Western University, Ontario.

The issue

I have argued in earlier posts that universities and colleges (everywhere, not just Canada) need to move more quickly into digital learning for two separate but linked reasons:

  • to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age
  • to enable students to know how better to manage and control the digitalization of their lives.

Although Canadian institutions are moving in the direction of more digital learning, it is still a relatively marginalised movement. We need to move to the point where almost all courses include a mix of digital and face-to-face learning, or are fully online, within the next five years.

If not, universities and colleges will find themselves under increasing competition for students from network-based commercial organizations that can offer reputable and more relevant qualifications at much lower cost; and we will continue as a society to exercise less and less control over such networked-based multinational companies or over the automation of our lives.

Seven strategies for survival

So what should publicly-funded universities and colleges do? I suggest below seven possible strategies for survival, but there are certainly many more, and I hope to hear alternative suggestions from you.

1. Radical curriculum reform

Each and every academic department needs to review the content and methods of its courses to ensure that they accomplish the following objectives:

  • clearly indicate the knowledge and skills that students will develop though the program as a whole and their relevance to a digital society
  • clearly indicate the teaching methods to be used for skills development and how skills development will progress from start to finish, i.e from one course to another, within a program
  • clearly indicate what relevant digital tools and applications students will need to become fully familiar with the trends and directions of digital technologies within their area of study
  • ensure that a critical thinking approach to the use of digital technologies is adopted in every course and program; in particular to ensure that students understand the sources of data collection, how data is collected and used, and the unintended consequences of data use, within their field of study.

This approach is important for all areas of study, including (and especially) in the humanities.

The goal is to produce learners who are highly functional in a digital society, who can find success not only in work, but also in the social and personal aspects of their digitally based lives.

The Faculty of Computer Sciences at Dalhousie University uses Daedalus, a curriculum mapping tool, to ensure articulation of learning outcomes across courses

2. Compulsory training of instructors to teach

If 75% or more of all courses are to contain a fair amount of digital learning, all instructors in post-secondary institutions will need to learn how to design and deliver effective digitally-based courses. This requires three radical changes to the current approach to faculty development:

  • it needs to be compulsory and not optional: all instructors need a minimal qualification in order to teach
  • post-graduate doctoral programs should include a minimum 13 week course on how to teach in post-secondary education, including the appropriate use of technology, with options for more advanced courses. (Post-graduate students who do not intend to teach in a university or college can opt out, but will not then be able to teach until they have taken such a course).
  • all current tenured or full-time instructors who have not taken an appropriate amount and type of faculty development will need to take such a 13 week course within five years.

Some institutions are already providing appropriate ‘on-demand’, just-in-time training for faculty (including UBC), but in most cases it is optional. I realise there will be a system-wide opposition to a mandatory program, especially from established research faculty. However, I don’t want to get on a plane where pilot training is optional. Why should our students have to be in the same position regarding their learning at university or college? Effective hybrid and flexible learning is so radically different from the traditional lecture model that training is essential, if students are to succeed. 

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

3. Re-balance the incentives between research and teaching

Overall, success in research, and in particular in attracting research funding, is now the dominant criterion for academic success and promotion. But certainly most undergraduate students attend university for the teaching. If institutions neglect the teaching component, they will lose students to network platform companies that offer more effective and above all more relevant teaching for a digital society.

This is because nearly all content (except perhaps the very latest research) is open and accessible to such companies. They can repackage it, offer it in a more flexible format, and at a much lower cost, than traditional campus-based institutions. The value proposition then for universities and colleges is that they can provide a better quality of teaching, focusing on skills development in a broad sense (for the students’ benefit rather than employers’), social responsibility, and personal networking. An over-emphasis on research rather than teaching will undermine the value proposition of public universities and colleges in an age of platform-based multinationals.

Most institutions have academic promotion criteria that emphasise teaching but you have to look at the actual incentives to faculty in terms of appointment, promotion and tenure. We need to get the balance more equal between contributions to research and teaching, so that good quality teaching is better rewarded. In particular we need to support instructors who are innovative and effective in their use of digital technologies and learning.

4. Just-in-time, on demand, open access learning resources for instructors

A minimum 13 week course that focuses on different teaching methods and skills development is just the start. With technology rapidly changing, instructors need access to resources that can help them adapt and use technology in their teaching in effective ways.

This means providing resources such as access to research or practice-based articles about course design and different teaching approaches, examples of how to use video appropriately and effectively, the strengths and limitations of virtual and augmented reality, effective podcast production, and many more. Such resources need to be available on demand (i.e. online) and available ‘just-in-time’.

Some Canadian institutions – again UBC is an example – are already doing this, although many more resources are needed. This is an area where the use of open educational resources to share and make more widely available such professional tools for effective digital learning would pay dividends across the Canadian post-secondary education system.

5. Alternative qualifications

A basic requirement for survival in a digital age is the ability to continue learning throughout life, as the knowledge base expands, and as new ideas and processes spread more quickly than viruses. The idea of a post-secondary degree being a one-off event limited to the early years of adulthood is a concept very much embedded in an industrial age, where change was much more gradual. In a digital age, learning must be lifelong and on-going.

This requires new and more flexible forms of qualifications, such as micro-degrees and badges. Furthermore such qualifications need to be stackable, so that a collection of badges can become a micro-credential, and a micro-credential can be combined with other courses into a full master’s degree. This will result in the breakdown of a sharp boundary between continuing education and post-graduate education.

The area where public post-secondary educational institutions have the best value proposition but perhaps are most vulnerable to external developments is in offering valid and reliable qualifications such as authenticated degrees and diplomas. Such qualifications though will need to be adapted to a digital age. Students should be able to demonstrate the work they have done to deserve the qualification, through for instance e-portfolios. This means safeguarding the authenticity of such qualifications, probably through blockchain technology.

6. Skunk works or continuous innovation?

There is no defined path to successful digital education. We do not yet have well-established best practice or models for hybrid learning (unlike fully online learning). We need much more experimentation and evaluation of different approaches to the design and delivery of hybrid and blended learning. In particular we need more evidence for the affordances especially of face-to-face teaching. In other words, what, in any particular subject area, is best done face-to-face?

Face-to-face teaching is traditionally the default option, but we need to turn that on its head. Since a great deal, if not most, teaching can be done as successfully online as face-to-face, what are the unique advantages of coming to the campus in a particular discipline area? There will be many valid responses to that, but we need to better define and validate such uses of face-to-face time. This means encouraging faculty and instructors to experiment with and evaluate new hybrid designs, new uses of technology.

Changing institutions such as universities and colleges cannot be done overnight. New approaches need to be tested and validated and this cannot be done on a ‘whole institution’ basis. We need then to encourage certain parts of a university or college – departments that are most ready to change – by giving them extra resources and support so that the results of such innovation can be properly evaluated, and where successful, there needs to be an implementation strategy to move the innovation outside the department into other areas of the institution. In other words, we need to encourage skunk works, but only because most universities and colleges are not able to manage continuous innovation. Ideally, the whole institution should be moving to continuous innovation in teaching. That though would require a commitment that few institutions seem to be willing to make.

7. New digital universities

When was the last, truly different, university in Canada created? Royal Roads University in 1993? University of Ontario Institute of Technology (now rebranded Ontario Tech University) in 2002? Nearly twenty years ago? Before the WorldWideWeb? Don’t get me started!

I have written earlier about the need to experiment with institutions designed from scratch for a digital age. What would this look like? What would the campus be used for? What would learning spaces look like?

The key requirement would be to ensure that faculty and instructors were seconded from traditional institutions and returned after a few years, to avoid the institution regressing to the mean of a traditional university, as so often happens, and to ensure the lessons learned are taken back to the older institutions.


Radical change is needed if we are to protect the true value of public post-secondary institutions, which is to focus on the future needs of students and citizens in a digital age. 

I will explore in the last post in this series what a commercial multinational network educational institution might look like in the future and why this would not necessarily be a good thing for society and individual human beings – and why it could be disastrous for many universities and colleges.

Over to you

I would really welcome your comments and suggestions on this topic, in particular:

  • am I unduly agitated and exaggerating the crisis I see coming? Is the digital age becoming more of a disaster as time goes or is it a real success?
  • you will see from Eric Martel’s comment to my previous post that some universities, such as U of Laval, are already moving strongly in the direction I am suggesting. I still argue that even the best are still not moving fast enough. I believe it’s like climate change: we have 12 years to fix things at the most. Do you agree?
  • what other suggestions would you have for making our institutions more relevant for a digital age? What do you think your institution is doing successfully in this regard?
  • I see this crisis as having three parts:
    • one is a lack of leadership or vision at the senior administrative level in many institutions;
    • also a lack of urgency among many faculty, on whom in the end, successful change depends;
    • a lack of understanding by government and politicians of the role that education can and should play in making a digital society more tolerable and beneficial for all.

Do you agree and if so, what are your views on how these ‘lacks’ could best be addressed?


  1. Hi Tony, Hi George,

    Are there stats on retention rates in programs delivered digitally? Or, are there stats on the professional success of digital learners? Publishing/sharing such stats/analysis might help expedite the adoption of digital learning. If such stats are positive, chances are that senior executives and decision-makers in academic institutions will be motivated to promote and adopt digital learning on their campuses.

    Thank you both!

    • Good question, Nevine. The best data available suggest that there is little difference in completion rates between blended and face-to-face courses, while fully online courses have completion rates between 5-10% below face-to-face courses. However there are caveats. These results apply only to courses for credit offered by recognised public institutions; the student demographics for fully online courses are markedly different (older, working, with families) from those for face-to-face courses; getting good data on completion rates for all types of courses is difficult, because institutions are usually reluctant to publish such data (shame on them!).
      Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education
      Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

  2. Hi Tony, Hi Nevine,

    Good question, Nevine. And also good answer, Tony. There are a few other caveats involved in getting good data on completion rates for fully online courses. Most importantly (imho and I believe also in your opinion as well TOny) are the problem of defining what is totally online course? What is the course design and pedagogy? As Tony remarks: “shame” on the academic institutions for not publishing the data at all, but also shame on these institutions for not acknowledging the differences between an “online” course and a course that is: 1) basically traditional distance education + email and a few gizmos 2. elearning with little peer discussion or instructor-peer interaction and 3. Courses that seek to me more like MOOCs.

    As you know I define an online course as one that provides designed and moderated opportunities for class discussion and team projects, thereby distinguishing the kinds of things that online can do better than f2f.

    The lack of data on completion rates, and on the pedagogical design of what universities are now calling online online is a real problem. Especially as TOny writes: “Face-to-face teaching is traditionally the default option, but we need to turn that on its head. Since a great deal, if not most, teaching can be done as successfully online as face-to-face, what are the unique advantages of coming to the campus in a particular discipline area?” Yes, I totally agree. But nonetheless we still need to identify and underline and shout out the unique affordances of online courses because by and large they are not being emphasized in the curriculum of online courses nor truly understood by faculty and administrators. I’d love to hear suggestions and ideas from others on ow to move forward on these key issues. Perhaps it will take a crisis of survival that will motivate some to make those important moves. Cheers!

  3. Hi Tony
    Fascinating to read your post about what is happening in Canada. As an expat now working in HE in Australia, all I can say, speak to the cousins down under! It’s amazing what they are doing. Australian HE is at the forefront of doing and discussing digital curriculum and delivery. I am working as a Learning and Teaching Consultant – someone who provides knowledge and support on how to design and deliver university courses. In our business school, we have 8 of us, just for the school. I love it!
    What I have observed, is that teaching at the tertiary level has definitely become more complex. Academics can no longer just lecture. The expectations – from who..? – is that they provide a teaching environment worthy of someone with a BEd. Therefore, your recommendation of teaching training for academics is not far off the mark.
    Interestingly, my son has returned to Canada to study, so I harass him about his university experience and am amazed at how far behind his university is. Or is the lack of structure and engagement behind his learning. Luckily he is a mature student and has amazing parental support. At our institution, we are focusing a great deal on how we can support students. – yes it comes down to retention because of the all mighty dollar. But at the end of the day, they are people too.
    Looking forward to reading more.


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