Q&A With Jon Driver

June 23, 2011

ViewPointAcademic recently sat down with VP Academic Jon Driver to discuss the university’s progress with the 2010–13 Academic Plan and the accreditation project. Here is some of what he had to say.

How are things progressing with the Academic Plan?

Well, Senate approved the plan just over a year ago and we’ve done a lot of work on it since then, particularly in the area of teaching and learning. We’re implementing recommendations from the task force on teaching and learning, we’re reviewing how teaching is evaluated, and we’ve introduced grants to support faculty members who want to do some inquiry into teaching methods. In addition, the Teaching and Learning Centre is being reorganized to link better to the needs of the faculties.

We’ve also changed the budgeting process quite a lot, to try and link the budget more closely to the academic plans. The accreditation project, which is closely linked to the academic plan, is moving us towards more careful statements of learning outcomes that define more precisely for students what the purpose of a course or overall program is and what outcomes they can expect.

We’ve also been looking a lot at experiential learning where students “learn through doing” and apply theoretical and methodological knowledge to practice. We’ll have more on this in the next newsletter, which will be focused on teaching and learning.

A number of issues have emerged since the plan was introduced. Can you talk about a few of them?

One of them is the tradeoff between having flexible programs and giving students the opportunity to access and complete programs in a reasonable amount of time. For example, in some areas students don’t have to declare a major until well into their university experience. But that flexibility makes it much more difficult for us to plan and program and make sure students are getting the courses they need. We hear from students that they enjoy the flexibility that SFU offers, but they are also frustrated when they cannot enroll in courses they need or want.

Another concern that comes up frequently is barriers to interdisciplinarity. Both students and instructors tell me that interdisciplinarity is important, and that there seem to be administrative and bureaucratic barriers to working across the disciplines.

And we spent a lot of time at the retreat speaking about the university’s role in the community and the difficulty of tracking what we’re doing. There are all sorts of things going on that we don’t know about because we don’t track certain activities centrally.

We also discussed the role international students play, especially at the undergraduate level. They’re obviously important to the diversity of the student population, and they contribute revenue, but having more international students means more crowded classes and campuses, and we know we have to provide more comprehensive English language support than we’re currently doing.

So what happens now regarding those issues?

At the retreat the theme teams identified these and a number of other issues that were not adequately addressed in the three-year plan but seemed important to people. So they are now in the process of combining the goals of the three-year plan with these emergent issues and then recommending some priorities that we will focus on for the next couple of years

What are the key messages you want to convey about the academic plan?

The first is to emphasize that the academic plan is really a university plan. It affects 70 per cent of our budget, most SFU students and instructors, and large numbers of staff.

I would also like to stress the key role the deans play in translating the plan into the context of their own faculties. For example, the deans must take the rather broad goal of developing more experiential learning and make it work in the context of the particular academic units they lead.

They must decide which of the plan’s goals and objectives are most relevant to their faculties. For example, a faculty may already offer a lot of experiential learning opportunities so the dean might focus more attention on retaining students or promoting community engagement.

Draft three of the accreditation self-evaluation guide is being posted online this week. Are you satisfied with the results?

Yes, I am. It’s the first time we’ve done such a comprehensive analysis of how SFU works and it provides a really interesting overview of the university. What it doesn’t do, because it’s not intended to, is focus in any detail on the academic programs we offer. Instead, it focuses on the overall goals of the university and how we organize ourselves to achieve those goals.

We’re there any surprises?

I don’t know if it’s a surprise but the NWCCU has a lengthy set of standards that revolve around best practices for university governance, planning, teaching and learning and so on. And I was pleased to see how well we conformed to those standards.

On the other hand, we discovered that there are some areas in which we are not collecting the data to really assess how well we’re doing. For example, we do not track very well the total research output of our professors, and this is important if we want to be accountable to the public.

We also need to define more clearly what the learning outcomes of our programs ought to be. This is important first of all for our students, because we ought to be able to state clearly what they can expect in a particular course or a program and what the purpose of that course or program is. I’m not talking just about the academic content, but also the skills that the course promotes and the kind of learning that the student will experience.

This is important for our accountability back to the community. If you don’t clearly define the purpose and intended outcomes of a program of study it’s hard to demonstrate that you are accountable to the people who are paying the tuition and the grants that keep us running.

One of the goals of the accreditation process was better institutional self-awareness, if you will. Are we achieving that?

That’s a good term to use, actually, and I believe we are achieving that goal. If you look across the political landscape in Canada right now, from government to business to community groups to parents, people are asking universities, “What’s the justification for your institution’s existence? What do you contribute to society? How well prepared are your alumni?” I don’t think those are unreasonable questions, and we have to be more self-aware to answer them convincingly.

In the climate of accountability we’re living in now, where every public organization is under scrutiny, people set very high expectations. And there’s no reason we should be exempted from being accountable.

How does the accreditation project help us in achieving that goal?

Accreditation basically requires us to define what our ambitions are as an institution and develop objective measures of how well we’re doing. Sometimes those can be very factual measurements, such as the percentage of students who graduate with a degree. Others may be more qualitative and harder to measure, for example, assessing whether students come out of university with better critical thinking skills. But we are devising measures that we can use over a period of time to see how well we are doing.

This is something new for Canadian universities isn’t it?

It’s new to do it in such a systematic way and to do it at the institutional level. Certain disciplines, such as engineering or clinical psychology, have their own accreditation process that’s focused very much on the needs and standards of the profession. And we have our own lengthy experience of conducting external reviews of academic departments. But the idea of doing an evaluation of the entire institution on a regular basis is new to Canada, although well established in many other countries.

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After a seven year, comprehensive and rigorous process, SFU is the first Canadian research university to be granted accreditation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).  

View the Report on course-based experiential education across all SFU Faculties

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View the Revised Report on Learning Outcomes and Assessment