, UBC should be participating more in open-source initiatives that make research and teaching widely accessible, thereby using academic expertise in service of the general public.

It’s not entirely clear where the digital shift is taking us, but it does hold the promise of turning our one-size-fits all model of education into something accessible, dynamic, collaborative and exploratory. But we aren’t quite there yet. UBC is still closer to the cold Headmaster Thomas Gradgrind of Dickens’ Hard Times than we are to the dreams of Sir Ken Robinson, or techno-utopians like Salman Khan and Candace Thille.