Possible futures for UBC in 2050

By Emi Sasagawa posted on June 1st, 2016


In May, the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) held a panel discussion on what education would look like in 2050, in celebration of one hundred years of teaching and learning at UBC. The event aimed to bring together faculty, students and staff to review the major changes that have occurred, discuss breakthroughs and innovations poised to have significant influences on the future, and chart the near-term future of teaching and learning at UBC.

The panel was moderated by Simon Bates, Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning, and Academic Director at CTLT. Among the panelists discussing the future of higher education were Dr. Angela Redish, provost and vice-president academic pro tem; Dr. David Farrar, advisor to the president; Annie Murphy Paul, book author and journalist; Daniel Munro, former associate vice president, academic and university affairs at the UBC AMS; Janet Giltrow, English professor; Dr. Sandra Jarvis-Selinger, associate dean in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Simon Peacock, dean of the Faculty of Science.

Thinking backwards

Bates began the event by challenging panel members to think back to 1982. What did education look like then? Could they foresee then what education would look like now?

Giltrow: Liberal arts education produced the gentleman and then social sciences produced the well-rounded citizen. I think of today’s claim in social sciences and humanities we often hear that graduates will have to change their jobs 15 times or renew themselves five times in their working lives and I wonder how much that is just a way of updating that claim about the well-rounded, gentlemanly citizen.

Paul: I was 10 years old in 1982 and what I remember from that time is spending time with my father and his brothers who grew up in a steel town in Ohio. My father had a college degree and all his other brothers had gone straight from high school right into the factory in town and had built prosperous, stable middle class lives for themselves. Those jobs don’t exist anymore. That means we need to pull in a much bigger, much more diverse group of students into higher education these days if we want to ensure prosperity across our population. We need to make it education for life, the fast changing life that today’s college student will need to lead.

Farrar: Thirty-five years ago I received a letter from the University of Toronto telling me I’d been hired as an assistant professor in the chemistry department. They detailed a number of things I was going to have to do that first year and one of them was teach one section of first year chemistry. There was no conversation of what competencies you expect a student to have at the end of that period, the outcomes that you want for that course. All I was told was to go in there and teach the 13 chapters [of the textbook].

The new well-rounded citizen

Taking into consideration Giltrow’s notion of the well-rounded citizen, Bates asked the panel in what ways might student needs and the skills they will have to acquire at university change in the next 34 years.

Munro: It’s still about being the well-rounded citizen, but what that means and what that looks like is changing quickly. There’s going to have to be more of an effort made to recognize that learning that happens at the university outside the traditional classroom boundary is as important as learning that goes on inside the classroom.

Giltrow: Right beside that notion of the well-rounded generalist is the fact of the institutional structure which is based in the research discipline and they are highly differentiated, highly specialized. That’s the source of their energy for producing knowledge. I think what we could do, maybe not to displace the well-rounded citizen but to elaborate our thoughts about the goals, is to think of each program producing with its graduate an expertise that goes out into the community and that expertise is responsible insofar as it can answer the questions that communities beyond have about important topics, like health, culture, migration, power.

Jarvis-Selinger: [Faculty] in both pharmaceutical sciences and medicine are in a constant dynamic tension with preparing students for those immediate needs of the application of those competencies and skills for safe practice in the healthcare environment and [at the same time] being able to really engender the idea that a four-, six- or eight-year education doesn’t prepare you for the fact that you’re going to be in practice 30 or 40 years. It comes down to the idea of understanding how to balance out the fact that we as a group cannot predict where the future of the profession is going. What we need to prepare is a group that for a very brief period of time will interact with us and for a very long period of time will interact in the system.

Technology in the future

Technology is often at the core of predictions made about the future more broadly. Will cars fly? Will we be able to tele transport? In the context of higher education, Bates posed the question, “As far into the future as you think you’re able to predict, how might technology influence or disrupt the way teachers teach and students learn?”

Redish: I think of supply and demand. Technology is getting cheaper and cheaper. What’s the thing that’s becoming more and more scarce? Well, it’s interpersonal relationships because that doesn’t scale up in that sense. I think that what that means to me is that [interpersonal engagement] will be become more and more valuable. What will be most valued is the one-on-one relationship between the professor and the student. It will change what students want to learn.

Peacock: In the department of computer science people rather than do teleconferences get together in virtual reality spaces and they find it feels a bit more real and I think in part it’s speaking to that personal touch, even through avatars interacting. I do think we are social animals. We’ve succeeded because of our ability to work together and learn from each other and I think that will continue and whether that’s through virtual reality or actually through technology.

Jarvis-Selinger: How will technology allow us to get closer to the things that we probably in the past have tried to describe and abstract in a lot of ways? What if you as a learner could become the drug and watch it metabolize? What if as a neonatologist you experienced it from the zygote’s perspective and I think those are the interesting places. But you continue to need that guidance and that expert to really make use of what could be an amazing opportunity for learning. You need to know then how that opportunity to experience this turns into the ability to treat patients and to be empathetic and caring, and to be in a human relationship.

Paul: Technology will increasingly engage the body and not just the mind. We think usually of people, when using technology of sitting very still and looking at a screen. I think that’s going to change and should change, bringing the body in as a vehicle for learning. Also, we often think of people using technology alone and I think increasingly technology will be a social — hopefully a vehicle for bringing people together and increasing their social interaction or facilitating it.

Faculty roles in 2050

The next theme for the panel was the roles that faculty play today and how they might be similar or different  in the future. “What kind of changes and support will be required to support this evolutional revolution?” Bates added.

Farrar: In some way I think we will still look like what we look like, superficially. There will be a few people who have the role of a traditional professor who do everything, but I don’t think there will be many. What you’ll see is a huge diversity of people doing different tasks as part of a team and the team-based approaches to things will become far more common. I think [this] will become the norm in teaching. You will have a continuum of people performing tasks that support the learning environment.

I also think there will be a lot more breadth courses that are enabled by learning technologies as well. We’re teaching far too much right now. And the idea of how many hours you spend on a task is irrelevant. So I think you’ll see a huge diversity of people and you’ll see a lot more intelligent use of technology.

Peacock: Economics is going to play a huge role and not necessarily in the direction that we might like. To some extent we have been able to continue to advance and do better by getting big. Now, there are challenges about teaching big. We have now gone from a single model of a professor. This is a university that is ahead of the curve in valuing the contributions that teaching  faculty can make. We have faculty that specialize in teaching and education leadership, and more traditional professors who do both research and teaching. I think 35 years from now where we end up is going to be profoundly shaped by economics, the extent to which the public continues to see value in what we do, and we’ve seen, certainly south of the border, some pretty hard shocks already as states have bailed from higher education.

Redish: I think the changing inequality is a huge thing. What does society want universities to do and what does society expect of university professors? I think that’s going to be a huge driving force, I’m a little bit hopeful along the lines of scale that there are areas where students can learn more on their own or amongst their peers, which is probably the most powerful force that students have. So there’s a bit more of that and a little bit of focused time with the faculty member who is curating material rather than teaching the material.

Jarvis-Selinger: One of the things that I thought of is that it would be wonderful if we had better blended models of employment. If you think of pharmaceutical sciences and you think of pharmacists both in hospitals and communities, you think of medicine and you think of physicians both in practice and in education, the big challenge ends up being at some point a choice of are you going down the academic route and are you going to invest in teaching the future of the profession? Or are you going to try to keep your hand in the practice side of things? The people who do both, I’ve seen, get really burned out because they have two masters that don’t really see the other one as viable. It’s one taking time away from the other.

The future of credentials

Bates ended his questions to the panel with one last theme: university credentials. “It’s around degrees and courses and structures and the way all of the pieces of a university education fit together and lead to a credential. How’s that going to change? How does it need to change? How might it change?”

Redish: It will change. The BA, the BSc will still be there in 2050. There will be a plethora of other credentials and a number of people will create their BA’s and BSc’s by putting together a smorgasbord mosaic of courses from a whole bunch of different places.

Munro: I think there’s still a need for people to still stick within one discipline and still have some of those silos because otherwise it’s hard to see where you’re going to get the expertise to create that mixed degree in the first place.

Farrar: I don’t think it will be timed the way things are timed now. I think it will be based on competencies or on outcomes and that people will move through it at varying speeds and over a wide landscape that technology will enable.

Paul: There’s something about being part of a community for a certain amount of time with other people, going through that institution together and being a part of that institution, getting instruction from that institution is quite different from just demonstrating that expertise somewhere else. A college degree is kind of an endurance test.

Jarvis-Selinger: I would like to see that the change fights the educational inflation of the past 20 years. Now you can’t be out of high school and do the jobs that you used to be able to do. Now you need a BA. Now you need an MA. Now you need a PhD. So what I would really like to see is kind of a more network-based consortium model across institutions that really looks at life-long learning.

Giltrow: We need to decide overall what we want universities to accomplish. I think the culture has let certain assumptions lie silent and unchallenged for a long time. I would argue that we go to that serious, demanding, intellectual commitment and outcomes-based discipline approach.

Peacock: I am quite skeptical. I think there is a value to some structure and it varies widely here at UBC, from the humanities to engineering. Engineering has a very prescribed cohort base and I think the final thought is economics is going to affect our ability to provide an individualized path for all. I think we’re going to still be, still have a fairly standard approach to degrees.

The panel discussion was one of two UBC Centennial Sessions hosted by CTLT and part of Celebrate Learning Week, a weeklong showcase celebrating teaching and learning opportunities at UBC. A webcast of the event is available.