I was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver on Saturday morning, and spent some of my time thinking about the strategies that Tony Bates believes may be helpful in addressing the coming crisis in Canadian post-secondary education.

I share Tony’s qualms concerning the future of higher education in Canada. In this post, I am going to share some thoughts in response to one question that he raised: What other suggestions would you have for making our institutions more relevant for a digital age?

People sitting on grass having a conversation
People sitting – by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

Before I go further, I should clarify two points:

I agree with Tony that we need radical curricular reform and compulsory training for every faculty member on how to teach. I also agree that we need new digital universities, which incidentally says nothing about the appetite for and/or challenges of such an endeavour. I imagine that Tony calls for new digital universities because a blank canvas offers space room for new/different ideas than revisiting henceforth established practices. While the BC government is exploring such a feat with the expansion of post-secondary opportunities on Vancouver Island’s West shore, these opportunities aren’t bountiful. So, within the existing system, what may be some strategies for current universities beyond the ones that Tony proposes?

1. A team-based approach to every course. A team-based approach invites the knowledge and expertise of multiple groups of people to the design and development of a course. For instance, this might involve every single course employing the services of an instructional designer in a meaningful way. To truly involve an instructional designer, as opposed to merely asking for input that may or may not be taken up, we need to restructure course design, development, and evaluation practices. At a fundamental level, this requires involving faculty, instructional designers, learning scientists, evaluation consultants, and media professionals in what is typically a solo approach.

What problem does this address? Improving teaching and learning. This proposal works in conjunction with Tony’s recommendation to provide compulsory training in digital learning. Such training will be invaluable in the act of teaching and facilitation, and will be helpful in having conversations with a team of professionals about course design, but we need to do more.

2. An education that is flexible to the needs of society. Our institutions are often grounded on structures that invite students to fit neatly within a template that we’ve created (e.g., courses start in September) or make drastic changes to their lives in order to fit that template (e.g., moving to a different city).

How much flexibility is there in typical degree programs? How many courses are electives? In how many courses do students select from a menu of assignments, assessments, or outcomes? This is not to satisfy mere preferences but to provide education that is responsive to needs and and realities that people face – people who have multiple and competing responsibilities.

I’ll use the practice of flexible admissions here to illustrate. Imagine someone who ended their undergraduate studies ten years ago in order to care for a family member. Or someone who holds a diploma and has been working in their chosen profession for the last 15 years. Or, someone who holds multiple diplomas and has 3 years of work experience. Now imagine these three individuals desiring further learning through an undergraduate or graduate degree. Institutions that are relevant to the needs of society should be able to offer paths to credentials that not only recognize prior coursework, but value prior experiences, learning, and knowledge. We know that universities do not have a monopoly on learning and knowledge and that a classroom of people from diverse backgrounds may provide an enriching learning experience for all. Why then exclude learners who may not have followed a typical path to learning? Flexible admissions policies address this issue by providing alternative paths to education. While some universities in Canada do this (including Royal Roads University, UOIT, and Athabasca University), flexible admissions that recognize prior learning, competence, effort, and accomplishments are not the norm.

What problem does this address? Life is complicated and many people follow non-linear paths to education either by choice or due to forces outside of their control. A relevant higher education institution is inclusionary, and flexibility is one approach to eradicating exclusionary and limiting practices.

This area requires caution: There might be a tendency here to eliminate student barriers without concomitantly providing supports that will enable students to succeed. One form of flexibility for example may be a self-designed, self-paced, and self-guided program of study that imagines students as individualistic and autonomous individuals who succeed without institutional and societal support.

3. Rapid engagement. Imagine that your institution wishes to launch a new program, perhaps an MA degree on Indigenous Knowledge or Educational Entrepreneurship or Critical Animal Studies or FinTech or Climate Emergency or any sort of programming that is new to your institution. Is it possible to go from concept to launch in matter of a few months? Probably not at present, but that’s what we should be striving for. To do so we need to eliminate bureaucracies that impede innovation both at the institutional level, but also at the provincial level (where programs are approved). This is not to say that institutions should strive to chase the next high-enrolling program or to abandon the deep critical work that universities do, but to say that innovation is a staple – a characteristic even – of universities, and we should strive to reduce the barriers facing it. Removing such barriers may also do something else: it might enable academia to set the stage for discussion rather than respond to a discussion.

What problem does this address? Slow responsiveness to changing societal needs and barriers to innovation.

There’s little in the notes above regarding research, commitment to research, affordability, social justice, and so on, which are issues that I believe are also at the core of this conversation. Over to you: What are your thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions on this topic?