A special Your Workplace feature wouldn’t be complete without talking to the educators. With a global pandemic affecting how we work, learn and play, Canada’s (and the world’s) institutions of higher learning are looking at the future of education as well as the challenges, successes and upcoming endeavours needed to make education as strong as it can be. The goal: providing the best future workforce possible. Your Workplace editor and deputy publisher Joel Kranc spoke with four heads of Canadian universities: Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President and Vice-Chancellor with Carleton University; Graham Carr, President and Vice-Chancellor with Concordia University; Rhonda Lenton, President and Vice-Chancellor with York University; and Jill Scott, Provost and Vice-President, Academic Affairs with University of Ottawa. The following is an edited version of that roundtable on-screen discussion.

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What are you doing to ensure education, online or otherwise, is going to meet the needs of students in the future?

Benoit Antoine-Bacon 

The place to start is with a deep caring for our students and for education. I’m confident that, by and large, when it comes to caring about education and our students, our faculty members and instructors are taking this extremely seriously and are doing everything that they can to prepare great courses for the fall.seriously and are doing everything that they can to prepare great courses for the fall.

Online learning is not new. People have been doing it for 20 years. There’s a real science behind that. Now the difference is, instead of working with the champions and the enthusiasts, you have to bring that expertise in online learning to the overall population. And every university has a team of teaching and learning specialists that can assist.

But I think it’s also important to leverage the expertise of our faculty members that have had success online as mentors and, just as importantly, to engage our students as partners to determine what they want and what they need and [offer] courses in a way that will best meet their needs.

Do you form some sort of committee between students and faculty?

Benoit Antoine-Bacon

Yes, a steering committee, so to speak. They determine the strategy and the various initiatives that we’ll be undertaking that are now ongoing.

Same thing for the teacher[‘s and the] Students as Partners Program. We’ve engaged students that have had the experience of outstanding online pedagogy so as to help inform both actors and fellow students on how to best tackle online learning, online courses


Rhonda Lenton 

We’ve been working on enhancing pedagogy, enhancing excellence in teaching and learning, for many, many years before COVID-19—and then understanding the huge impact that technology has been having on learning. In 2010, York launched an Academic Innovation Fund that was intended to really incentivize and provide seed money for faculties, to be thinking about how you start moving toward integrating, everything that technology can do for learning—so work-integrated learning, hands-on, problem-based learning. We have had many initiatives in these areas.

We’ve been really driving toward what we often refer to as a flipped classroom model, where it’s very easy for students to get access to their lecture materials online.

So COVID-19 definitely is unique in the way in which, unfortunately, it’s been required to do lectures off of campuses. Our students are craving being able to come back onto campus and spend more time in person. Nevertheless, we’re leveraging that past investment as we move courses online to look for ways in which we can … virtually incorporate in those online lectures [elements of] problem-based inquiry, opportunities for students to talk to one another in chat rooms … as we can start to re-open segments at the university in small groups—the labs, studios, clinical work, in very small groups on campus. 

We’ve also been designing and modelling a pilot in perpetual courses, where students have courses offered online and students can basically hop on or hop off the course throughout a longer period of time to increase the flexibility of the course delivery, the accessibility of the material.

Jill Scott

As we have seen technological solutions enhanced, we’ve also seen tremendous opportunities. I want to point to some key investments made by the former provincial government. Under the McGuinty government, and then under the Wynne government after that, they made some really important investments in, first of all, teaching enhancement. There was an Ontario online initiative, which gave out millions of dollars to universities to particularly improve technology for enhanced and online learning.             

What happened, of course, is when you put money on the table, people jump. So, the train was already happening, but it accelerated a serious push in a lot of universities. Because it was based on quality, it also really worked to incent quality education.

Fast-forward the better part of a decade from all of that, and 80% of the courses have a footprint in the learning management system. And anybody who has taught an online course, or a blended course even, has already given some thought to this. So, we’re not starting from zero, and we’re not even starting from just above zero. We are starting from a place of having a much better understanding of what digital learning means.

I think this is money well spent, because I don’t see it as an expenditure. Any time you can get a professor to think about whatever it is they are doing in terms of their teaching, there’s going to be a long-term benefit.

Graham Carr

This is not something new. Certainly, at Concordia and many other universities, we’ve been invested in online education for some time. We have had a production studio called Knowledge One that delivers our for-credit courses online. We had 35,000 registrations in credit courses online in the 2019-20 academic year before COVID hit. That production studio also has a second arm that works with the private sector developing training programs for large corporations such as Saputo and Ubisoft, for example.

We were on a pathway to try to increase the size of, and sophistication of, our online learning profile long before the COVID crisis hit. It is interesting that this summer, where we are only offering courses online, we’re having the largest-ever registration for summer courses. So, there’s an appetite there.

When the COVID crisis hit it was not about online learning. It was a pivot to remote delivery of courses that had been designed for an in-person, face-to-face classroom experience. It is very important to make that differentiation, because that got lost in the rhetoric of March and April. I think the unfortunate consequence is that this perpetuated some negative attitudes about online learning.

The upside, though, is it also gave some faculty members an opportunity to think differently about their teaching, to think differently about their assessments, to think differently about ways that material could be delivered using technology.

The challenge is that, in our experience, it normally takes somewhere between six and nine months to deliver a really outstanding-quality online course that’s conceptualized from start to finish, and we don’t have that amount of time.

The online courses that are going to be delivered at Canadian universities in the fall, the ones that were prepared over the summer, are partway to what an outstanding online course could be, but they won’t necessarily be the best example.

The last thing I would point out—and this goes back to Benoit-Antoine’s comments right at the beginning—is that it goes beyond online courses. It’s about creating a virtual environment for students. That includes increased support for student mental health, increased opportunities for students to be together and develop a sense of a community, increased opportunities to give them a virtual taste of what a campus experience could look like or what our city could look like.

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Will students be missing out by not being in close contact during lectures? How can you accommodate for that?

Graham Carr 

One of the paradoxes of online education is actually, in some respects, we have the opportunity to personalize and customize the education for the student in a way that’s difficult to do in a large lecture hall format, for instance. It’s possible to see whether students are falling behind in courses if they’re not opening modules and make an intervention at that point.

That is our goal—to try to get to that outcome. Online learning allows students to progress through the course on their own rhythm to go back and redo material. It seems counter intuitive because people think, “Now that it’s online, it’s mass, it’s undifferentiated, it’s depersonalized.” Paradoxically, you can actually personalize online education quite a bit. I’m not saying it’s a substitute for face-to-face. It is simply a different model of presentation.

In some courses we are also trying to adopt what we’re calling a flex approach that would allow students in a lab context, for example, or a studio to have some face-to-face experience within public health guidelines.

Jill Scott

We are all concerned about the student. When we move courses to a distance or remote experience, very often we underestimate the amount of work and the amount of time that it will take, and the challenges that our students will have.

One of the messages I’ve been trying to send is, “Hey, we’ve got to moderate our expectations,” and that does not mean that they’re not going to achieve the learning outcomes. That’s not it. So, there’s things that they’re not going to have, but there’s things that they’re going to have. Every challenge is also an opportunity.

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Expand on the student experience and how we can accommodate them.

Rhonda Lenton

We have to put the safety and well-being of our students, and our faculty and our staff, first and foremost. It is not just a matter of shifting the delivery, it’s a matter of learning differently. It’s a matter of interacting differently that takes a bit of time to adjust to.

We have invested hugely in our teaching commons and educational developers, instructional designers to help cover that distance. It’s about doing something remotely versus how do you actually provide a rich learning experience and actually translate it to meet those student learning outcomes in different ways. Even virtually, how can you capture experiential education opportunities? How can you have students working together breaking off?
There’s a lot of flexibility with online and it does take work. I’m incredibly grateful for my colleagues for taking on this work. But there will also be some components that are really challenging when you start to think about nursing, engineering, dance, and you start to imagine how you can do some of those student learning outcomes virtually, you can see that it can become challenging. That’s why we are planning for trying to have those small group activities on campus.

It’s going to be a very different campus experience on our two campuses. It will not be this vibrant very busy place but hopefully it will create those opportunities to address some of the really applied parts of the curriculum that are much more challenging.

This is such an important period of time of life for students. It’s way more about not just the curricular components, it’s the co-curricular, it’s the extracurricular. And so as much as we believe that we’ll be offering our students a very rich experience when they come in fall, I think it’s also a really important message for all of our students that you might be starting online but you’ll be finishing your degree in person on campus.

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There will be something missing from the cultural element of campus life. Do you think that will affect mental health?

Benoit Antoine-Bacon 

The short answer is yes, no question. We’ve been talking about courses, in some ways, that’s the part that I’m the least worried about. One of the advantages of ramping up online courses is it’s getting everyone to think more intentionally about what they’re trying to do with their courses, in terms of learning outcomes.

So, let’s put that aside, the 15 or so hours that students spend in class—they’re fine. What I am much more worried about is the 40 or so hours that students spend outside of class. My first concern when we went online in mid-March, was student mental health. By definition, [mental health] in times of crisis when things become unstable, affects people who barely hold their lives together at the best of times now become tremendously challenged.

The very first thing we did as we moved online was to ensure that our health and constant counselling services could continue online. I could not be prouder of the team that didn’t miss a beat. Wherever people were in Canada or around the world, our services were there to ensure that people who needed help had somebody to talk to.

We’ve also taken steps, a series of measures to support people that are dealing with stress, anxiety, mild depression, and so on. We have a very large therapy dog program on campus. It’s about 15 dogs, and they’re stars on campus and they hold office hours and they see thousands of students every year. It was important to our counselling team that our therapy dogs go online as well and that was a bit of a hit, too.

Graham Carr 

When we are talking about the mental health experience, it’s not just a student issue. Staff were suddenly put into work from home situations, which could be very stressful for many of them because they’re in houses that were not designed to be workplaces. So that is, another issue that I think we need to be aware of. It’s a larger community challenge.

Staff members who are on Zoom after Zoom after Zoom meetings over the course of the day, it’s exhausting. And there are consequences for that in terms of burnout. I don’t want us to lose sight of the complexity of the issues, which really extend to the community as a whole and are not exclusive to students.

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When it comes to getting applied knowledge and transferring it to the working world, what are the benefits or weaknesses of online learning or virtual learning?

Graham Carr 

At Concordia, we have had a history of working with corporations and with enterprises to provide them with training. We do the training for the entire Saputo global network in multiple languages around the world. There are many applications in the work world where online education is highly successful. 

One of the other things we’re also discovering, is that there are a lot of players in that economy right now who are themselves rethinking what the future of work is going to look like and for whom the digital environment is increasingly a reality.

Whether it’s the banking sector or the financial sector or the legal sector, I expect what we’re going to see is much more remote work and that part of adapting to an online educational environment is also actually a preparation for what the future of work is going to look like for many people. 

This is not necessarily around the content of what is being delivered but it’s about the familiarity with the tools, it’s about the comfort zone of working in a virtual environment.

Also, the future of co-op in many sectors is going to be a digital future as well. Many of our students who were in co-op, particularly with the financial sector, they did not skip a beat, they continued to do their co-op placements. There is an alignment that’s happening between the transformation of the future of work and the importance of acquiring digital skills and comfort in a virtual environment that online education is part of.

Jill Scott

All post-secondary institutions are taking far more seriously the interface between our work and the work that our students are going to be engaging in. Take Shopify for example. They’re a couple blocks from our campus. They have just announced that they are going to remain remote indefinitely. So indeed, for the foreseeable future, those are going to be remote jobs. What does that mean for us in terms of our responsibilities?

Coming back to the question of how we support students, and thinking about building those communities, whether it be virtual or in person, sense of space, place, belonging and identity is critical. One of the things that I really hope comes out of this situation here is a lot of research. Anytime we’re doing a huge push on this, on something that’s brand new and exciting and different, we have to be building out evaluation and research. And so, in some of the work that we’re doing on campus, we’ve built in some extra funds for those purposes. I very much hope that businesses are doing the same.

One of the key things that we are trying to shift towards is thinking about skills and competencies rather than a degree with particular knowledge. We know that the flexibility to transfer those skills is among the most important things that our students can take away with them.

So really keeping the focus on higher order cognitive skills that are transferable and really engaging our students in their thinking about their whole picture from start to finish is truly important.

Rhonda Lenton 

I think COVID-19 is just another catalyst, another example of how the relationship between higher education and other sectors necessarily has to be changing and has been changing in terms of the programs that we offer, the future skills that are needed, and the kinds of research that needs to be done.

York has been involved in developing a new campus in Markham and from the get-go with that campus we talked to employers and we established clusters, sector clusters around each of the programs to talk specifically about, “What are your needs in this area? What kind of programs do you need to be having in order to support and drive in the economy innovation in your region and in Ontario?” So, we designed our curriculum, the programmatic areas as well as the particular future skills, around what we were hearing.

We also have the partnership with Shopify, and it’s these kinds of relationships, where students spend even 50% of their time with an employer, with a company whether or not it’s not-for-profit or private or health or government, and they spend the rest of the time focused on their course activities.
We have also been working with the City of Toronto and employers on what was really impacting their business, especially businesses that were used to relying on an in-person model.

We developed a program where we have 50 of our Schulich business students working online with these small companies, helping them figure out how to actually make the transition. It’s so popular that now companies in York Region want the same support.

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How do you create a positive work culture at your university when more staff are off-campus and online?

Benoit Antoine-Bacon 

As we worried about the mental health of our students, we worried about how our faculty and staff were adapting to these unprecedented circumstances from one day to the next. You are working from home and you have to put your courses online which you may not have ever done before. Maybe your spouse is facing similar difficulties. Certainly, your kids are no longer in school, but they’re home and there doesn’t seem to be a plan for them. Maybe you’re dealing with aging parents on top of everything. It is a very difficult situation. We committed early-on to make decisions and to communicate in real time to give a sense of stability and continually and care.

So, for the first three weeks of the emergency, I wrote the community every day. And that was that was well-received. People still tell me that they miss the daily messages that kind of kept the community together. This is what’s happening, and this is what we’re doing every single day. I am down to once a week now, thankfully. But certainly, there is a lesson there that you can never over communicate when things are unstable.

Our various offices on campus—whether it’s HR or Health and Counselling or our Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion—have been great to offer a variety of either workshops or just informal online discussions to give people a chance to chat, to express themselves, to express their concerns and to receive the help they needed in adapting to those circumstances. And as things stabilized, it was great to see the various units just get together online for various informal meetings and chats.

Rhonda Lenton 

We’ve been meeting also more regularly with all of our different employee groups to be able to get feedback directly from the executives of different employee groups, so that we can understand the particular issues. Sometimes different employees will prefer to talk to their own union, for example, or their own colleagues. We have been much more active and need to try to understand what the issues are.

We have instituted a number of policies at the university. We looked at and consulted with various experts on what kinds of activities could reduce the kinds of stressors that were associated with isolation, with Zoom being your only vehicle of communication. We were finding that people were taking no breaks. 

We said, from an institutional level, that nobody should be scheduling Zoom between 12 pm and 1 pm because we also understood if you have children at home, that’s when you’re often feeding them. We’re trying to figure out how you balance the home circumstance with the work circumstance.

Also, the senior team, the President, Vice-Presidents, Deans, asked all the managers to start being much more thoughtful about what we could be doing. We have a global cafe for our international students so they can come virtually and talk about a particular problem. This whole area of what you can do for your staff, your students, your faculty, it takes very careful thought. You need someone to be on it and constantly working and taking the pulse to make sure that people are OK.

Graham Carr 

We’re all pretty big universities with tens of thousands of students and thousands and thousands of staff and personnel. One of the things that astonishes all of us is how the universities managed to adapt to remote work and continued to deliver the core operational functions of the university. That was no mean feat. It’s important because there’s often a perception that universities are antiquarian; they’re slow to respond; they can’t do this; they don’t do that. 

In the COVID crisis, universities across the country demonstrated that they could be highly adaptive and high performing, but it was stressful. We were three days into the health emergency in Quebec when I picked up the phone and called one of our professors in the psychology department who’s a specialist on anxiety and said, “OK, what do we need to be looking out for?” 

He said, “One of the prolonged impacts of stress is that some of those people experiencing stress are going to convert it into anxiety. What you need to be thinking about is not just the day-to-day but what’s coming down the road.”

We began to develop a series of measures, some of which ended up on a new website called “CU@Home.” We’re trying to provide people at home, whether they are faculty, staff or students, with coping methods and mechanisms, with alternative ways of thinking about things, including mobilizing some of our expertise in the university to do podcasts, for example, that about issues such as anxiety.

We also reached out very early to our managers [telling them to] go the extra mile in terms of touching base with the people who are reporting to you and say, “Is everything OK?” We need to do whatever we can as an organization to support that.

How does education need to adapt to meet the new demands of the workplace?

Benoit Antoine-Bacon 

For the past three months we have been surviving day-to-day making decisions that we needed to do to continue our operations in the short term. I think now, a lot of us are realizing that we’re going to need to raise our sights a little and take a bit of the longer view. What do we need to do to continue to be successful, not only in the fall but two years from now, five years from now and so on. And that is a different kind of thinking that I think we’re all struggling with.

One of the scariest statistics that I saw this year is: in 1985, the shelf-life of the relevance of technical knowledge was about 25 years. So, whatever you learned would serve you for about 25 years. In 2017-2018, that number was down to about 4.5 years. So, the idea that we would train people only for technical skills makes less and less sense. We need to reinvent that. We need to better prepare students not only for the workforce, but for a complicated life in a complicated world.

The tradition in university is to highlight things that are great, like knowledge and reason and a form of thinking. But a lot of things are not addressed that will be critical for success in that new world, in particular, what we would call divergent thinking, which is creativity. We also need to address the ability to be introspective, to self-monitor, to live a life of feeling as well as thinking until we’re able to tackle what it means to be a person and a citizen in the broader sense. If we cannot do that, we will not be fully successful in preparing our students for what’s coming.

Rhonda Lenton

It is really important for us to be thinking about how COVID-19 has differentially impacted different groups. There are really important equity, diversity and inclusion issues that have surfaced. Of course, the universities have been seized with leaving no talent behind in Canada. It goes to who we are in Canada. But we also see that there are different groups who have been differentially impacted.

As we think about how we’re responding, how we’re supporting our students, faculty and our staff, as we think about the needs of education, going into the future, we really need to layer on top of that considerations around diversity to make sure that we’re fulfilling our commitment to social justice and to ensuring that all Canadians have an opportunity to fully realize their opportunities.

You see that playing out now, where given the impact of technology and automation on the workplace, it is not just about either the young people coming through, it’s about what’s happening to the mature workers. What is going to happen around upgrading and rescaling? So, I would just emphasize that it’s no surprise to any of us that COVID-19 has differentially impacted different groups in society and different members of our community. But we need to be thinking about how we are responding to that and how we’re understanding that as well.

Graham Carr 

Before COVID, we were having conversations and attending conferences where we focused on thinking of disruption as a positive force because it could enable change. 

Well, be careful what you wish for, because we just got a disruption that none of us anticipated. My optimistic soul says that universities are supposed to be places that thrive on creativity, that thrive on imagination and thrive on evidence-based and evidence-proven solutions. This is the proof point now. If that’s really our asset class, then we need to align that asset class and devote that to the challenge ahead.

I think we’re actually in a sector that is going to be increasingly in demand going forward, partly because of upskilling. The value of education is not in the least compromised by the crisis that we’re going through but we are going to have to rethink what the nature of an online education should look like for the years ahead, and that will be a test.

We have come out of the last three months of day-to-day, hour-to-hour crisis management. We are now at a point where we’re face-to-face with much bigger, tougher structural decisions. I do not want to say what we experienced was the easy part but what’s coming will definitely be hard.