On Oct. 1, 2012, members of our education advisory panel joined Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse for a live discussion on our Time to Lead series and issues affecting higher eduction in Canada. The following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Here's a question we have been considering for the series: Do students in 2012 learn differently than they did in 1982? If so, how are institutions responding? And how are teachers responding?
Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University:
We are dealing with a dramatic shift in assumptions about learning from a generation that doesn't see "school" as the only place to learn. Also, a large percentage of our students work while they are in school. This has shifted, and will continue to shift, the nature of their engagement and their expectations.
Ted Hewitt, executive vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council:
With respect to teaching, I wonder whether or not we have fully integrated the decades of research that have been undertaken on teaching and learning within higher education in our curricula? My sense is that most of us are teaching in pretty much the same way we were decades ago, despite everything we now know about how students learn.
Sara Diamond, president of Ontario College of Art and Design:
From our research and observation, there is significant change in the capacities that learners bring to the postsecondary education environment: how they receive and process content, technology and the social space. At the same time, how they learn is a mixture of successful historical forms of learning and innovative forms that have adapted to their pace. We are a studio-based institution (among other elements) and there is deep learning here that is experiential and can be modelled in other fields.
Robert Luke, assistant vice-president of research and innovation at George Brown College:
The Internet was supposed to take learning anytime, anywhere. We need to understand and recognize that education is all the time, everywhere. This includes experiential learning such as co-ops and the applied research colleges conduct with our industry partners, which hone students' innovation skills in conjunction with learning outcomes.
We are enabling mobility and re-education across the life span. The recognition that people will return to education throughout their life spans means that there are system adaptations needed to enable this (online learning for sure, but also credential laddering and linking the college and university systems in better ways). The credentials of the future will be more like badges. We can think of this as an educational passport that enables people to engage with schools during the lifetime: episodic time in school punctuated by work, then retraining then work again and so on. This will bolster productivity, and our ability to innovate as a society.
Dominic Giroux, president and vice-chancellor of Laurentian University (Sudbury and Barrie):
Many universities are successful in providing a positive student experience while being successful in terms of research output and impacts. I believe the key for a university is to be able to identify signature programs in areas of strength and also true areas of research excellence. These are definitely tough choices to make, but they are possible. For example, at Laurentian, we have adopted a concise two page 2012-2017 Strategic Plan. In short, to keep the right balance, it's all about focus, focus, focus –– and keep it for a significant number of years.
Ross Finnie, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa:
By the way, from Dominic's comments, it looks like Laurentian is doing the right sort of thing in terms of "quality": it seems to be looking carefully at what it is doing, thinking about how it can do better, moving on that path. This needs to be done at the broad level (e.g., where the university will specialize), but also right down to the very micro level (e.g., how can we minimize the number of profs. who have reduced teaching to running through bad Powerpoint point presentations?) How do we get there? – it is not likely to happen all on its own, but bad policy could be a disaster (think the U.K. system).
Students do learn differently in 2012 vs 1982 (okay, I was in grade 2 then!). On the plus side: more sources of information available 24/7 to validate or contradict the classroom learning, more experiential learning with technology, more interaction with classmates inside our outside the classroom, more global perspectives. On the negative side: shorter attention span, more incentive potentially to conform to someone's knowledge or ideas by simply cut and pasting.
I do think that most professors have adapted, otherwise students vote with their feet or let it be known in course evaluations.
Karen Foster, Banting postdoctoral fellow in management at Saint Mary's University:
I think some of the resistance to "new" teaching methods is that tired old idea that today's student is overly "entitled" – that somehow by embracing new technologies and accommodating different learning styles is coddling. The fact is, these new technologies and processes are going to be in the workplace and other realms of daily life. Might as well prepare students for that.
To Karen's point about new technologies, there is a lot of debate about giant online courses and the benefits for students and institutions. What's preventing your institutions from diving in further?
Massive online courses appear to be most successful in delivering cohort-based learning that is technical and easily modularized. Successful experiments require support systems around the edges of collaborative spaces, support from human experts. Not all subject matter adapts to massification. Students who fall behind do not do well in the massive online environment. One of the challenges of the 21st century is that we need diverse learners with diverse perspectives to solve complex problems. We need to build the critical capacities of students. This is not the way that massive online learning works.
Hossein Rahmama, research and innovation director at Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone:
I think the problem with online learning and ICT [information and communication technology] in Education is that we think it should replace our classrooms rather than complimenting it. We need more like a Transmedia strategy for our classrooms. Parts of the information should come from professors and parts from iPads, laptops and phones. Replacing classrooms with tablets and phones may be a disruptive decision for another 10 years and may negatively impact our accredited institutions.
Hossein: I don't think this view holds any more. I started working in online learning back in 1994 or so, and certainly the "digital diploma mill" view was common. But when MIT launched Open Courseware in 2001, they put the lie to content online and reinforced presence as the real value. People will always want options – online learning is an excellent vehicle for some topics and some people. The real issue is how are we going to augment education to make the best use of available media.
Robert, I totally agree with your points. We need to keep our sound scientific/invention engine but build new processes for experiential learning in which companies can collaborate more with universities around products and commercialization. And of course each discipline is different, Health Sciences should be managed completely differently than ICT.
Iglika Ivanova, economist and researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:
I think it's great that The Globe will host this important conversation. The tension between research and teaching is a key one, for sure. But we often forget that most universities define a triple goal: teaching, research and community service. I don't think we spend enough time thinking about the community service portion of the equation or if we do, we focus on service to industry or the labour market, rather than service to the broader society. I hope that your project will provide some space to talk about these issues too.
I endorse Iglika's comment as well. PSE requires more porosity. It would be ideal for every Canadian student to have a semester (at least) of experiential learning outside the university. It builds citizenship.
In response to Iglika, I would agree on the need to focus more squarely on a broader conception of "service". Too often, we think of this as falling within the preserve of our social scientists and humanists. In fact, they are also integrally involved in innovation – whether in industry or elsewhere; just as many from the life and natural sciences are heavily engaged in public policy discussion and formation.
Iglika: You make a very interesting point. What does "community service" mean to you?
I think our institutions can be more connected to the communities where they are located and more actively involved in them. This includes encouraging students to engage in experiential learning, volunteer or paid internships in the community, but this needs to be done with the explicit goal of building civic engagement and fostering understanding and compassion between the students and their community, not for today's more prevalent self-centred goals of padding your CV or making it easier to secure a job in the future.
There's also a role for faculty members to do at least some research on issues that the community is currently facing, whatever those might be: homelessness, addictions, social isolation, lack of clean water, etc. Universities spend a lot of money and resources doing outreach to local industry, learning about what their needs are and designing programs to collaborate with local business. Let's think about society more broadly. If universities dedicated even a fraction of those resources to getting to know their communities, and jointly addressing some of the pressing problems, we'd greatly improve quality of life across the country.
Iglika – good points. There is not anything wrong with connecting to industry – people all need jobs in the end after all. But we certainly can do more on the social innovation side as well.
Iglika Ivanova – I would agree totally. But on the other side of the coin, I think that university engagement with industry/the private sector is far less extensive than one might think; and this is a critical element of the equation as well. Innovation and job creation are important to the local community too!.
Melonie Fullick, PhD candidate in the faculty of education at York University:
Iglika Ivanova: Agreed. I think we should aim to integrate undergraduate education, graduate education, and community research more. It can be difficult to build those relationships but from what I've seen, it's worth the work.