This piece is one of a series of high-profile Canadians commenting on the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's Top 10 reasons Canadian competitiveness is dropping.
Can Canada's universities, hospitals and governments make it in a wired world? Don Tapscott, co-author of Wikinomics, who has written several books about the effects of digital technology on business and society, says that our country's institutions need to change to survive – and not just cosmetically, but from the ground up. Just back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Tapscott has been preaching the gospel of collaborative work for years – and he says that's the direction Canada needs to take.
What's the No. 1 thing that Canada's governments can do to foster the kind of collaborative work force you describe?
Many of the institutions of the industrial age, from the corporation, government and media to education and science, are stalled and government can have an important role in creating new ones.
Probably the most important thing the Canadian government could do is transform itself around the Internet and the principles of collaboration.
For example, we need open government – where governments release raw data and, in doing so, become a platform for partnerships between government, external organizations and citizens. This is not about so-called "freedom of information," but rather a new division of labour in society about how we create government services and public value.
"Open Data" initiatives like this are already proving themselves in cities – in Toronto, anyone with a smartphone can use a private-sector app to report a pothole or tell when the next bus is coming. What might we do to extend collaboration on a national level?
British Columbia's "Apps 4 climate Action" initiative was a good exemplar. The government released a ton of data about carbon emissions and challenged the software industry to create applications that could use this data. The cost was virtually nothing but the results were spectacular (including apps for teaching, benchmarking and monitoring water usage).
Governments also need to lead in forging a collaborative model of health care. Countries everywhere are struggling to develop effective yet affordable health-care systems. But all these debates assume an old model of health where patients are passive recipients of medical care and play little or no role in deciding their treatments plans.
But Web 2.0 puts the informed patient into a new context. It enables a new model of medicine experts call "collaborative health care."
For the first time, people could self-organize, contribute to the sum of medical knowledge, share information, support each other and become active in managing their own health. Every baby and citizen should have a website – half medical record and half social network for health.
But it's 2013 and my doctor still produces a sheaf of papers when I visit. Meanwhile, the medical establishment avoids the online forums where patients have been self-organizing for decades like, well, the plague. Why has e-health proven so elusive?
It's a long story. To begin, it's a big job. There have been some technology and management errors.
I personally think that the model has been wrong, too – designing a record for use by clinicians rather than a record that could be a platform for collaborative health care.
The biggest challenge is that this is a huge cultural change for clinicians and the whole system. Leaders of old paradigms have difficulty embracing the new ones.
Where, to your mind, is Canada most at risk of falling behind in the global knowledge economy?
Just a nit, but I don't think we have a knowledge economy. Knowledge is constantly changing. What counts is that we can now link our brains in new ways to collaboration. I call this an age of networked intelligence. Having said that, the biggest danger is that we will fail to transform our schools and universities for this age. We have the best model of learning that 17th-century technology can provide. For many years I've been arguing that the universities need to embrace the Internet and collaboration or they will lose their monopoly in higher education. This is now under way big time. The collapse of these important institutions in this country would be devastating.
It seems evident that just throwing laptops and iPads at first-year students isn't going to bring higher learning into the digital age. What practical changes can we make to college and university curriculums to foster the kind of interaction you're talking about?
It's not so much the curriculum that needs to change, than the basic pedagogic model. Since the invention of chalk and blackboard, university professors and K-12 school teachers have given lectures standing in front of many students. The student's job was to absorb this content and regurgitate it on exams.
We can now use technology to free up instructors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences. Learning can occur through software programs, small group discussion and projects. The role of instructors actually becomes more important. But instructors who wish to remain relevant will have to start listening and conversing with students – shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one. They need to tailor the education to their students' individual learning styles. They should encourage students to discover and collaborate outside the classroom.
Individually-tailored education is a great goal, but hard to do with 60 or more students and limited time. How can technology help us get there?
That's the point of technology. Let computers do the "instruction" – anything where there is a right or wrong answer – because they are far more effective than humans lecturing one way to a class of 60.
So how should Canada's public universities react to the rise of MOOCs – massive open online courses?
Recently we've also seen the explosion of MOOCs, where universities offer classes online for free. The big three companies that provide the enabling technology – Coursera, Udacity and edX – were all present at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, trumpeting their soaring popularity. Coursera will soon offer more than 200 courses in conjunction with more than 33 universities.
In a new twist, some universities are saying they want to develop a way to give students credit for the MOOCs they complete. San Jose State University and Udacity will offer three introductory mathematics classes. The courses will still be free, but students who want credit from San Jose State will pay $150 a course – a small fraction of regular tuition.
So should universities accredit free courses, like San Jose? Transform their giant first-year courses into MOOCs?
The universities are going to be doing some serious soul searching. This is not to say that the physical campus is a bad idea. What's most important in the age of networked intelligence is a person's capacity for lifelong learning, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize and critically evaluate; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate. You can't do that sitting at a remote terminal somewhere by yourself.
And get ready for the MOOCiversity where all higher education becomes networked. Get your computer science credit from Waterloo, your artificial intelligence credit form Stanford, your philosophy credit from Oxford, your environmental science credits from Trent and your political science from Amherst College.
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