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Like watch-making once did, university education is undergoing a shift to which it must respond to maintain its relevancy. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Like watch-making once did, university education is undergoing a shift to which it must respond to maintain its relevancy. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

Evolution 2.0

What did you learn in university today? Add to ...

When a shift is unforeseen or ignored, it can lead to devastating consequences for those invested in the old way of doing things. Witness the Swiss who for centuries were renowned for producing the world’s finest mechanical watches, yet saw their global market share plummet in just one decade with the advent of quartz technology.

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To add insult to injury, the Swiss were the first to begin working on a quartz-movement watch, yet it was Seiko of Japan who was the first to bring it to market. So confident were the Swiss in the primacy of their high-quality craftsmanship, that many ignored the new technology altogether, while others were slow to embrace it. It was only once the Swiss recognized the need for inexpensive quartz-technology watches, which they ultimately made available in many colours and styles (e.g., the “Swatch”), in addition to their far more expensive, traditional mechanical watches, that the industry found its footing once again.

There may be parallels here between the Swiss watchmaking industry and universities today, given the role of academics in the development of the Internet (a game-changing technology) and the understandable preference of many faculty for smaller, more customizable, research-enriched face to face teaching environments.

What would a true paradigm shift in the university system actually look like? Clearly technology is already having a significant impact on the work of faculty and students alike. Now that we have become used to turning to the Internet for all kinds of information, it should not be surprising that professionally produced video clips, featuring world-leading experts, are becoming increasingly embedded within both online and in-class learning materials. Or that faculty have turned to online testing, with randomly generated questions, to assess basic comprehension of course concepts. Or that students routinely bring their laptops and hand-held devices to class, to take notes and search online (hopefully) for information pertaining to the subject the professor is discussing.

But beyond using technology as a tool to more efficiently perform tasks that used to be done manually, is anything approaching a paradigm shift actually occurring? I would argue – yes! The ubiquity of information is causing a fundamental shift in the nature of the learning outcomes that a university degree enables. It is this recognition that will be the precursor to further change.

Lee Shulman, President Emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, once suggested that rather than focus on teaching historical facts and assessing students’ ability to memorize and repeat them, historians would much better serve their students and society if they taught them how to analyze the basis on which claims of historical fact are made. In other words, students of history should spend most of their time learning to think and conduct research like a historian. Shulman applied this same logic to other disciplines as well, including medicine and law.

Beyond a base of knowledge specific to each discipline what is most important is that students learn how to ask important questions, how to seek and assess the validity of information, to apply tools in solving problems or advancing knowledge, and to draw appropriate evidence-based conclusions. Universities today do recognize the crucial role of these essential transferable skills.

For faculty as well, research and teaching are becoming far more integrated in the pursuit of evidence-based solutions to important social questions. This in turn is being supported by enhanced university-industry research partnerships. There is no question that the need to foster positive “town to gown” relations has replaced the notion of the “ivory tower” on many university campuses. Students and faculty have become much more fully engaged with local community organizations, probing questions with a high-degree of perceived social and economic relevance and sharing results through blogs, publication in open-access journals, at community forums, and through interviews with the press. The challenge now is to make this part of every student’s and every faculty member’s experience.

Julia Christensen Hughes is dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph.

Evolution 2.0 is a series examining the transformation of Canada’s postsecondary system.

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