An Interview with Dr. Santa Ono, President & Vice-Chancellor of University of British Columbia and professor of biomedical research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
As a professor, as well as the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, Santa Ono has a unique perspective on the future of higher education. Ono earned his Bachelor’s in Biological Science from the University of Chicago, his doctorate in Experimental Medicine from McGill University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. From his work as a professor and higher education administrator, he’s seen how the flexibility of online learning and technology-enhanced education tools can enable students to earn degrees that were otherwise impossible to make time for. But while he attributes student success in large part to hard work, Ono finds that a failure to maintain an academic and social life balance can have the opposite effect.
Tell us about your education background and what led you to study biomedical sciences.
In high school, I was fortunate to have a teacher who used to take me to lectures at Johns Hopkins University to hear how scientists were beginning to understand how to splice genes together. I read The Double Helix by James Watson around the same time and it got me really excited about biomedical science.
How did you transition from student to professor to president of a university?
It took a long time. From undergraduate to assistant professor took 13 years and another 10 years after that to become a tenured professor. Then I was gradually appointed to more responsible administrative positions.
As technology develops, how does the University of British Columbia navigate the changing needs of modern students?
UBC has a deliberate approach to online learning that allows us to both experiment with this fast-moving area and quickly deploy proven approaches to improve learning opportunities for our students.
One part of our approach is based on being an active member of the edX.org consortium. By developing a variety of different edX offerings, we are actively studying a range of topics, including how learners value emerging forms of credentials, new forms of assessment, and how different course elements contribute to learner engagement. UBC currently has 30+ courses, and three multi-course programs – a How to Write a Novel series, a MicroMasters in Software Development and a MicroMasters in Business Fundamentals (the last is about to be announced).
Through our edX partnership, we have developed new forms of peer-based activity and assessment. We are currently developing a suite of visualizations of learner data that help us refine our understanding of the different ways in which learners engage with online courses.
UBC also has several other courses that include varying amounts of online material as well as a small number of courses that are taught exclusively online. The course design and technology support teams across all these projects work together to ensure that what we learn in one area is quickly shared across all areas.
How do you feel personally about online learning—its benefits, drawbacks, and areas for improvement?
Online learning provides several very different kinds of benefits, with each having associated drawbacks.
One of the most important benefits is the flexibility it can offer learners. Being able to work on course material when and where students want can make the difference between some people being able to pursue an academic program or not. This tends to be more important in professional and second-degree programs, but in some areas, it can also be important for first degree programs. The drawback here is that working independently can be very challenging for some learners, particularly younger students fresh from high school. Those students tend to benefit greatly from the cohort setting and the personal attention they receive from instructors and teaching assistants. There’s a consensus that online learning may be better for professional programs for these reasons
How do you see online learning developing in the future?
About the above, there’s a paradox that online learning may be able to give learners more personalized attention than is possible in large face-to-face settings. The large amounts of data that online platforms have about student activity patterns provide a basis for comparing an individual student’s activity to that of others and generate helpful interventions. Delft University of Technology has developed a mechanism by which learners were sent spider plots of their activity in an online course compared to the activity of students who had done well in the course previously. The plots were able to compare their activity to how much time successful students spend on each kind of work (videos, reading, problem solving etc.).
Georgia Tech’s famous Jill Watson Artificial Intelligence teaching assistant learned how to answer student questions. Having an online tool can quickly answer many of the questions is a direct benefit to learners. But the indirect benefit is that it frees more staff time to spend on the more unusual and interesting questions. In this way, online learning will continue to become blended with face-to-face learning in a mediated spectrum of ways in which learners engage with content, their peers, their instructors, and the community around them.
As a professor and a university president, how did you adjust your management style for both?
As an administrator, you must see the big picture and how students fit in overall with the institution and its goals. You tend to interact mostly with student leaders, in their capacities as representatives of their organizations. As an instructor, you relate to students with regard to the particular course. You’re more focused on the individual student and ensuring they get the most they can out of the course.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in entering the biomedical sciences field?
Don’t be discouraged by failure of an experiment. Be patient and be in it for the long run. For students interested in higher education administration – pace yourself. Many administrators get burned out. Keep in mind why you’re on that path.
For all students: try to maintain a healthy balance between academics and social activities. Concentrating on one or the other is not healthy.