New UBC president’s biggest challenge: no-cost higher education

Congratulations to UBC’s new president, Arvind Gupta, a UBC computer science professor described as having a reputation for giving graduate students real-life business experience.

Congratulations to UBC’s new president, Arvind Gupta, a UBC computer science professor described as having a reputation for giving graduate students real-life business experience.

“We at UBC are entrusted to prepare our students to take on the challenges in this fast-evolving world, getting them ready to approach whatever gets thrown at them,” he told the Vancouver Sun.

There’s a challenge coming at him that could well be his biggest. To set the context, UBC is spending $6 million on an expanded bookstore and $10 million on new library archives, even as students have moved online to get their information. It’s spending $167 million on new student residences and $103 million on a new student union building, even as students are now able to learn online without coming to campus except for periodic meetings with fellow students and teachers.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), a concept first developed at the University of Manitoba, have opened up university-level courses to hundreds of thousands of learners who never have to set foot on a campus. The founder of Udacity, a MOOC born at Stanford University and now serving 160,000 students in 190 countries, provocatively predicts that in 50 years there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education – and they won’t necessarily be today’s universities.

The most radical and disruptive iteration of MOOCs is now coming out of UBC itself: NextGenU.org goes beyond MOOCs to offer free, accredited higher education – it calls itself the world’s first free university. Its learners – 2,000 and counting in 105 countries – are getting actual degree courses at no cost. The cost to NextGenU is less than what UBC is paying for its bookstore expansion, and it has in its pocket “several million dollars” in grants from the likes of the Government of Canada, the NATO Science for Peace and Security program and the World Health Organization to cover core expenses until 2023.

Founder and president Erica Frank explained: “It costs so little to take it these last few inches. Our [course content] donors at leading accredited North American universities post for free because they’re paid by someone else.”

Real learning requires interactive participation by students and regular personal contact with a teacher.

“All we need are peers taking the course at the same time, and skills-oriented mentors,” said Frank. “All of that is donated. You need both of those to get a deep education. But you don’t have to sit in the same place on a university campus with thousands of other people to do it. All we have to do is put those pieces together with the [online] glue.”

Does it work? Initial tests of her students show them performing at levels comparable to traditional American medical school students.

NextGenU has started by concentrating on health sciences. Next month it will begin its third residency program in family medicine in Sudan in partnership with the Sudanese government and the University of Gezira. These first 75 students are the first of 10,000 doctors to be educated in Sudan, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over the next five years, working in partnership with traditional medical schools.

“The role of a bricks-and-mortar setting as the major option for legitimate knowledge transfer is a thing of the past,” Frank warned, ominously.

How will president Gupta attract top international graduate students, one of his main goals, when UBC’s international tuition fees, running in the $20,000-per-year range, will eventually have to compete with a comparable standard of education and accreditation available at no cost online?

He will need all the great brains now at his disposal to figure this one out. •