Education Anytime, Anywhere

As an online-only university, the University of Fredericton has become a disruptive influence in the educational world, and president Don Roy couldn’t be happier

If things had gone according to plan, Don Roy would be a professor with a PhD by now. Instead, he’s hiring professors and accepting students as president of one of the few fully online, accredited universities in Canada. We recently spoke with Roy about the University of Fredericton’s unique success story.

How did you get interested in online education?
In my late 30s, I decided I wanted to go further with education, so I enrolled in an MBA program at a regular brick-and-mortar institution in Halifax. The thing about it, however, was that I had to be in the classroom for two days every second week. It was an obstacle trying to cope with kids and a career and yet sitting in a classroom for 8–10 hours on a regular basis. So I recognized the need for online education for professionals: people wanted to invest in careers, but oftentimes it’s difficult to go to a classroom.

THE ROAD TO GROWTH

Don Roy’s five steps for developing the university’s high-quality education

Build a world-class online library for students and faculty. “This will really enhance the quality of our institution,” Roy says.

Expand its current program offering to include Associate Arts Degrees, Associate Science Degrees, Associate Degree in Health and Safety, and a Bachelor in Applied Safety Management.

Reinvest into highly focused research & development. “We’re always looking to leverage the technology,” Roy says.

Continue supporting its School of Professional Learning. “We partner with a corporation to create a lifelong learning path for its employees,” says Roy.

Diversification as a priority. “We are quick to respond to educational needs in the marketplace,” Roy says. “A recent example is our creation of a suite of programs to help workforce leaders address the new standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace.”

What are you looking for in terms of students?
[Our students are] working professionals, and they’ve determined the need for an education in a specific, work-related field in order to advance their careers. They need an educational path with the least amount of disruption. They do their research online, and by the time they get to us, they’ve narrowed us down from a long list. We just have to give them the proper learning environment.

How challenging was it to attract the faculty for what you had in mind?
Many people become professors because they love to teach. But at a traditional school, you may end up having to publish peer-reviewed papers in order to survive; teaching is not even what you’re doing most of the time. In our university, teaching is the priority. We provide them with the tools to be a great professor, so they were really delighted with the opportunity to do this.

Why the emphasis on client satisfaction?
When I went through my MBA as a working professional, I knew client happiness was everything. And I quickly realized from my own experience that the institution wasn’t that concerned with how I felt about things at any given time! [Laughs.]

We have to be able to ask, “What do our students and faculty need and want in order to be more successful in their professional lives?” As opposed to brick-and-mortar [universities], where they believe that since they are a university they’ll tell the students what they need and want.

The University of Fredericton received accreditation in 2007, but I understand it’s still an ongoing process, correct?
We have been through five official reviews since 2007—each time a two- to five-day process of revealing, examining, and auditing our operation. It took two full years of work and a great deal of cost to get the original accreditation. Then we had the institutional review, program review, a one-year update review, a five-year review, and an updated institutional review.

We’re under the microscope. We are a disruptive influence in the educational world; because of that, they want to make sure everything we do is of high quality.

Looking back at the entire founding, what surprised you the most?
That it was a very long process and certainly a challenge to get the university launched. There was zero revenue for the two years to get accredited; plus half a year to get our first students via marketing. A lot of regulations were developed on the fly. And the process for regulating it—none of those things had been done before. So we all had to learn as we went along, which was very exciting but also carried a lot of responsibility.

What parts of the online education process have needed the most refinement?
We knew we were ahead of the curve, and that technology had to catch up in order to provide what we wanted to provide. We partnered with Cisco over the last three to four years, and use their WebEx technology, which is a web-conferencing platform. Ten or 20 students can now meet in a virtual classroom, collaborate their documents and projects, and then present that project they’ve prepared together. So that’s something that’s been very exciting to see develop.

Can you pinpoint an event that really turned the tide for online education?
A major turning point for us was being approached by the Conference Board of Canada to be a part of the Quality Assurance Network. At the time, I didn’t think they really got who we are, and we weren’t going to fit the mould of the others. And they said, “No, that’s exactly why we want your university to be a part of this.” They recognized there are some very serious challenges to public education in front of us, and they needed us to help uncover solutions. That really helped me to realize our time had arrived.