6th Annual Conference on Educational Innovation (CIIE 2019)
Tecnologico de Monterrey, Monterrey, Mexico
Coming all the way from the west coast of Canada where things are considerably colder and darker at the moment, it’s a treat for me to be able to join you here in Mexico, especially at Tecnologico de Monterrey.
UBC and Tecnologico de Monterrey have enjoyed close ties for many years – including research partnerships, student exchanges, joint academic programs and more. I’m proud of our relationship with your outstanding institution.
And I am proud to have been asked to participate in this, the 6th International Conference on Educational Innovation. It is always a privilege to be included in global conversations about the trends and practices that are revolutionizing the future of teaching and learning.
At a conference like this, we are fortunate to be able to hear from so many forward-looking technology leaders … people like Eric Mazur and Anant Agarwal, who amaze and inspire us with the seemingly limitless potential of technology to support learning.
Today, I want to talk about something else with seemingly limitless potential. Something that represents the softer side of digital innovation … decidedly low-tech … extremely high-touch … and surprisingly cost-effective.
It’s not systems and software I want to focus on today, but the power of people … and in particular, students … working together to advance digital innovation in education. I want to talk about leveraging human capital.
But first, a few words about the University of British Columbia.
UBC has two campuses — one in Vancouver and the other in Kelowna in the heart of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley
UBC is a global centre for teaching, learning and research, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world and recently recognized as North America’s most international university.
Since 1915, our motto, Tuum Est (It is Yours), has been a declaration of our commitment to attracting and supporting those who have the drive to shape a better world. As a result, UBC students, faculty and staff continue to embrace innovation and challenge the status quo, placing us at the forefront of discovery, learning and engagement. UBC encourages bold thinking, curiosity and initiative, so you can realize your greatest potential.
With sixteen faculties, eighteen schools and two colleges, UBC faculty and staff members are creating learning opportunities that challenge over 65,000 students from more than 160 countries to excel and foster positive change throughout the world. With over $600 million in research funding each year, UBC researchers are working with industry, university and government partners to advance knowledge and create countless new products, treatments and services.
I’m proud to say that UBC continues to excel in international rankings – among the top 40 in the world in the Times Higher Education rankings and 25th in the NTU rankings.
These rankings reflect the value we place on inclusion, innovation and collaboration. They are key themes of our new strategic plan, Shaping UBC’s Next Century, which represents our collective vision for the next 100 years as a top-ranked public university. (If you’re interested you can find the full text of the plan at strategicplan.ubc.ca.)
And among our plan’s 10 goals is a commitment to inspire and enable students through transformative teaching, mentoring, and advising.
I can think of no finer example of our plan in action than the way we have partnered with our students on the journey to digital innovation that every university must now take.
I believe UBC is unique for the way we have invited students to be active partners with faculty and staff to co-design and co-develop innovative new enhancements to teaching, learning and the overall student experience. Digital innovation is something that is done WITH our students … not TO them.
In a minute I’m going to give you some examples of what these student partnerships look like in practice. But first I want to take a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
And that is: sharing power and control with students can be a hard concept for many of our faculty. It can be a real threat to the academic sense-of-self to suddenly not be “the expert.”
But the hard truth is, in the tech space, the rate at which students can master and absorb and utilize new approaches is much faster than institutions or individual faculty members.
I can tell you that when we moved to Canvas – a learning management system run in the cloud and not on UBC-based servers – our Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology worked hard to support faculty in making the transition.
But when the new software wouldn’t do things exactly the way they were used to, some faculty members became rigidly resistant to the change. They simply could not pivot or flex to find new solutions.
Increasingly, in a digital world where there are ever-more tools and technologies available, the ability to build “digital Lego” by understanding and applying different tools and services is absolutely what institutions need to move forward.
And while there are always innovators among us, I think it is fair to say that faculty are not, by and large, going to be leading that charge.
And that is where most of us are missing out by not engaging our students. They are the untapped human potential that can help drive change at our institutions! I would urge you to embrace their so-called “digital flexibility” as a secret weapon – and not a threat to identity!
Let me give you three examples of what student partnerships can look like from our recent experiences at UBC. I’m going to move through these fairly quickly, but please know I’ve left time at the end to answer any questions you may have.
One of our earliest successes dates back about five years to the launch of our Flexible Learning strategy. We wanted to find better ways to support faculty in adopting new technologies, so we created a student team of Learning Technology Rovers to provide rapid-response solutions to ed-tech issues.
The Tech Rovers (more properly, the Learning Technology Rovers or LRTs) are undergraduate students hired on co-op terms from across all faculties to help faculty members do-for-themselves when it comes to technology. They won’t fix your printer or do copyright clearance for your texts — but they will show you how, so that next time you can do it with confidence.
They are highly responsive and incredibly professional, meeting with faculty and then following up with written records of what was discussed. We have trained more than 100 students for this role so far, and today, every faculty wants its own Tech Rovers!
What’s the takeaway? Well, for one, support needs are infinite but resources are finite so you have to work smarter, not harder. The answer isn’t piling more money into existing services.
Our Tech Rovers haven’t reduced IT support requests, but they have filled an unmet need, which is just-in-time support. And that has been really reassuring for our more tech-resistant faculty!
Now, the Tech Rovers are just one of the projects that we fund via our Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund – or TLEF, for short. I know many of you have similar funds at your institutions.
At UBC, our TLEF is financed from a portion of student tuition. More than $1 million of the funding is then used to engage students by giving them work experience and opportunities to generate ideas and partner with faculty and staff to enhance teaching and learning.
So, another example of the kind of thing we can enable this way is our Workspace project – an entirely student-led initiative conceived to solve the challenge of finding available study space on our Vancouver campus.
If you’re a student looking for a place to cram for that exam, I’m happy to say that very soon there will be an app for that!
Next term, the team of students from Engineering Physics that first proposed the project will begin testing a mobile app that visualizes occupancy levels in building where UBC students typically go to study, using real-time occupancy data provided by wireless hubs within the buildings.
This small-grant TLEF project is a great example of the creative potential of students to engage in innovation while they are simultaneously pursuing their programs.
And with a program like Engineering Physics, where the ethos is to design and build, it is wonderful to be able to engage students in worldly problems that have a real impact on people’s lives.
My final example comes from our Emerging Media Lab – or EML for short. It’s a space in our Barber Learning Centre that is not owned by any one faculty and it exists to explore the many ways that mixed reality, augmented reality, virtual reality — and all future realities! — can be used to improve teaching and learning.
The Holobrain is a highlight project of this unique lab, which brings together multi-disciplinary teams of co-op students, staff and faculty in a flat organizational structure.
The way the EML works is that faculty come in with an idea or a challenge they are facing in the classroom and the lab sets out to generate a minimally viable product to solve the problem.
For Dr. Claudia Krebs, who teaches neuroanatomy in our School of Medicine, the challenge was wanting to show 3D structures of the brain.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a first-year medical student studying neuroanatomy. Imagine the complex three-dimensional reality of the brain, with all its complex wiring – but you can only interact with it in a collapsed 2-D picture. You have to do all the 3-D rendering in your own head! For some, that can take a decade or more!
Now imagine giving this 3D image to students on Day 1—they can place the brain in space … walk around it … look over it … and it stays put! Suddenly a 2-D brain scan comes to life!
That’s the magic and genius of the Holobrain, which started as a collaboration with the Microsoft Garage internship program before the EML took over the project in 2017. From the beginning, the whole thing was made by students.
What’s critical is that every EML project, whether faculty- or student-initiated, is linked to a real classroom scenario.
Multi-disciplinary teams come together to look at how to tackle a problem set. That is a real strength of the EML—student learn to communicate effectively beyond their disciplinary boundaries!
For students working in the EML, the theory they have learned in their course work can be applied to a really practical scenario. These students are front-line developers!
And for students who don’t have a background in code-writing, they are mentored by programmers to learn best practices in a very applied way.
Dr. Krebs is quite passionate about involving students in problem-solving. She speaks freely and frequently about how much she learns from the EML student developers, and how they have shifted her perspective on what is possible in the digital realm.
She advises fellow academics who are wary of student/faculty digital collaboration to think of it not as surrendering power, but transferring it to, and sharing it with, the people who have the biggest stake in the future: our students.
And that’s the other thing I’d like you take away from this talk today: digital innovation doesn’t respect silos or organizational charts.
University systems and structures are not as porous as we might like – rigid and immoveable is perhaps a more honest way to say it!
You have to find a way for your undergraduate students, and senior administrators, and learning teams, and IT teams, and industry liaison offices – everyone! – to be able to work together.
To that end, I urge you to consider: what is required so that people can leave their egos and turf at the door? Is it new collaborative space? Budget control? Clarity around project ownership? Whatever it is: just do it. I can assure you: you won’t regret the decision.
Thank you for being here today. I’m sure you have questions on some of what I’ve talked about. I certainly would like to hear from any of you who can share examples of successful student partnerships. I know for a fact that Tech de Monterrey has been particularly innovative around student-led education with their I-week and I-semester initiatives.
So: let’s open up the conversation!