What does flexible learning look like?

By Heather McCabe posted on May 23rd, 2013

Stephen Toope discussing Flexible Learning - 2

UBC President Stephen Toope, speaking about what could be seen as a historic shift in education that has also impacted the music industry, publishing, and “any other group that has focused on the provision of content and creative ideas,” opened a recent discussion on campus about what flexible learning looks like.

The event on May 8 included presentations from faculty members engaged in a wide range of innovative learning strategies, plus a talk from Kiran Mahal, Vice President Academic and University Affairs for the Alma Mater Society (AMS), on what students think about flexible learning.

In contrast to jumping on a bandwagon or not adapting to these changes, President Toope spoke about how the UBC community has invested in the Carl Wieman initiative and other initiatives on campus, and is learning from its own neuroscientists about how people learn. “And we’re trying to apply that in a context where there are now all sorts of technology-enabled opportunities that just didn’t exist before.”

“I think if we could get this right as a great, globally influential research intensive university, we would be playing a role that could be significant, really significant for a lot of other universities,” Toope said. “And I think we’ve got the capacity to do it, partly because of the very people who are in this room who’ve been beginning this process now for quite a number of years.”

The key point to remember when thinking about flexible learning, President Toope emphasized, is to make the learning experience better for students. “It’s actually about making the student experience more engaging and better here and now.”

The presentations by faculty members touched on a variety of ideas and themes, noted Dr. Simon Bates, UBC’s Senior Advisor on Teaching and Learning, and the Academic Director for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT), who facilitated the event. These included multiple examples of flexible or flipped designs for classrooms; the importance of learning inside and outside the classroom; students acting as co-developers or co-producers of learning content; and flexibility from the micro level, being able to access course material and assessment outside the classroom on a daily or weekly basis, to the macro level of how degrees are put together and pathways that people can take through various programs.

Dr. Mark Edwards, Assistant Dean for Professional Development and Community Engagement at the Faculty of Education, spoke about the Master of Educational Technology program, which, for just over a decade, has offered a completely online graduate program for professional teachers that explores the potential use and impact of learning technologies in a variety of contexts.

“For 11 years, professional educators have been working with scholars and UBC’s learning design team to solve the problems of their own learning online, not to mention the authentic learning challenges of their very workplaces and classrooms,” Edwards said. “Across 11 years, these educators/students have explored the possibilities afforded by the technology of the day, and they have become educational leaders of flexible technology and technology-enhanced learning. Everyone involved has benefitted and much has been learned.”

A few speakers talked about their experiences with flipped classrooms. Dr. Paul Cubbon, a marketing instructor at the Sauder School of Business, said that when he started flipping his classroom four years ago, “What we were doing was we were trying fundamentally to tap into the latent passion that I knew that students had for learning. When people were bored, they really said that they were frustrated that they hadn’t been engaged.” Now Cubbon uses multiple techniques like mini-lectures and PulsePress, which acts like a live Twitter feed and is broadcast on a screen during class. With these methods, “We have everyone really live and engaged during class.”

On a slightly larger scale, Dr. Peter Loewen, Assistant Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences, spoke about the development of the doctor of pharmacy programs, which he is in charge of at UBC. The field of pharmacy is in the process of transitioning from the required bachelor’s of science degree to a doctor of pharmacy degree, which will be needed to practice. “That means that there’s a massive cloud of bachelor’s-trained pharmacists out in practice.” Loewen commented.

The University is building a doctor of pharmacy program that is inherently flexible to train pharmacists who are already in practice. Students will be able to complete the program at their own pace, and it should take three to five years to obtain the degree. In the first phase of the program, students will engage in distance learning, and in the second phase, they will take part in 12 months of experiential learning. The program is designed for people located anywhere in British Columbia.

Other speakers at the event included Dr. Fred Cutler, Associate Professor and director of the undergraduate program in Political Science, and Dr. Paul Carter, a senior instructor in Computer Science, who both talked about flipping their classrooms. And Jeff Miller, CTLT Senior Manager of Distance and Blended Learning and Afsaneh Sharif and Ranga Venkatachary, both instructional designers and project managers at CTLT, spoke about distance education courses that use a frame of flexible learning. Miller said that 80 percent of distance education students at UBC are on campus, and that flexibility in their schedules and location are some of the main reasons why they are taking these courses.

Mahal, who in addition to her position with the AMS is also a fifth-year student in biochemistry, spoke about the student perspective on flexible learning. She noted that students are regularly asked to evaluate a teacher’s performance during a course, but they don’t often have input on how courses are designed. “Students view flexible learning as an opportunity to engage in dialogue where they can be part of the rebuilding, redesigning, or reimagining of courses,” she said. “We want to start to see courses that are built around what students want to learn and how students want to engage with material, be it from the defining of learning outcomes to the actual assessments of courses. Students are really excited to be part of those discussions and part of that opportunity to really reimagine how we deliver courses.”

Mahal stressed that engaging as many students as possible is key to how students will view and adopt flexible learning at the University. “In speaking to students, what will make a difference on whether flexible learning really changes the university culture is whether students are engaged from day one, and that’s very important to us.”

President Toope spoke about how the discussion around flexible learning is just beginning at UBC. “Flexible learning, I think, is going to be one of the great challenges that we face together over the course of the next decade,” he said. “This is going to be a constant conversation, I suspect, over the course of the next few years.”

In that vein, UBC will be hosting two upcoming events on flexible learning. On May 31, as part of the CTLT Institute, a panel composed of senior UBC officials, instructors from UBC’s four Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, will discuss the impact of MOOCs and ways to design and teach MOOCs that maximize learning.

And on June 7, UBC will welcome Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard University and Area Dean of Applied Physics, who will give a talk entitled, “The Tyranny of the Lecture.” Mazur developed peer instruction in the early 1990’s, and the method is now used internationally and in a range of disciplines to enhance student engagement and learning.