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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.