Place of mind learning

By Gregor Kiczales posted on February 4th, 2015

Today’s Vancouver Sun has an article by Yvonne Zacharias on CIBT Education Group‘s plans to convert a 17 story luxury hotel in downtown Vancouver into international student housing. CIBT has 3 similar projects under development and 9 more on the drawing board. According to the article, in 2011 there were 100k international students living in Metro Vancouver, so that’s roughly 4% of the population. So the secondary and post-secondary schools aren’t the only ones benefitting from the influx of  students. A not insignificant part of the Vancouver rental market depends on international students as well.

But seen through the lens of UBC’s Flexible Learning Strategy this move looks like much more than a real-estate play. By focusing on students, by providing busses to schools, by providing on-site tutoring and more, these buildings are setting themselves up as academic villages, with the potential to replicate and compete with the universities in interesting ways. (Interesting here is a polite word for unpleasant.)

Think about  a private campus with 500+ UBC students. That is a large enough group of students to support both generic and subject matter specific tutors. Let’s face it, students like to beat the rush home, because no one likes a crowded bus. Once they get home, onsite tutors are much more convenient. Onsite tutors who speak the student’s native language are—or at least may be perceived to be—even more convenient. CIBT will be well positioned to charge for tutoring using “a la carte” models instead of UBC’s “buffet style” TA pricing. That kind of revenue stream will likely allow them to pay more than UBC now pays its TAs. For TAs who live near or on a private campus these jobs may be much more attractive than on campus jobs.

If the CIBT academic villages have housing, social activities, learning spaces and tutoring, then what about courses? CIBT could organize groups of students taking MOOCs or other online courses. At that point the experience of living there has much of what being at a university has, even if you never get on the B Line. Notably missing are student selection, content development and content delivery. Students taking private campus MOOCs could apply for credit via challenge exams at UBC and other schools. Alternatively CIBT could perhaps offer credit through Sprott Shaw College with whom it has an existing relationship.

This is exactly how disaggregation and re-consolidation hurt established players. By picking a few services we now provide—housing, TAs and a few large classes—and combining them into a new package, CIBT can hit different points in the cost/quality/selection space of the market. They can provide a smaller number of more specialized and more profitable learning products.

A key element of re-bundling is to get out from under union contracts and other so-called legacy high-price labour market structures. Start a new airline to get different pilot wage structures. Split up a manufacturing company to get a two tier wage structure. Turn taxicabs into an app to get around regulation and labor market structures. In an academic village of this kind CIBT will be well positioned to do just this. They would not be responsible for much of the academic activity, instead they outsource it more cheaply. The TAs would be private contractors. The MOOCs come from other schools. In this world, CIBT is—to twist UBC’s term—a place of learning, without having to be the more expensive to operate place of mind.


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Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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