The Centre for Digital Media: a possible ‘hub’ for a new digital university?

Following the results from the recent national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian universities and colleges, and also my work for Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation project, I have come to the conclusion that there is an urgent need to establish new forms of higher education in Canada, not to replace (at least immediately) the existing universities and colleges, but to help them to advance more quickly into a digital age.

The rationale

There are several reasons but the fundamental one is that no higher education system, including Canada’s, is moving fast enough to cope adequately with the challenges of a digital society. Universities and colleges in Canada are changing, but not fast enough.

The big challenge is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need to prosper or even survive in an age of automation, artificial intelligence, massive global Internet-based corporations, and increasing government surveillance. As humans, as individuals, we are currently chasing technological developments and losing the race.

The second reason, somewhat ironically or counter-intuitively, is that the future of teaching in higher education lies in an intelligent mix of face-to-face and online learning, what is called blended or hybrid learning. However, for this to succeed, teaching will need to be re-designed to ensure that both the campus and online elements are fully optimised. This will mean moving away from didactic lecturing in classrooms towards integrated digital learning environments. However, our universities and colleges are currently not designed for this, and more importantly nor are our instructors. We need to build new institutions fit for purpose, which can provide a model for future developments.

The third reason is that we cannot control technology if we do not understand it. This means embedding students in digital learning environments so that they can learn to have more mastery over technology.

The proposition

The proposition is simple: establish five new regional universities-colleges that are designed from scratch as possible prototypes for the higher education institution of the future, but also designed to maximise the impact they have on existing institutions.

This would be a joint venture between the federal government and the provinces, with the feds responsible for funding the physical and technological infrastructure and the provinces responsible for the operational costs of the new institutions.

The five institutions

Five regional institutions would be opened, built around existing hubs of excellence in digital learning and digital economies. These would be located as follows:

  • Western Canada (BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba), possibly with a campus designed around the existing Centre for Digital Media/Emily Carr University of Art+ Design in Vancouver. This institution would focus on digital arts, culture, media, and the entertainment industry, and may also include an institute for the study of ethical, social and legal issues in digital technologies. Another campus may be in Manitoba to focus on agro-business and another in Alberta focused on climate change and carbon management
  • Ontario, with two possible campuses, one around the Waterloo/Kitchener IT hub, and the other around the Toronto/Hamilton corridor. Possible areas of focus would be on digital developments in ground transportation, manufacturing, and artificial intelligence
  • Québec: this institution might focus on digital developments in health and medicine, air travel and aeronautics, and francophone applications of digital technologies.
  • Atlantic: this institution might focus on marine and ocean industries and management, with campuses in Halifax and St. John’s, Newfoundland
  • a University of the North and Arctic: this would be a much smaller institution, linking educational institutions across northern Canada, including the three territories, and northern communities in all the provinces. This would focus on northern issues such as the environment, climate change, habitat and species protection and impact of technology on aboriginal cultures. The main challenge/goal would be to build a high-speed internet network to link all main northern communities together and with the rest of the country

The role of the five institutions

Although each institution will differ according to regional needs there would be some common roles:

  • development of innovative, effective, teaching methods suitable for a digital age
  • research into different aspects of a digital society and economy
  • supporting change in post-secondary teaching throughout the rest of the system 
  • supporting the growth of a socially responsible digital economy

These institutions will have a selected range of disciplines, and cover the whole range of post-secondary education, from vocational to post-graduate. They will be expected to experiment with the development of new forms of accreditation. They will award their own qualifications.

Teaching and learning

Because the new institutions are meant to have a wider impact on the rest of the higher education system, instructors/faculty will be seconded from existing institutions for a three year period, with the possibility of a further two year extension. They would return to their ‘home’ institutions to bring back the knowledge and experience they have gained, to influence their own institution’s approach to teaching and learning. 

Each institution would be designed on the basis that at least half the time students spend studying will be online, although the balance will vary for any specific subject. This means that campus design and funding will need to take this into account. Indeed the new institutions would provide provincial governments with a good test-bed for new funding models for ‘blended’ institutions. Campuses will need to be designed so that digital learning can be easily integrated with campus learning. Queen’s University’s interactive classrooms provide one example of what might be possible.

Instructors will be chosen on their ability to innovate in their teaching and their teaching expertise, and will be supported by learning technology and media specialists. The would be paid a small bonus/increase in salary each year to recognise the extra work in developing new teaching designs.

The new institutions will have a formal process for evaluating the effectiveness of the teaching within these institutions. Faculty will be expected to devote approximately half their time for teaching at university level, with the rest devoted to research.


It is probably not too wise to go into too much detail at this stage. There may be better ways to resolve the issue of building institutions fit for purpose in the 21st century. However, it is futile hoping that existing universities and colleges will change fast enough on their own to meet the challenges we are facing in a digital age.

Provincial governments in Canada have been loath to experiment with new forms of institution. Royal Roads University is the only different kind of institution to be established since the opening of Athabasca University, the Open Learning Agency and Téluq in the 1970s. Now is the time for government to be bold and innovative if Canada is to thrive in a digital age.


  1. Let’s also focus on the kinds of actions which could be taken by Canada’s colleges and universities within their current structures to help all of us cope adequately with the challenges of a digital society

    Tony Bates is right to challenge us all to think about how colleges, universities and polytechnics can rise to the challenge of the fast-changing digital economy. As a growing number of employers prefer to hire based on competencies and capabilities ( or track records as Stephen Downes appropriately put it) rather than just on the basis of qualifications, our post-secondary institutions need to rethink and recalibrate both what they do and how they do so as to meet the skills needs of the communities they serve. At the same time, they cannot lose sight of their role in shaping citizenship, social development and social justice. Our institutions are not simply skill factories – they have a broader education purpose.

    Tony’s ( tongue in cheek?) solution – five new digital universities in key locations across Canada which make extensive use of new approaches to teaching and learning enabled by technology, using a fluid staffing model and a focused agenda for skills development – is unlikely to capture the imagination of the government departments and agencies which provide funding and support for colleges, universities and polytechnics. A need to balance budgets, to foster innovation, to encourage collaboration and co-operation (shared services, joint programs, shared staffing models) are more likely to attract attention than new institutions which would take a decade of more to move from drawing board to collective impact.

    Let’s also challenge Tony and others in our sector to focus on the kinds of actions which could be taken by existing colleges and universities within their current structures to change the dynamics of post-secondary education – enable faster skills development, more responsive programming, greater use of flexible learning, new approaches to skills and prior learning assessment and a significant encouragement to recognizing learning at work for qualifications.

    Here are ten actions my Contact North I Contact Nord colleagues and I suggest to support skills development and learning innovation in our existing colleges and universities, not listed in any particular order:

    1. Continue to support and enable innovation through the provision of innovation funds focused on skills, learning and innovation at both the national level and the Provincial level. Extend the available funding from the Federal Government ($225million over five years from 2017) to be base funded over twenty five years; provide innovation funds in each province for new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment for skills which make use of open, flexible and distance learning approaches.

    2. Stimulate and support the growth of micro-credentials.

    Short learning experiences (in class, online, blended, work-based) which provide skills learning and development opportunities. Enable the stacking of these short learning modules into credentials (badges, certificates and diplomas) which can be transferred into degrees.

    3. Modularize all skills based programs so that learners can “mix and match” modules to meet their immediate and medium term learning needs.

    New disciplines and programs can emerge quickly by combining existing modules and using rapid development to create new ones.

    4. Equip every learner in every college, university or polytechnic with a skills e-portfolio.

    This will help capture their skills and abilities and enables potential employers to answer the question “what can you do?”. The learner can show the potential employer what they can do.

    5. Make assessment available on demand

    Learner can achieve recognition for their skills and competencies whether or not they have attended classes, enrolled in a program or being admitted to an institution. Assessment of competencies and capabilities using video and creative approaches could confirm just what the learner is capable of and identify the learning they still need so as to gain a recognized qualification or admission to a profession or skilled trade. Let’s make such assessment available on demand.
    6. Offer degreed apprenticeships.

    For advanced apprenticeships – aerospace, automotive design, systems architects and designers, for example – an advanced apprentice should automatically be enrolled in a related degree program, with their apprenticeship being “laddered” into the degree automatically. Industry and degree granting institutions could design such programs together, fund them and provide needed guidance and learning supports to enable high rates of completion. This is now occurring in other jurisdictions – there is no reason it could not happen here in Canada

    7. Recognize for credit learning in the workplace.

    Many individuals attend learning and development sessions run by their employer or their industry association or professional body. In many other jurisdictions such learning counts towards a qualification such as an undergraduate or graduate degree. There are frameworks and protocols that could quickly be adopted and adapted and used in Canada.

    8. Stimulate the growth of shared development for joint programs.

    Ontario has leveraged its innovation investments in online learning to enable the growth and development of joint college and university programs offered by two or more educational partners, especially for online learning. More such developments for flexible, blended and online programs would reduce the cost to each institution of having new, needed programs to market faster with greater flexibility.

    9. Strengthen and expand dual credit.

    School students across Canada can pursue both their high school program and apprenticeship, college or university programs through dual credit. While the range and extent of such programs is currently modest, expanding such programs leverages existing infrastructure, accelerates skills acquisition and encourages learners to continue learning after school.

    10. Stop distinguishing between the work of continuing education departments (CE) and faculties in terms of the recognition of learning.

    The real distinction between a continuing education department program and faculty program is funding. Learning for development, skill or citizenship offered by a college, university or polytechnic is learning and should “count” in terms of competencies and capabilities. If we recognize learning outcomes rather than determine these by sources of financial support, we would have a richer learning landscape for us to draw our image of the future of skills.

    Three other steps are required:

    • stop placing barriers to online learning in certain fields (law, engineering, medicine);
    • invest in growing the pool of open education resources so as to lower the costs of being a learner;
    • rethink quality assurance regimes to focus more on outcomes and engagement rather than inputs and
    comparisons with “existing” programs

    In short let’s give colleges and universities room (and encouragement) to be more innovative, responsive, collaborative and bold.

    Let’s continue to work at overcoming three persistent barriers:
    • funding models
    • traditional ways of working
    • and the way in which reward and recognize employees in our colleges, universities and polytechnics
    (especially faculty).

    Changing these dynamics is essential to enabling the ten action steps above to happen.

    All of us at Contact North I Contact Nord thank Tony for triggering such a stimulating conversation. As I chatted with him yesterday, Monday, November 12th at a very dynamic Technology Enabled Seminar + Showcase TESS 2018 organized by e-Campus Ontario in Toronto Tony’s large grin gave me the sense he was also being mischievous with this blog advocating for the establishment of five digital universities in Canada. Tony is at it again being the provocateur prodding all of us to engage in a vigorous public exchange about how to cope adequately with the challenges of a digital society.

    Maxim Jean Louis
    President-Chief Executive Officer
    Contact North I Contact Nord

    • Many thanks, Maxim, for such an excellent and detailed response to my deliberately provocative blog post.

      First, I do of course agree that we need our existing institutions to do all the things you are suggesting. Five new digital university/colleges is by no means enough to meet the disruptive changes we are all facing. I was assuming that existing institutions would continue to move in the directions you have suggested.

      However, I am becoming impatient. Current institutions are moving, but not quickly enough. We have economic, technological and social changes moving at many times the speed of changes in our post-secondary systems. At the same time, our institutions do need to be careful in how they change so that many of the very good things they do are not lost. This means we need to explore other possible kinds of institution that can start without the historical barriers that inhibit change in our existing institutions.

      It is possible to set up new institutions quickly, if there is political will. The UK Open University opened two years after it received parliamentary approval, with an initial enrolment of 20,000 students. That was 47 years ago. Surely we can be as nimble as that these days, if there is the will.

  2. With not an academic, I have taught Innovation at a Masters of Innovation program in AU before returning to Canada. As a professional speaker and presenter, I was used to presenting information and engaging people. A student highlighted this when she said her grade four teacher needed a university degree to teach while her university professors have no degree in teaching. I think the fact that you can be a professor and have no education in teaching and presenting greatly hinders learning.
    You use this expression: “Campuses will need to be designed so that digital learning….” There is no such thing as digital learning. Learning is human. It happens inside the heads of students. It is unpredictable. It is happens in different ways.
    You should talk in terms of “digital teaching” technologies.
    You assume learning is happening. As an academic, where is the evidence?
    Try to source academic research on learning. There is a surprising lack of it. What I find suggests:
    Students who hand-write notes will retain more than those who type.
    Students are not capable of true learning using digital textbooks. I study suggests two pages is about the limit (In AU, numerous high schools are getting rid of digital textbooks).
    At minimum, we should do deep research into which type of cognitive style and learning style (two difference concepts) are best suited for digital teaching.

  3. This debate is very stimulating. I share similar sentiments with both Tony and Maxim. An actual example from my context is that of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth. Even though we do not directly enroll students into programmes, we are part of a collaborative initiative coordinated by the Commonwealth of Learning. We have co-created innovative higher education courses and programmes based on OER that would not have been otherwise possible. We continue to innovate as a cross-cultural community and continuously learn from one another. However, we still have a lot to learn, to be responsive to the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


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