That’s Mount Royal in fall glory at the top of the street. I was in Montreal a couple of weeks ago for the annual council meeting of Vice Presidents Academic (NATVAC). Sometimes these national meetings gel well. This one did, thanks, in part to being in the exciting city in which I was raised. Montreal, a perennially romantic city, always fills me with a bit of longing–so much on offer, especially the food. Concordia University performed the hosting duties with total class. I don’t know who caters for them but the meals were major highlights, breakfast, lunch and dinner. As the host said to our swooning over the choices, if Montreal can’t boast about having the best conference food then who can?
Another highlight was a plenary session by a visitor from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Vice Provost Randall Bass. Dr. Bass is the author of several books and articles on transformation in post-secondary education, with an emphasis on the intersection between technology and learning and scholarship. He has a lot to say, much of it already on the tip of our minds. Concordia had contracted him to help steer their two-year strategic planning exercise. I can see why. He is really good at process, explaining plainly just how difficult it is to get consensus on strategic directions. But he is especially clear when describing the very nature of the changes we are all currently experiencing, whether we recognize them or not.
The theme of his talk to us was “Integrated Learning, Designing the Future(s) of the University.” The great institutional tension of our time, he said, is between integration and dis-integration, two fundamentally competing notions of education. What can we say education will look like by 2030? What do we want it to look like? Integrated is the easy answer. The devil’s in the details, natch.
His argument: the great tension of our time is between integration and dis-integration. It’s about two fundamentally competing visions of education, with one giving way to the other. We have been moving for the last few years, perhaps with only a dim awareness, from relying on emerging digital tools to embracing a new learning ecosystem. What does that mean? That we are shifting from unbundling programs to rebundling, and at the centre of that shift is the concept of the whole individual—the whole student, not just the one who studies for exams and purchases course packs.
The new digital ecosystem, Bass said, is an incredibly explosive space into which 4 billion in venture capital investment has been pushed. There are a lot of people starting to make a lot of money in that space, and so there is a big knock-on effect on the post-secondary environment. How do we scale it properly, adapt while trying to reduce costs of retooling? We know the priority: students need more connectivity. Again, it’s all about educating the whole person.
A disintegrative learning strategy moves in the other and less fruitful direction. It favours a design of discrete or granular learning experiences. It inclines towards seeing education as a commodity, leadership and experience as separate learning modules. It sees the curricular and the co-curricular agendas as different parts. It talks of skills, dispositions, and values as distinct pieces of the learning experience.
As we trend, especially now in the undergraduate curriculum, towards emphasizing experiential learning, work placements, cooperative education, learning through community engagement, online instruction, collaborative problem-solving, and so on, we are (voluntarily) drifting away from traditional paradigms of learning and the tired spaces in which we did Old School. The big question we face as we move into the future is how do we design the ideal environment—intellectual and physical–to satisfy these demands? And so back to Bass’ theme: Designing the Future(s) of the University.
Most of this seems pretty obvious but it is important to be reminded that the times they are a changin’. Memorial’s Teaching and Learning Framework was conceived only a few years ago but parts of it already sound dated in view of the above. I’ll soon be establishing a review committee to assess its impact and recommend how best to go forward—to redesign–after its expiry date in 2017. Seems to me that we have an opportunity to ensure our university’s priorities lie squarely in an imagined new learning ecosystem. Lots to do.