Some Considerations for UBC’s Transformation to Online Learning

UBC faculty are in the midst of re-designing the university’s courses for online delivery in the Fall.  This extraordinary and unprecedented transformation on a university-wide scale requires significant support and financial resources.

While students were generally appreciative of the efforts instructors made during the unexpected and sudden switch to remote learning in the middle of March, they expect the courses they take this fall to be well-designed online learning experiences meeting UBC’s high educational standards.

To provide such high-calibre online learning experiences for  UBC’s 65,000 students will require a serious investment on the part of the university.

To be sure, the Administration has directed some key units to focus on supporting this transformation (e.g. UBCV’s CTLT and UBCO’s CTL, UBC IT, UBC Studios — all with many excellent staff). It has also repurposed $2 million of the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) on the Vancouver campus to support this transformation; this fund normally supports work involving only a small fraction of UBC’s courses. UBCO has committed $1.59 million to support its online teaching transformation efforts so far, of which $1.39 million is new funding.

Is this enough to support several thousand faculty members in their work to transform their courses? Is it enough to support the teaching of hundreds of courses online to tens of thousands of students?

This isn’t just an exercise in streaming lectures (live or recorded); it involves designing and delivering substantial online learning experiences for all of our students. The vast majority of the faculty have no real experience, let alone expertise, in online learning; and while many UBC faculty have expertise in high-engagement learning, little of their experience is through teaching fully online courses.  We are all learning as we go.

There are committees and working groups of faculty and staff convening at the university, faculty, and department levels around this transformation, and I expect they have identified issues to address, together with the actions and resources needed, to make this transformation successful. I have seen a few limited communications about this work, but I have had a difficult time piecing together from them the state of this massive project.

If I may, here are some of the things I believe need to considered and funded so we can offer students high-calibre online courses in the Fall.

1. Our students need access to a quality of internet service sufficient to participate fully in the courses they take online at UBC. 

Online learning requires reliable internet access and the quality of internet service affects the students’ experiences in our courses. If a course has extensive video content and there are expectations students will participate in video-enabled synchronous online activities, students will need reliable high-speed internet access for full participation in this course.

Some students cannot afford such access. Students who live in remote areas or in countries with lower standards of internet service may have difficulty accessing high calibre internet access even if they can afford it.

Some Australian universities have provided top-notch VPN services to students to improve connection stability.  In the case of China with its so-called “great firewall,” in addition to contracting high-calibre VPN service in China, universities required assistance from the Australian government to negotiate some easing of internet restrictions to support students’ access to the universities’ online systems and resources.

UBC IT is working on the issue of students’ internet access to the university’s systems, though I am not aware if Canada has negotiated a similar easing of internet restrictions with China as Australia has.

2. Course instructors need technical support to produce and deliver professional-level online learning experiences in our courses.

In their course designs, faculty will create both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for students to engage with the course. To do this well requires a functional home studio, and, potentially, access to professional recording studios on campus.

In addition to providing essential basic technical support and access to software (which UBC does well), we should be prepared to support faculty to produce high-calibre online experiences for our students. Beyond the coming Fall term, investment now will also produce some lasting resources for our students.

UBC Studios (and partners) can be a key resource to support this work provided it is sufficiently funded to do so. Some of the services they could offer are:

To support self-produced content:

  • Design, develop, and distribute home studio kits (with AV Services).
  • Create a standard operation manual and guideline in order to standardize use of home kits. This will make it easier to provide support to users.
  • Train and support users of home studio kits (in collaboration with LT Hub)
  • Provide professional help (graphic design, interaction design, animation, etc.) to improve the quality of online presentations. This could include creation of templates or customized presentations for different use cases.

Expand recording studio availability:

  • Setting up new low-threshold recording studios (one button, lightboard, video/audio recording desks) on satellite locations across University (with AV Services)
  • Train host departmental staff or hire new staff to support new satellite studios.
  • Provide synchronous and asynchronous sessions at satellite studios with support from trained technicians (in collaboration with LT Hub and host departments).

Support immersive and virtual learning:

  • Design and develop immersive learning experiences (VR/AR, WebVR, 3D Learning) as alternative for experiential learning that cannot be offered during the pandemic.
  • Participate in creation of an immersive (VR, WebVR) learning platforms for real-time virtual collaboration and problem-based learning.
  • Create an interactive repository of 3D learning objects and specimens (expansion of the existing photogrammetry TLEF, led by Dr. Suzie Lavallee).

(I will note UBC is relying on faculty to use their professional development funds to pay for new equipment and services for their home studios.  I worry about my contract faculty colleagues, many of whom will have insufficient PD funds to cover these costs.)

3. Course instructors need instructional and technical course design support to produce and deliver effective online learning experiences for our students.

Even experienced and proficient instructors are likely to meet some significant challenges when redesigning their courses for online learning. How will students interact with instructors, with each other, and with the course materials in an online learning environment? Instructors with limited experience using online technology in their teaching may not know what is possible. Some are finding these challenges daunting and need expert help to  redesign their courses.

For example, a colleague who had recently converted one of his courses to a fully flipped course in which classroom interactions between students are central and critical has been wrestling with how to replicate this online. Small group interactions are possible through breakout rooms in Zoom or Collaborate Ultra, but having these small groups reconvene as the whole class to carry on a larger-scale conversation is tricky problem.  This is not simply a technical problem as one must consider high-level learning outcomes for this course, which go beyond mastery of basic content knowledge.

UBC has excellent central teaching and learning units on each campus (CTLT in Vancouver; CTL in Kelowna), which are supporting instructors preparing for remote teaching (Vancouver and Okanagan).  Many faculties also have small teaching and learning support units. As well, UBC has hired some extra Learning Technology Rovers (undergraduate students trained to assist instructors with tech) and Learning Design Interns to assist with this work.

All the while instructors are doing this work, they need to keep in mind making their courses accessible to students. Implementing closed-captioning for those with hearing impairment or considering accessibility for those with visual impairment, for example,  will require significant support. The Centre for Accessibility (Vancouver) and the Disability Resource Centre (Okanagan) are able to provide support for examinations for students registered with these centres. What other resources are needed?

My main question is: does UBC have enough capacity for instructional design and learning technology support to ensure all instructors have access to the help they need to transform their courses for online learning?

4.  Teaching assistants (TAs) need training, equipment, and technical support. 

We are about to do a massive uncontrolled “experiment” to study the question  How many students should be in an online class?  (Although there is no agreement on an optimal class size for online learning, until the pandemic forced us all online, the general wisdom was “smaller is better.”)

Many instructors commonly make extensive use of interactions with students in “lectures” as well as in discussion groups, workshops, or tutorials, and they will want to replicate these experiences for students in their online courses. Those teaching large enrolment classes will be considering ways to create “small group” learning spaces for students.  All departments should be considering the need to hold some of these synchronous small group sessions at hours accommodating students in distant time zones. To accomplish all of this, departments will need to hire larger numbers of teaching assistants than usual.

We will need to train TAs to lead such workshops and discussion groups in an online space, which means they will also need learn how to manage the technology they are using to create this space.

We also need to ensure TAs have the equipment to host workshops and discussion groups. For some disciplines, this equipment may include some form of graphics table input device. More generally, some of our TAs may need upgraded laptops and home studio equipment to guarantee a consistent, high-quality “UBC online learning experience.” We should also ensure our TAs have home internet service to match what we expect our instructors to have.

Throughout the term, TAs will also need access to timely technical support, particularly when they are leading live interactive sessions.

5. Academic departments and programs need full and unequivocal financial support to teach online.

It is clear there will be extra costs to teaching courses online. These costs will include additional instructor time (e.g. contract faculty needed to be paid for their time, including course development time), additional TAs, additional equipment, and additional on-going local tech support while courses are being taught.

These additional costs need to be assessed and properly funded given given how little discretionary money is available in most academic department budgets.  Thus, additional funds will need to be transferred directly to the academic departments.

UBC’s mission is an academic one, as confirmed in the University ActThis mission needs to be protected above all else. If need be, money should be redirected from non-academic projects to support the extraordinary shift online of our teaching mission. I would argue that any other choice would not be in the best interests of the University.


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