BCcampus at 10: From the Edge of the Possible to Mainstream

BCcampus has been celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2012. We’ve come a long way, and there are more exciting times on the horizon! Here’s a brief look at what we’ve done and where we’re headed, with contributions from Executive Director David Porter, Director of Student and Data Exchange Services/Chief Information Officer Randy Bruce, and former Director of Development Paul Stacey.  All three were with BCcampus when it was created in 2003.

A collaborative approach

From the start, BCcampus has been about collaborative models, trying to get universities and colleges to work with one another on a collaborative basis, so that we can do together what one institution would find difficult to do alone. The collaborative approach applies to everything we do at BCcampus, from developing infrastructure that institutions can share to supporting the development of online learning resources.

Collaboration isn’t always an easy sell. Sometimes policy and funding arrangements that promote institutional independence and increased autonomy can work against working with others.

Randy: The goal was to provide students with increased opportunities to find and conveniently register in courses, to learn, and to access services like financial aid, academic advising and libraries, online, so that they could complete their credentials effectively. Everyone agrees that making things more convenient for students makes sense. But institutions generally prefer to do things themselves when they can afford to, so our initiatives are given enough institutional commitment to proceed, but take a long time to move from pilots at a few institutions to broad adoption.

However, over the course of BCcampus’s 10 years there has been real progress.

David: For a while, many of the institutions thought that we were somehow competing with them. But there has been a lot of growth in collaborative programs and services – people are really starting to get the idea that there is more value in working together. And we are well down the road to establishing ourselves as a non-threatening, non-competitive system service agency that enables collaborative practices and services that benefit both students and institutions.

Agile infrastructure

Many of the things that happen in institutions require enormous infrastructure to make them work. But the bigger the infrastructure, and the more people involved, the more constraining and confining that infrastructure becomes.

At BCcampus, we have been working to build a different kind of infrastructure, one that is agile, engaging, easy to use and easy to implement.

David: A lot of the systems that we’ve built have been about making users the focus of the applications and services, putting more power into the hands of students and faculty to do the kinds of things that they want to do in the learning environment – without a cast of thousands. We’re trying to build lightweight infrastructure, rather than massive infrastructure.

When BCcampus was first created, we used the metaphor “Expedia for learning.” It’s still valid. Expedia doesn’t own any hotels, cars or airplanes; it just makes it easier for people to access them. BCcampus doesn’t own any courses, programs or institutions; But we do provide an infrastructure and support services to make it easier for people to access them.

Online learning and open educational resources

When BCcampus was created, online learning was in its infancy. And open educational resources – learning materials that are licensed specifically to be freely shared, used, adapted and redistributed – were all but unheard of in higher education in BC.

From the outset, one of our roles was to support online learning across post-secondary institutions as both a service provider and a funder. This meant finding out what was needed, developing the programs of study would meet those needs, and ensuring that staff and faculty had the knowledge and skills they need to make those programs effective.

Randy: Ten years ago, online learning was experimental and exciting. There were also a lot of technical issues. Now those technical issues have largely disappeared as computing and connectivity have become a given. While the overall growth in online course offerings has not grown systematically or as quickly as in other places (like the UK or US), we have seen a shift from institutions’ online sections being the slowest to fill, several years ago, to online sections being the quickest to fill – in other words, the most desirable.

But apart from the changes in technology and the use of online courses, there has been a more radical shift – toward the open educational resources – and BCcampus has been on the leading edge of the wave.

Paul: In 2003, when we first launched the Online Program Development Fund to support the development of online education in B.C., we put in place a special requirement: that once the funded online learning resources were developed, they had to be licensed to be shared. That meant that others could look at the resources, use them in whole or in part, adapt and modify them as needed, and redistribute them.

This has now become a global movement, called “open educational resources.” Open educational resources have moved from being a kind of fringe innovation to something that is increasingly big and mainstream, and that all institutions are having to look at and pay attention to.

The provincial government recently announced an open textbook project for B.C. BCcampus will coordinate the project, engaging faculty, institutions and publishers in the creation, adoption and adaptation of open textbooks for the 40 highest-impact first- and second-year courses in B.C.’s post-secondary system.

David Porter: This is education in the purest sense. It’s what education is about: sharing what you know with others. Don’t hoard it, share it!

Looking ahead

David, Randy and Paul all see exciting times ahead, with massive online open courses, mobile engagement (the use of small mobile devices for learning and training), and  recognition of the real role that faculty and students can play in building a learning experience and environment collaboratively.

Randy: All of these things are quickly gaining prominence and tremendous momentum – it’s time!

Paul: Our success has been really substantial, but the potential for open educational resources is still way bigger than anyone currently imagines.

David: Often, internally, we don’t think we’ve come very far. But we’ve survived, and we’ve seen things move from the edge of the possible to the mainstream. So obviously something we’re doing has worked, to keep us at the forefront of what’s happening.