The New School: How UBC is Keeping Students Connected Through Online Learning

Yasmine Shemesh
August 14, 2020  •   6 min read

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

While transitioning to virtual learning has been a challenge, the University of British Columbia has taken a thoughtful approach to support both students and faculty.

Blind panic. That’s how Simon Bates, Associate Provost for Teaching and Learning at the University of British Columbia (UBC), describes the mood behind the scenes as the post-secondary institution prepared the switch to online learning at the start of a global pandemic. He’s joking, of course. But, in all seriousness, the essential move was no easy task. UBC has a catalogue of approximately 8,000 courses—that’s about 3,000 each semester. And most of those classes (Bates estimates 90 per cent) were designed for a campus-based environment, not an online one.

When COVID-19 hit in March, four weeks before the end of the semester, the university swiftly curtailed all campus activity. Bates, whose work has included providing support and resources to both faculty and students amidst the virtual transition, met with the dean to discuss their next steps and predicted a zero per cent chance of finishing the semester on-site. Two days later, the province went into lockdown.

“It was a huge scramble,” Bates admits, speaking to REACH. on a video call. “It was about trying to provide the support for faculty [and] our learning support teams, both in the central unit that sits within my portfolio, but also satellite units within the faculties. They were basically working 24/7 for that weekend, just to try and support faculty to get them in some kind of shape for resuming their teaching the following week fully online. It was not planned. It was not smooth. But it was necessitated by an emergency.”

Trials, Tribulations, and Technological Triumphs

One of the greatest challenges during the pivot has been navigating the sheer numerical scale of the courses. Another has been managing requirements of particular classes, such as laboratory and clinical instructions, that have necessary components that must be done in-person—nursing, for example.

“In order to be accredited, one of the competencies nurses have to be able to demonstrate is the ability to safely inject people,” Bates explains. “And the way they do that within our curriculum is they practise on each other—under instruction, obviously. You can do a lot of things online, but you cannot demonstrate that competency in an online or a simulation environment, however sophisticated [the] simulation experience might be. So, how do we provision that for those students? Those students will be doing that face-to-face in labs that are set up to have 25 per cent occupancy [and] will be wearing full [Personal Protective Equipment].”

Other classes, like chemistry labs, are being decoupled from their teaching constituent and postponed until January and the months after. “We’re thinking about, when students are able to return to campus, alternative ways to get them through those required lab components, whether it’s a boot camp or a field school,” Bates adds. “But it won’t be in lockstep with the normal academic timetable.”

Provisioning specific needs from the technological landscape has been a major focal point for UBC’s pivot to online learning. Almost overnight, the institution went from having a small handful of people using Zoom, the video-conferencing application, to thousands of users. Quickly putting appropriate security and privacy measures in place was integral, as was a means for each student to have access to hardware if they needed it. A bursary scheme was launched for students to receive up-to-date technology, such as a laptop with a webcam or specific software required for a particular course. And as for network connectivity—something that has proved to be a fair challenge especially with students located in rural areas or different countries—success in that respect so far has really come down to the intricacies of course design.

“If I’m teaching via Zoom, then, at a minimum, I have to make sure all the lectures are recorded so that students—who, for whatever reason, can’t attend, the network drops, it’s three o’clock in the morning where their time zone is, or they have any number of other connectivity challenges—can at least engage with the material,” Bates says, adding that some students, for whom English is a second language, have appreciated being able to replay the technical content of the lecture at their own pace. “We have 60,000 students at UBC, so we’re going to need faculty to be flexible in the way they design their courses.”

Building a New Framework From the Ground-Up

Program design has also been key in keeping students engaged. Back in May, Bates organized a group of faculty members to discuss guidelines for designing online classes, ahead of course-planning for September. He got some pushback initially, as some colleagues wanted more time to be able to plan things out, but Bates was insistent. This needed to happen now.

“What we didn’t want to do is have the Teaching and Learning Centre issue guidelines to say: ‘This is the way, this is how it shall be done.’ Because, of course, there are 1,000 ways it could be done and it’s a very individual, unique decision of what works for your course, your content, your cohort, your pedagogy, your style,” Bates explains. “So, we wanted to empower faculty members to be able to make that choice, even if they weren’t experts in online learning.”

Over 100 UBC faculty members collaborated on Guiding Principles for Fall 2020, a rich resource document that includes best practices, advice, and practical tips. Published in just a month, it was created distinctly from the expertise and the enthusiasm of individual members rather than the administration—a quality Bates calls really powerful and positive.

“Some of it is real design decisions about how you’re going to build the course—not having 50- or 90-minute monologues as lectures, because that’s super disengaging for anybody,” he expands. “So, thinking about getting the balance right between synchronous and asynchronous activities, [having] some kind of interactivity, whether it’s discussions through breakout rooms, whether it be collaborative document preparation through something like Google Docs.”

Faculty have also been using marketing as a tool to help make courses even more appealing and engaging, though Bates says that most undergraduate students, with the prerequisites and corequisites they have to take, are already essentially a captive market. Still, on an institutional level, some science and commerce departments have integrated marketing by creating short videos of what students can expect learning in an online environment. It’s just another way of facilitating connection and making sure that students have the right support systems in place this year, given all of the challenges that have come with the virtual transition—not just in terms of connectivity, but through a sense of community, too.

“You remember as much, maybe more, of what happens outside the classroom as inside the classroom,” Bates says. “And it’s making sure that we can, as best we can in an online and distributed sense, provide students with that sense of community—particularly first-year students or incoming students [who’ve] got no reference point for what UBC is. Moving to universities is always a huge transition, but never more so than this year.”

A Learning Environment That Blurs the Boundaries of Time and Space

So, what does the future hold for online learning, after the pandemic? Now more than ever, the physical and temporal boundaries of the academic world have become blurred. It opens up a tremendous amount of potential for what a learning environment and a learning experience can look like, especially in regards to accessibility and creating course frameworks that go beyond traditional definitions.

Bates says it’s too soon to tell what really works yet—and, given the choice, we’d probably want to do some things face-to-face (“No one would voluntarily run a virtual online laboratory,” he laughs)—but he thinks there might be a break in the monopoly of having the standard three lectures a week, and that there will be much more in terms of student support, such as counselling and tutoring, done online.

“We’ve had this massive, almost enforced professional development activity for people,” Bates says. “People haven’t had a choice. They’ve had to get comfortable and fluent with these video-conferencing tools, with online learning applications, with things like that. In the last six months, it’s happened much more quickly than we would ever have done. And some people will say, ‘That was okay, but I’m never doing another online class in my life,’ whether they’re faculty or students. Some people will say, ‘You know, I didn’t think I could do it, turns out I can do it, and I’d like to continue doing bits of it.’ I think a lot of people appreciate some of the flexibility that it provides, in terms of not being locked into a timetable that is fixed in time and space. You [had] to be at this place at this time in order to get the instruction or take part in the learning experience, whereas now, you can be in multiple places and at multiple times to be able to participate in a version of the learning experience.”

Yasmine Shemesh

Yasmine Shemesh is a freelance journalist, with a music and culture beat. Her work has appeared in publications such as Billboard, NYLON, Flare, Exclaim!, and more. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @yasmineshemesh.