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.
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 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.