Online to improve on-campus

By Gregor Kiczales posted on April 14th, 2014

Last week at UBC we hosted two visitors for a day-long consultation on our Flexible Learning work. Eric Grimson is the the Chancellor for Academic Advancement at MIT, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and one of the instructors in the first course in MITx series on the foundations of computer science. Tony Bates was Director of Distance Education and Technology in Continuing Studies at UBC from 1995 to 2003, where he was responsible for many of the early developments in online learning at UBC. Prior to that, he was Professor of Educational Media Research at the Open University, where he worked for 20 years as one of the founding members of the staff.

During the course of the day Eric and Tony discussed our plans for Flexible Learning with us in small and large groups of various constituencies. The highlight of the day was a 2 hour forum where Eric and Tony  spoke and took questions from the audience. (Video and slides will be available shortly.) I have lots ideas for blog posts from the day, but I want to start with one of the most important themes they both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience. Good news for us, since this is directly in line with UBC’s Flexible Learning strategy, in which the first objective is to improve on-campus student learning through blended learning and other approaches.

Why can online learning—even the dreaded MOOCs—be used to improve on-campus education? The argument can be summarized as follows:

  • Much of what has always mattered in a university education happens outside of lectures. This  is one of the arguments the anti-MOOC forces often make in fact. Students learn from each other, as part of doing their work together in one course, as part of talking with each other across courses, as part of their free time exploits, or as part of more focused discussion with faculty.  So lecture was always one step removed from some of the most important learning at a university.
  • Moving the traditionally passive part of lecture to video enables more active learning in the classroom. Technology can also support mastery-based learning of the pre-class video material, so that students arrive ready for more active work. (It also makes the passive part itself more active.)
  • Recent results from learning research are enabling us to do a better and better job designing the pre-class, in-class and post-class material to increase engagement and learning.

One example that Eric Grimson gave has to do with how their 6.01 course (introduction to EECS) now runs. The course now has 1 lecture per week (which students can access on video), followed by a 1.5 hour software lab and a 3 hour design lab. The labs are staffed by faculty, graduate TAs and many undergraduate TAs.   During each lab every pair of students gets some time with a professor who is responding to the specific problem they are facing. So students get more faculty engagement than all but the most active students would get in a lecture. For faculty the teaching load changes from hours of prep for a lecture to less prep, but for more lab hours. The faculty work becomes more fun in many ways as it is engaging more closely with students.

So MOOCs aren’t the competition; other schools making good use of MOOCs, other technology and learning research are the competition.  What is going to happen is that some schools are going to work hard to learn how to make the on campus experience better than ever before. Technology plus re-designed classes moves faculty one step closer to the important learning. Instructors and programs that take advantage of that should be able to improve the learning experience for all of their students. This is particularly important for schools like UBC with very large first year classes—we can work to make those classes be more like upper-level classes than they are today.

As we move instructional design closer to the synergistic “magic” learning we may end up seeing very different courses than we see today. If content delivery is prior to class, and class time can be used to make connections, then perhaps those connections can be much more broad than before. You can see one example of where we might be headed by looking at Minerva’s four first year courses: complex systems, empirical analyses, formal analyses,  multimodal communications. Now there’s a lot going on with Minerva, including tiny classes, all the money in the world, and probably extremely talented students. But those classes are directly focused on the kinds of crosscutting synergistic learning we’ve always wanted our students to get out of the mix of classes they take. Minerva—which is built on the kinds of classroom experience the new technology enables—is focusing on those concepts directly. If other schools are brave enough they may get to equally creative new forms of residential higher education.


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