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our time to lead

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Canadian postsecondary education has its solitudes: universities, polytechnics, colleges; provincial jurisdictions; the industry-academic divide. Canada may lead the world in the attainment of higher education, but we often neglect to recognize that this considers all types of education combined. Our failure to knit these systems together, and to link education and research to social and economic outcomes, will affect our long-term prosperity and capacity to innovate.

As we modernize our approach to education in a globalized world, there are lessons we can learn from the open-source movement. Open source provides the language of collaboration and co-operation – the basis from which programmers stitch discrete pieces into a coherent whole. Applied to education, open source emphasizes the agency of learners and the importance of both formal and informal education.

An educational passport is one way to think about an open-source approach to education. Gaining credits and credentials from different institutions would no longer be akin to crossing guarded borders; my passport facilitates easy movement across educational jurisdictions. Individuals can go from a college to a university, followed by a stint at a polytechnic, while acquiring passport stamps that show credits earned in school and experiences gained through work.

Education is increasingly offered freely online through organizations such as edX and Coursera, where credits can be transferred to a credential. This recognizes learners' desire for agency in acquiring education. Mozilla's Open Badges program takes this agency further, offering badges that indicate skills gained through practice of an activity outside of school. Badges are passport stamps that emphasize experiential learning. Learning by doing is an important pedagogical principle – practising what you are learning leads to more "sticky knowledge." Badges let learners display their expertise to potential employers through a social media profile or online resumé. This approach acknowledges that throughout their lives, people will constantly update and acquire credentials and experiences – and that they want to display these as part of their career development.

There are important connections between formal education credentials and experiences gained as part of work. Co-op placements, polytechnic and college applied research with industry, apprenticeships with Red Seal trades, and graduate student lab work all enable a learner to practise what they study and refine the skills relevant to their field of work. Practical experience is important to career advancement. Robust credit transfer across institutions and a badge-style system would link formal and informal experiential learning as people upgrade their knowledge and skills throughout their lives.

This is about value for money and time spent – the return on investment is lower when the credential is terminal. A student with a two-year college diploma in computer programming from Douglas College in British Columbia needs to know that her credits will be transferable when she decides to work and continue her education in Waterloo, Ont. By linking formal education credentials with work experience, our student from B.C. can transfer her credits into a higher credential. She is also able to demonstrate her vocational proficiency to potential employers or investors in her start-up.

To make this work, Canada needs a national approach to outcomes-based education and credit transfer. We need a national minister of education, just as we have for health, who recognizes provincial jurisdictions but co-ordinates education at the national level. This will put Canada on par with its international counterparts, who recognize that enabling the mobility of educated people across geographical boundaries and institutions is essential to long-term prosperity.

This approach involves challenges: system adaptability and differentiation; credit transfer and credentialling between institutions; alumni relations for fundraising. However, the potential benefits are great. Canada can collaborate to compete as a nation on the world stage, providing lifelong education to its citizens in response to social and economic drivers.

We need to challenge ourselves to imagine a new education system and make bold decisions. We must act now to build the framework for fully articulated lifelong learning. This is already happening elsewhere. Canada's educational systems need to catch up with this reality.

Robert Luke is assistant vice-president, research and innovation, George Brown College.

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