For the first time in 100 years, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada invited students to participate in its membership meetings in Montreal. As one of the ten students who attended this centennial celebration in late October, I was not sure what to make of this change. Was it strictly a public relations stunt by the presidents of Canada’s universities and colleges, or did it signal something else? Were we, along with other invitees from civil society, brought to Montreal in a sincere attempt by the AUCC to bring greater transparency, inclusiveness, and legitimacy to their national plans, or did we just represent boxes to be ticked off a centennial to-do list?
With an opening address titled “Opening Us to Larger Worlds,” AUCC chair Stephen J. Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor of UBC, made a passionate, thoughtful, and comprehensive call for a new national narrative for higher education. While acknowledging the importance of parochial pulls and the clashes between and within universities over receding public funds, Toope enthusiastically urged his membership to look beyond such limiting horizons. “Our story is not about competition,” he said. “It’s about contribution.” From this pivot point, he rolled out a powerful public-service strategy that aimed at, among other things, shaking the wider public’s narrow and crippling perception of Canadian universities as just another “special interest group.” Peppering his speech with words and phrases like “responsibility,” “deeper purpose,” the “well-being of Canadians,” “advancement of knowledge,” and making a “positive difference,” Toope argued that the 21st-century answer to “What good are universities?” was their capacity to “open us to larger worlds.”
To some this will sound like a clever re-branding exercise. Others might say that it reads like a fairytale. To reconfigure universities so they are, for instance, more directly and thoroughly engaged in the educational experiences of grade-schoolers, or in the cultivating of greater private sector partnerships requires a fundamental and radical transformation. The very way Canadian universities understand how knowledge is produced, transmitted, and consumed would need to be reformed. A humble recognition of the social diffuseness of knowledge and its global circulation would need to be integrated into curriculum, research, and administration. This new academy then would be and appear a more socially permeable, engaged, and relevant institution. It would be more democratic. Some spires may remain ivory within this vast and varied educational complex, but they would have been erased of much of the condescension they once housed.
At the same time, in order for this to work, the larger Canadian community would need to alter its attitude and its understanding of higher education. Furthermore, internally, the relationships between knowledge disciplines, academic freedom, administration, and social “utility” would have to be renegotiated without eviscerating the traditionally dynamic, innovative, and creative tensions already there. Telling a good story is one thing, and no small thing, but truly changing the story and living it is another. That said, many of these changes, particularly those involving knowledge production, transmission, and use, seem to be occurring “organically.” Electronically formed social networks and a greater ecological awareness have infiltrated virtually all corners of our universities. The general trajectory of this integration is toward transparency and openness, at least for now. So perhaps part of what makes Toope’s pitch sound plausible is that it echoes these deeper structural changes.
What also tells me it has a chance to actually gain social traction and, simultaneously, gives me hope, is the way this new national narrative is taking shape. It is through conversation. It is through a conversation that does not simply tolerate or reluctantly include students and others in wider civil society, but actively and seriously seeks out their voice. More than that, I left the centennial meeting with the sense that most AUCC members were really listening. From talking informally to the other students who attended, I heard similar impressions. Here then, in practice, was the AUCC displaying both willingness and an empathetic capacity to open itself to larger worlds. Of course, for this to work, those attitudes must be sustained and reciprocated by others entering this new national conversational space. Will this happen? I cannot be certain, but I do see reasons to be optimistic. And I do know that if this “smart and caring nation” is to get the kind of education it needs and deserves, this is the kind of story we all need to live.
As a doctoral student who has been lucky enough to receive SSHRC funding at both the master’s and PhD level, I am very aware of how much thanks I owe to the people of Canada who support my research through these governmental programs. I often worry about the divide that exists between those funding the research and those doing it, because if we, as academics, don’t make sure that Canadians understand the importance of what we are doing, then it would be easy to see how research could become less of a priority when economic times are tight. Plus, if we are making all sorts of interesting discoveries, does it not seem logical for us to report back to those who funded the research in the first place?
So how do we go about bridging this gap? How do we ensure that people outside of our institutions understand the value of what we do, and why it is important to fund all types of scientific research? The last part of that question seems especially relevant to my field – I am an archaeologist who studies rock art from the Ice Age, so the work I do is not going to cure cancer or solve the problems of global warming. But, my research is trying to answer questions such as “when did early humans become us?” and “where does our capacity for symbolic communication come from?”, and when I do take my work outside of the “ivory tower,” I am always surprised to see how eager people are to learn more about my studies.
I was an MA student the first time I went into a school and shared my research with a class of Grade 7 students, and from that moment on, I realized I had found a solution to bridging the gap that was perfect for me. Working with the Canadian community outreach organization Let’s Talk Science, I have given dozens of presentations in classrooms and to adult community groups in the past four years. This experience has not only been beneficial to those who have the opportunity to learn about my research, but has also helped me hone my presentation skills, and has given me a place to remember why it is I love what I do so much (something that can sometimes get lost in the pressure cooker that is graduate school!).
I would like to encourage other graduate students and faculty to think about stepping outside of the ivory tower more often. Community outreach is a simple and rewarding way to engage with the largest group of people who support our studies, and making academic research accessible to the Canadian public is also a great way to ensure that our funding will remain intact for many years to come.
Many Canadians are becoming concerned about the quality of teaching and learning in our universities. Similar worries are being voiced in the United States, where studies like those described in the recent book, Academically Adrift, have suggested that, for many students, four years of university produces little or no measurable improvement in writing skills, critical thinking or complex reasoning.
As part of the research for our book, Academic Reform, we reviewed experiences in 13 jurisdictions as well as best practices within Canada, to identify measures that universities and provincial governments could take to improve the quality and cost effectiveness of undergraduate education. They include performance funding, accountability agreements, teaching practice, teaching assessment, quality assurance, outcome assessment, performance measurement, public reporting, and faculty engagement.
On performance funding and accountability agreements, the good news is that some provinces such as Ontario have put in place written accountability agreements with each university, and universities are increasingly comfortable with the process. We have proposed options for maintaining this momentum, drawing on the Australian example of integrating the negotiation of the agreement, the production of performance measures, and the award of performance funding. We propose that government could allocate part of its operating grant to a Teaching Enhancement Fund which would be awarded to institutions in accordance with progress on measures negotiated in the accountability agreement process.
With regard to teaching practice, the good news is that it is possible to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate teaching and learning with techniques that are completely within the capacity of the professoriate. Each year, more is becoming known about how to do this, and additional learning instruments and techniques are being developed. The not so good news is that, as in other jurisdictions, too few faculty members in Canadian universities are adopting these practices or taking advantage of the research findings.
We fare slightly better in the area of curriculum review, with some universities conducting regular renewal processes. But all universities struggle with the constraints imposed by disciplinary traditions, and few academic units have risen to the challenge outlined by President Pierre Zundel at the University of Sudbury and President Patrick Deane at McMaster University (University Affairs, December 6) of exploring more effective ways to achieve curricular goals. We have also found that information on teaching inputs is much less available in Canada than in some other jurisdictions. We propose ways to remedy this.
On student course evaluations and faculty performance reviews, the good news is that some Canadian universities have adopted leading-edge practices. (See for example the University of Toronto’s new Course Evaluation Framework.) The not so good news is that these practices are not present in all universities. We propose that, for institutions where these practices are not well developed, governments include a discussion of how to improve them in their annual accountability agreement negotiations.
With regard to academic standards and quality assurance, the good news is that some provinces, most recently Ontario, have rejuvenated their systems of quality assurance in ways that follow principles of quality assurance systems in comparable jurisdictions and that these processes could be deepened and broadened if necessary. The main question for Canadian universities is the role to be played by the measurement of learning outcomes, which currently has little or no part in program quality assessment. The Canadian Degree Qualifications Framework endorsed by provincial and territorial ministers responsible for advanced education in 2007 is no longer an international leading practice in light of recent initiatives in the US (such as the Degree Qualifications Profile) and elsewhere to develop more detailed and useful descriptions of learning outcomes.
In the realm of outcomes assessment, the good news is that established techniques such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) now exist for assessing employment success and measuring student learning in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The not so good news is that the employment success surveys used in Canadian provinces on university graduates are primitive by international standards, and no Canadian universities are using the recently developed learning outcomes measures. We suggest that each institution’s progress in measuring learning outcomes be part of the annual accountability negotiations.
On performance measurement and public reporting, there have been some impressive Canadian initiatives such as CUDO in Ontario, but even these have fallen behind undertakings such as the Voluntary System of Accountability in the US. Canada could learn a great deal from the practices in the UK and the plans to enhance public reporting in Australia through the My University website. We suggest that our universities should follow the lead of these jurisdictions.
The essential insight from our review of other jurisdictions is that substantial reforms in instruments and processes for improving undergraduate education do not happen on their own. There are many faculty and administrators who are committed to improving undergraduate education in Canada, but the barriers to reform are high. Provincial governments have a responsibility to put in place incentives that will help the reformers get on with their work.
Ian D. Clark is co-author, with David Trick and Richard Van Loon, of Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
In an era where change occurs rapidly and is only accelerating, it can be easy to lose sight of what universities are at their core: diverse communities who are trying to impact society in beneficial ways. Universities do this through many different methods, but we should embrace the overarching idea that universities are and should be success centres.
I use “success” broadly. It doesn’t mean that everyone should automatically get As or Nobel prizes. It doesn’t mean that a degree should automatically lead to a particular job. But it does mean that universities should be more focused on being people-centred communities. It also means helping community members succeed in their own ways.
For example, from the perspective of someone who has been outside of universities for a while, I primarily remember the people, the interactions, and the experiences from my time at McMaster and the University of Victoria. I learned so much from advocating with many student leaders and university administrators about university issues. That advocacy became a fundamental part of who I now am and how I now act as part of broader society. On the other hand, most of the specifics from my classes are now long gone. The university environment can thus be key as to what impact each of us has as citizens.
We should be better at creating environments and opportunities that incubate and foster success for the short-, medium-, and long-terms. By being involved in their success, students and alumni become more engaged and personally invested over time. We also need to be better at explaining and understanding how small parts integrate with the whole. After all, none of us want to lose sight of the forest by becoming too focused on the trees.
Diversity is our strength, and we should be promoting and protecting it. There is a reason why there are multiple faculties and schools at universities. We bring different backgrounds and experiences. We don’t all think the same, and the different approaches and perspectives we bring are invaluable to how we are going to deal with our world’s problems.
Inherent in that diversity is that we each take away different things from universities. That’s a good thing because universities should be encouraging creativity and variety as much as possible. Universities have a great potential to adapt and change, and we should not be afraid to change to promote a variety of our community members’ successes.
We must also not forget that universities are fundamentally communities, and every community is ultimately only as good as its people. We must also not forget the large ranges that make up that diverse community, particularly given the different stages of life that different community members are at. It is thus important to always think about how something will affect a person rather than thinking about it in detached isolation. People know when people care, and it makes a huge difference.
We must also encourage more interaction within our communities. I’m not talking about networking for the sake of networking; I’m instead focusing on the good connections that naturally arise in vibrant communities. It can be comfortable to just stay in one’s silo, but there are tremendous benefits from creating opportunities and incentives to stretch one’s self and go outside of comfort zones.
We should thus be focused on building and nurturing people to succeed in various ways over the long-term. By focusing on communities and the success of its people, we also help universities improve and stay relevant in tomorrow’s world. After all, when tied together, all of those individual and varied strings of success can become rather formidable, and the benefits will help us all.
Universities and colleges struggle to find the balance of providing an education while also providing an experience. To facilitate this balance, educational institutions often have administrative offices designated to work directly with students, whether this be an ombudsman or vice president of students. These roles exist to provide students a direct line to the decision makers. However, these offices are often set up to receive and respond to complaints, operating more as a sounding board than a facilitator and motivator of student ideas.
Nationally, the waters of student agitation are churning. Recent trends in the costs of education are leaving many questioning the value of pursing a university or college degree. The most recent report from Statistics Canada highlights that students will pay 4.3% more this year (2011-2012) to attend school, making the average tuition for university $5,200 and college $2,500. This does not include ancillary fees, costs of living, academic materials, and some degree of recreation. Compounding the problem on the institutional side are issues such as an infrastructure backlog totaling $6.4 billion, of which $2.4 billion is to be considered urgent. While in comparison to other countries Canada fares ok on the costs of attaining a level of postsecondary, that should not be an excuse for allowing our costs to increase and situation to worsen.
Much of the solution to the educational challenges facing Canadians rests in the hands of our legislators, but that does not mean institutions cannot take action on increasing their institutional value for prospective students and alumni.
So, how do universities do this? Through meaningful consultations with students. The reality is that there are many strained relationships across Canada between the institution and student. I know from my time as student union president that I often had arguments with our university over how seriously the institution took the opinions and feedback provided by students.
William Brown, in Reflections of a University President, writes on the importance of on-campus consultation,
“Time consuming as they can be, such processes often produce better decisions than quick pronouncements from up high. […] They can generate loyalty and a stronger sense of community. And they can even save time in the long run by avoiding missteps and the need to repair relationships damaged by having failed to consult appropriately ahead of a decision.” (Brown, 2011. p. 17).
Attending university or college is about gaining an education in the classical sense, but also an education in participation. I think it helps to look at a campus as a training village. As students, at any age, we attend the places of higher learning to help train and better ourselves for the real world.
By engaging students in the discussion and decisions of the institution, there is a real opportunity to increase the value of one’s education and connection with their alma mater, building strong community participants and loyal alumni. Whether this is facilitated through including student representation on an institution’s Board of Governors, Senate, or as simple as creating an advisory board to the president, there must be an avenue on campus for students to contribute to the strategic decisions of an institution and not just complain.
Setting the tone for a more consultative role of students may be as simple as investing in the constant facilitation of campus-halls, and residents’ walks. It may also be more complicated and require a much broader and slower cultural change. Regardless, students should be considered like a voter or a taxpayer—the key stakeholder.
This consultation should happen through the student association on your campus, as they are the elected voice of students. There is no end to processes and approaches to consultation, but there is no substitute for face-to-face communication — great things can come from a simple conversation.
“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival…it is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.” –David Orr, Earth in Mind
The world in which the university was founded has, since that time, undergone immeasurable change. Contemporary social and ecological crises present unprecedented challenges to humanity. The university is not immune to these challenges. Many contend that post-secondary education is obligated to act for the improvement of social and ecological ills and contribute to a more just future. This obligation is especially relevant considering that the university has arguably contributed to the instigation of these problems, as well as their perpetuation. As stated by professor David Orr, “This is not the work of ignorant people. Rather, it is largely the results of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.”
It follows that if current post-secondary educational practice has at least played some role in creating these crises, then post-secondary education can at least play some role in renewing resilient communities. Yet, how can this transformation be most effectively achieved? What pedagogical reforms are demanded by the objective of creating education that is relevant and responsive to the world today? I believe it is a question of “re-placing” the university.
The university too often exists in an ivory tower of isolation. Meanwhile, problems happen in places. The university must become a part of its place, its community, before it endeavours to become a part of the solution. This is not to suggest that all institutions explicitly disregard the gamut of ills affecting people and the planet. Universities may teach in earnest the issues of the world with the intention of catalyzing change. But if these lessons remain confined to classrooms, change remains confined to chalkboards. Unless students are given the opportunity to actualize that which is taught, these lessons cannot be actualized into change. And perhaps the most unsustainable form of education is that which stagnates in separation from the world for which it is intended.
Universities must recognize their connections to social and ecological ills, especially those affecting the local community in which the university is situated. It is in this local context that students have the greatest opportunity to meaningfully practice making better places. Universities then must question if the kinds of places students will be able to make as a result of their post-secondary education are places that ameliorate the state of the world.
On a planet that is warming, amongst people that are warring, and in a time that we are wasting, we must rediscover our places. Without place, we cannot belong. We cannot belong, therefore we cannot care, and to not care is to actively, through apathy, cause to deteriorate the already compromised state of our warming and warring world. But to find our place is to find that reason to care. In place, we broaden a sense of belonging to that which surrounds us, people and planet, because we identify with our environments and our communities. In place, we are meaningful and mindful in our actions, because we recognize ourselves as effective actors that bear impacts, and are able to use these impacts positively to make change. And in place, we discover the interrelationships and interdependencies that render us both vulnerable and vital to the survival of our place, and of our world.
When idealizing an ameliorated world, the concept of “utopia” may come to mind: a harmonious co-existence of people and planet with no injustice, no inequality, and no problems. However, utopia also means no place. In Greek, the prefix “u” means no, and thus, this idyllic imagining remains just that. But perhaps it is this lack of place that has strangled such renewal. Perhaps instead, the vision for the future must be topia, must be place, and re-placed universities.
Students spend years, families spend thousands, and Canada spends billions on postsecondary education. What are we getting for the investment? A bumper crop of students has again descended on Canada’s colleges and universities. What will they have learned by the time they graduate?
It’s time for answers to these questions because, while Canada has one of the highest postsecondary participation rates in the world, higher education of late is suffering a crisis of confidence in the minds of some. We have read many cris de cœur about the value of higher education, much of it emanating from those holding postsecondary credentials. Among the indictments: higher education is a high-risk investment with no clear payoff; it is misaligned with workplace skills; the liberal arts degree is an irrelevant investment in a technological age. The current malaise celebrates select postsecondary dropouts for their entrepreneurial bravado and prompts PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to offer $100,000 to college students if they drop out of school and start their own companies.
The reality is that the great majority of tomorrow’s jobs will require some postsecondary credential. More and more students are flocking to colleges and universities because they know that the credential they get is their ticket to a better life and a better job. This is their reality and they have it right.
The views of postsecondary contrarians right-fully should lead us to examine in a more sophisticated way the relationship between higher education and personal and professional success. More to the point, what kind of education do today’s students need from our institutions of higher learning and what skills should these institutions teach and develop in their graduates?
Employers at all levels say they want employees who are critical thinkers and effective communicators, more reflective, better problem solvers, imaginative and capable of working in teams. These skills are attuned to today’s knowledge-based and complex economies and equip students to address challenges we cannot even anticipate today. Many postsecondary institutions claim that their graduates have acquired these skills. But, until these claims are backed up by measurement, they remain untested assumptions. Currently, we lack the evidence and rigorous measurement to know whether these critical job and life skills are being achieved.
Canada is in this measurement game but we are behind the U.S. and Europe in defining and measuring the skills and learning outcomes that students (we like to believe) have acquired from their college or university education.
In the United States, the Council for Aid to Education is improving quality and access in higher education through its Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national effort to assess the quality of undergraduate education by measuring students’ critical thinking abilities. The European Union is harmonizing higher education programs and degrees by defining learning outcomes. And the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project is gathering data globally on the relevance and quality of teaching and learning in higher education as a tool for post-secondary institutions to assess and improve their teaching; for students to make better choices in selecting institutions; for greater government accountability; and for employers to know if the skills of the graduates entering the job market match their needs.
Canada’s postsecondary education systems are already held accountable to a variety of input and output measures such as entering grades, enrolment numbers and graduation rates. More recently, student satisfaction and engagement surveys have been added to the accountability mix. But there’s more work to be done.
The assessment of learning isn’t new. There has been interest in it as long as there has been education. But there is a growing need to demonstrate the value derived from public and personal investment in higher education, using rigorous methods that would convince a skeptic. Countries around the world are vigorously pursuing this issue. Canada needs to be part of these global initiatives.
History tells us that we are not very good at predicting the jobs of tomorrow, but we know what the baseline skills for success look like. Now we need to find out whether postsecondary students and the public purse are getting what they paid for. In the ongoing debate about higher education, we should be talking a lot more about what students learn and a lot less about who can get by without it.
I am on a flight from Prince George to Vancouver. I can’t remember how many such flights I’ve been on this year, but it isn’t a small number. The effort and budget expended by all of us at UNBC being “in the North, for the North” is large. We also serve students from southern British Columbia and beyond who have an interest in the subjects and themes in which we have strength. Many come to learn and conduct research in a small, more personal university. We have strong ties to Nordic countries, where we seem to be known better than some in our own province, and we attract excellent students from those regions. Like many universities in Canada, our campus is becoming more international as an increasing number of students from abroad are joining us. We work hard to deliver our programs to the First Nations students in our Region, on our four campuses, as well as through the Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a program in the Nass Valley.
Our new term is well underway, and talk and concerns over midterm exams and papers fill our hallways. While much is as it was last year, I can’t help but feel that there’s something different in the air this year. There is a concern about the economy, on a global scale. These uncertain economic times, and the fiscal realities in British Columbia challenge our governments and thus the management of our universities. I believe the dynamic environment in which we live signals some key features that ought to guide our thinking about the education our students are receiving on our campuses.
Can our universities deliver on the promise to play a vital role in the future prosperity of our country? This challenge at times conjures up groans in our hallways that seem to resonate with the rubbing of ice floes or tectonic plates. I would challenge the notion of “We’ve seen all of this before.” When one considers what is happening to our environment, the consequences of an exploding middle class in developing countries, the trends in fossil fuel-based energy, and the financial state of major economies in the world, I suggest that we are navigating uncharted waters. We must respond and rise to this challenge in a timely fashion if we are to play an active part in helping our communities and companies cope and compete in a world that is changing at a pace more similar to a tsunami.
Providing an excellent curriculum to prepare our graduates with the confidence they need to contribute in this dynamic world has never been more important. We must maintain the excellent teaching of our core curricula that form the foundations of our degree programs. Our graduates must be competent and be able to compete with the best in the world, as our issues and opportunities are becoming more global by the day. To do this effectively, we must continue to examine our pedagogical models. As fruitful research expands our knowledge base we are challenged in delivering a relevant and contemporary curriculum within our academic year. Many of us remain in an ancient and agrarian calendar. These two factors must force an examination of how we deliver our programs if we are to meet this challenge. In this regard, I admire institutions that have embraced the integration of disciplines and interdisciplinary approaches, and those that have adopted non-traditional academic years and course formats such as block-teaching.
Many companies attribute their success to an association with a university. To some it is the idea or discovery that was the genesis for their firm. For most the access to talent and infrastructure on our campuses presents significant benefits. For our students and faculty, these partnerships present a wonderful context to learning and research. I believe there are significant opportunities for partnerships beyond our traditional co-op programs, where the facilities and talents in industry might play a more integral part in the delivery of our programs. For example, we are imagining a new engineering program that would have industry-based labs being used by students and where professional engineers in large forest companies might contribute to teaching.
Our small size and our special mandate in this large region make us particularly sensitive to financial pressures. However, I have found a vigour and flexibility in our young community that holds great promise in meeting the above challenges. I believe that enriching the experience of our students will go a long way in producing a graduate that has the confidence to apply what he or she has learned and to keep learning throughout their lives and careers. I also hope that those graduates will challenge our rather conservative professional associations to keep pace with the needs of society.
A graduate crossed our stage at our last convocation and gave me a warm and sincere handshake and said “Thank you, I had a great time here, and I’ll never forget UNBC”. As she walked off the stage my sense of responsibility for the work that we do was matched with a refreshed sense of optimism, for her as well as for all of us in our rapidly changing world.
Canada’s universities and their communities are linked in many ways, and one of the most vital and dynamic connections is volunteerism.
If our communities are to remain viable and thrive in the face of changing economic, demographic and societal challenges, then volunteerism by the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Canada’s universities must be a growing part of the solution. There is considerable room for broadening volunteerism in Canada, particularly among our youth.
Surveys show that just under half of Canadians volunteer in some way, but a small minority account for the bulk of hours contributed each year. Much of that effort is being made by a cohort of super volunteers who are in large part retiring and ready to pass the torch to subsequent generations.
A 2010 pan-Canadian research study, “Bridging the Gap”, revealed that the goals of the upcoming generation of volunteers are likely to be quite different from those who preceded them. The younger generation represented by our students — many of whom are juggling school, job, and family obligations — seems to want more flexibility, shorter-term opportunities, group activities and volunteer tasks that are different from daily work or study life.
Canada’s Governor General and longtime university president David Johnston is rightly encouraging the country’s youth to be more active in volunteering, and our universities can be natural leaders in that movement. In fact, many of Canada’s universities were founded by individuals or groups who devoted their personal, professional and financial resources to supporting education.
At Concordia, giving of one’s time without remuneration is a longstanding core value, beginning with our founding institutions, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, whose histories and positive social impacts stretch back to the late 1800s. We believe that teaching and learning should be infused with a sense of social commitment, purpose, and responsibility.
Our new Academic Plan, currently in preparation, puts a special emphasis on encouraging students to take advantage of volunteer opportunities, especially those that correlate with their academic program objectives. This can be done through initiatives such as problem-based service learning for academic credit and by including volunteerism in a co-curricular transcript or diploma supplement.
Concordia’s Co-Curricular Record, for example, is an official document that formally recognizes a student’s volunteer experience through extra-curricular involvement, leadership accomplishments and community service activities. It was instituted in September 2010, making Concordia the first Quebec university to offer such a record.
Coaching is vital, so we also teach interested students how to be effective volunteers and we try to match them with the opportunities available. Since it opened in August 2010, the Concordia LIVE Centre (Leadership Initiative and Volunteer Engagement) has connected with more than 1,200 students seeking information about volunteer opportunities.
In this 10th anniversary of the UN’s Year of the Volunteer, one challenge for Canada’s universities and their supporters and partners is to be as adaptable, accessible and creative as possible in making volunteerism a natural part of our students’ development.
The corporate sector, for example, can help with targeted scholarships that help ease a student’s transition into lifelong volunteering. Governments can provide innovative funding incentives such as loan offsets that reward students for their commitment to volunteerism. Non-governmental organizations can develop project-based programs and leadership circles that help students find their way to volunteering.
The relationship between Canada’s universities and our several communities — local and global — can be strengthened and deepened through volunteerism that has deep roots and good prospects of growing strongly in the years ahead. To achieve this, it will help to have the concerted engagement of governments, business and the broader society.
How can the new generation of students descending upon us, or dare I say invading us in 2010 be described? They learn by memorizing, mechanically apply formulas and want an immediate answer to their questions without trying to find the answers on their own. Their lives are so hectic, they have trouble finding the time to prepare for class, practice what they’ve learned or simply to reflect. Teachers today have to contend with classes that are so heterogeneous, they are hard pressed to take into account all the students’ different levels of preparation, learning styles and motivation. How can we leverage the characteristics and strengths of this new line of students that are often referred to as digital natives or digital immigrants?
1.1 A changing student profile
This generation is often called individualistic. It is used to comfort and places a premium on quality. We also know that the 18 to 30 year-olds will have to be highly qualified and will be in demand in the labour market. It’s up to us to educate them.
Young people today are very comfortable with technology. They are referred to as the N (Net) generation or D (digital) generation. With easy access to information, they are quick to question the information we give them, they place less value on rules but have a keen global conscience because they’re “connected.” For them, the world is a vast playing field and instability, a way of life. Often growing up without siblings and with parents who are absent, children don’t easily find role models with whom they can identify. Women now dominate many traditionally male fields.
However, young people have a developed social conscience and are worried about the future: their concerns include environmental threats, globalization, market instability as well as aging of the population, which will leave fewer citizens to contribute to public services. Paradoxically, they no longer have faith in politics or politicians.
1.2 What motivates them?
So what motivates them, what causes them to act? A closer look shows that compared to their predecessors, they accept change, strong sensations and risk more easily. They therefore look for variety at school and at work. They like being in an environment where they can innovate and fend for themselves. Theirs is a culture of hypertext, multitasking and especially zapping (they spend on average four hours a day in front of a screen), which creates in them a spirit of adaptability. However, this also comes with such collateral effects as concentration problems, desire for a quick fix and de-motivation.
According to a document by Théo Bondolfi, students want a digital environment characterized by individual tutorials, self-learning, file sharing, information search and verification. They like to get their classes online but learn on paper. In class, they value immediate, honest feedback. They need encouragement to achieve their long-term goals, want to be rewarded for work well done but the expectations must be clear and the goals measurable. For them, eculture* is concerned with how to handle emails, share information on the Web, manage remote learning and lead a virtual community.
1.3 Winning behaviour for this generation?
Of course teachers have little say on learning styles, intellectual strengths and weaknesses, ethnic origin or their students’ family problems. They must also contend with program requirements, evaluation and especially, time constraints. Under these conditions, how can we set expectations for students and keep them motivated? The first step involves understanding our students and finding and leveraging their strong suits. Then we have to meet their principal needs without losing sight of who we are. In the end, regardless of the generation – X, Y or C- a human being is a human being. So how are you going to incorporate the eculture into your teaching?
*Eculture: the intellectual and collective behaviours and practices of a digital ecosystem. Eculture is a trans-disciplinary field straddling social and technical sciences.