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President and vice-chancellor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa.

Change in the digital age affects every sector, from banking and retail to healthcare, hospitality and non-profit. Higher education is no different.

The modes and methods of teaching and disseminating knowledge are drastically changing. Consider Google’s free machine-learning courses – “ flipped” classrooms where students watch a taped lecture and use class time for discussion, or the first artificial intelligence (AI) robot teaching assistant.

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Is the value added by universities and colleges offered through the lecture format still enough? I suspect the answer is a tentative yes, with the caveat that once other organizations can create credentials of equal or greater value, universities, as they are currently structured, are in trouble.

Most Canadian higher-education institutions experiment with innovation in pockets, but as a sector, we still lag behind. Further, the massive disruption in the job market forces workers to constantly retool their skill sets to stay employable. This requires a flexible system of lifelong education, yet the current system remains focused on people between the ages of 17 and 30. There is no reason learning has to take place within the conventional format of three-hour lectures and 13-week semesters; it can be adapted to focus on 9-to-5 workers.

Universities and colleges also face increasing pressure to improve efficiencies and reduce operating costs. In publicly-funded institutions, students pay only a fraction of what it costs to educate them. In Ontario, with the lowest government grant-to-student ratio, we are like lemmings heading toward our abyss. The model of postsecondary education funding in Canada is broken, and we need to address it.

How do we best prepare postsecondary institutions for the inevitable disruption to our unsustainable sector?

Educate administrators and boards of governors on disruption

Have a discussion on how to best prepare your institution to stay on the cutting edge, bringing students the benefits of technologically-enhanced experiential learning, where students can develop skills and experiences through work placement or co-op opportunities while having access to great facilities and esteemed scholars. Set benchmarks to measure innovation outcomes.

Partner with the private sector

Partnerships with industry to enhance experiential learning are key to prepare grads for jobs of the future. For example, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE) facility with its state-of-the-art climatic wind tunnel provides opportunities for students to work with industry partners, conducting research on real-world issues, gaining valuable hands-on experience.

Turn risk management into opportunity

Instead of shunning technological advances as threats to the system, embracing change will open up tremendous opportunities. One great example is the STEAM-3D Maker Lab at UOIT’s Faculty of Education, which is a collaborative, learner-centered environment where individuals can come together to build and create.

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Disruption is commonplace in my community. The automotive industry that once powered Oshawa has adopted changes in technology, management and manufacturing. In many ways, universities need to embrace that same disruption. Given the rapidly-evolving advances in technology, universities and colleges have no choice but to reinvent themselves or risk becoming obsolete. Disrupt or be disrupted.

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